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Aiding farmers, ranchers is her mission

Staff writer

It is not unusual to find Hannah Berns of Peabody sitting around the kitchen table with a farmer and his wife or other family members.

The 26-year-old Berns is an extension agricultural economist with Kansas Farm Management Association.

Her parents, Fred and Lynn Berns, own and operate a large ranch southeast of Peabody and in the Flint Hills, near Cassoday.

The oldest of three daughters, Berns grew up on the ranch and wanted to stay connected to agriculture. She graduated in 2005 from the University of Kansas with a degree in business administration and earned a master’s degree in agriculture economics at Kansas State University.

Her job as an extension economist keeps her in direct contact with farmers and ranchers.

Her favorite part is getting out of the office into the countryside, and visiting with farmers.

“That’s the thing I enjoy most,” she said. “I meet the managers, sometimes share a meal, and we talk about things in general.”

She currently serves 97 clients in Butler, Greenwood, and Coffey counties. Each client may be a couple, family, partnership, or other structural arrangement.

She helps farmers keep detailed records of their operations. Records are submitted at the end of the year to the professional staff of KFMA for analysis.

Berns takes the results back to farmers and discusses their operations with them, helping them identify steps they could take to improve their bottom lines and attain their goals.

The records allow farmers to compare their financial results with others who are similar in size or are involved in the same enterprise and area of the state.

KFMA, a nonprofit entity, provides record books or software for keeping computerized records. Members pay yearly dues.

After beginning the job about 16 months ago, Berns quickly learned that each farmer has a unique way of managing his operation.

“I do a lot of listening,” she said. “Numbers don’t tell everything. I help them get familiar with their operation and look past the numbers. I try to understand their thinking and their dreams for the future.

“They share a lot of facts. It’s a confidential relationship.”

She is available to them by phone and e-mail. Sometimes they call for help in dealing economically with special situations, such as health problems or transitions between family members.

Berns makes one or two visits a year to each of her clients, depending on each one’s level of involvement.

Sometimes she goes with a client when he needs to consult an attorney on matters such as business structure or liquidation.

Working out of an office in El Dorado, Berns also assists with tax planning and preparation as an employee of KATS, a for-profit subsidiary of KFMA.

She said the important thing about her job is the sharing of information. The data collected from farms is used by KSU to conduct research. It also can be used in Washington, D.C. to help set policies. These, in turn, can help farmers.

Berns said her job is challenging because of all the changes that are occurring in agriculture.

“I came in with ag trends that are hard to follow,” she said. “Things are constantly changing.”

Farmers are especially concerned with volatile prices for their products, she said. It’s difficult to ascertain the correct level of input costs and interest expense.

KFMA traditionally doesn’t focus on marketing, but with the current variability in pricing, it becomes a necessary component of farm management.

From Berns’ perspective, agriculture is in a relative bubble compared to the whole economy. She encourages farmers to be conservative but not draw back from making the necessary expenditures.

Berns is by far the youngest extension economist of the five who serve southeast Kansas. She has been on the job for 16 months and relies on her co-workers for advice and encouragement. Sometimes, they accompany her on farm visits.

Berns enjoys the production level of agriculture not only in her professional life, but also in her personal life.

The Berns ranch typically purchases calves and grows them on grass. Thin a ranch that has always bought and raised calves on s spring, Berns and her boyfriend invested in a group of bred heifers and calved them out at the ranch. This summer, she helped her father with haying and working cattle.

She feels fortunate to have a job.

“It’s rewarding for me to see a farmer realize the importance of cost analysis,” she said. “When he starts to ask questions, you start to know the individual and can ask the right questions.”

Last modified Sept. 3, 2009

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