110-plus years of serving farmers
September 1, 2020

110-plus years of serving farmers


Combined, John Cotton and Gary Grave have nearly 110 years of combined experience in the farm management industry and since 1982, the two men have worked side-by-side at Cotton-Grave serving regional agriculture owner-clients in a variety of capacities. This year, the agency itself celebrates 60 years in Spencer.

“The quality of today’s farmer is outstanding and we have the highest respect for them and their operating skills, their adapting to ever-changing technologies and they handle large amounts of capital very capably,” Cotton said.

Graves added, “I agree 100%, we respect our tenants.”

Located at 517 N. Grand Ave., Cotton-Grave specializes in farm management and farm real estate services primarily in Iowa, Minnesota and South Dakota. They have also managed farm land in Missouri although the concentration of properties are within 100 miles of Spencer.

Ben Abben — the namesake of Abben Cancer Center — started Ben Abben Farm Management in 1960, creating a farm management, real estate and appraisal operation. Cotton came on board in 1965, launching Abben-Cotton Land Management and Realty serving the tristate region. Following Abben’s passing in 1981, Grave joined Cotton on New Year’s Day 1982 and the pair have been offering services for 38 years together.

Cotton, who began working in the industry 61 years ago, was raised on a farm near Lone Rock, graduated in farm management at Iowa State University and joined Farmers National Company out of college, serving the Fort Dodge region. Grave, of Little Rock, also graduated ISU, majoring in farm operations, before also joining Farmers National Company, working for six years in Minnesota and four years in Spencer. He’s been in the industry for 49 years.

“We were hired pretty young,” Cotton pointed out, noting farm management hires traditionally have more field experience.

Grave agreed, “We were both hired right out of college which was not common in those days. They usually wanted farm managers with experience. We had both worked for Farmers National Company out of Omaha so we knew each other. It just happened I got transferred to Spencer.”

Mike Koenecke is the agency’s newest addition, joining the team on Feb. 1, 2019, and bringing a strong background in the agriculture industry through both a cooperative and consulting focus. The northwest Iowa native, from Burt, is part of a six-generation family farm dating back to the late 1890s He has a business management degree from Buena Vista University complimented by agronomy course work through ISU and Northwest Iowa Community College. Additional course work came through the Land O Lakes Executive Agribusiness Program, a partnership with Purdue University’s College of Agriculture.

“It’s certainly been a nice transition to incorporate my fundamental farm upbringing, academia and agricultural pursuits up to this point,” Koenecke said.

The three discussed some of the drastic changes in the industry since the local agency’s establishment 60 years ago.

“Over these 60 years,” Grave shared, “We’ve had a considerable change in agriculture brought on by an increase in technology and genetics. Years ago, we’d do a crop share. You had more diversification.

“It was called a five-year rotation,” Cotton explained, using the acronym, CSCOM, to describe the corn, soybean, corn, oats and meadow/hay rotation. “Not everybody was doing it at that time, but we sure were.”

“We were representing a land owner, working to find a good tenant and receive the largest income and return to the farm,” Grave said.

The two also pointed out that in the “early years,” farmers farmed less land and were more diversified with crops and livestock. Grave suggested today’s farmer is far less diversified in most cases and much more industry specific when it comes to livestock — which the agency doesn’t manage — and crops.

Cotton said in 1960, the average number of acres farmed was 211 and in today’s agricultural environment, that number has swollen to 1,200 and as many as 3,000 for some.

“The biggest change is the infusion of capital,” Cotton said. “Capital is replacing labor.”

The men said its largely because of the cost of the equipment involved. Farm machinery inventory values 60 years ago were anywhere from $60,000 to $70,000 and today the number can range from $1.5 million to $2.2 million. The partners noted in 1960, cash rent was between $20 and $25 an acre, with the figure sitting upwards of $250 to $300 an acre today. Likewise, an acre of land in 1960 went for $350 to $400 an acre while today’s price could range between $7,500 to $10,000 and up locally.

A big positive, according to Cotton, is the efforts in conservation tillage. “Significant progress has been made in conserving soils,” he noted.

“Cover crops are fairly new,” Grave said. “Cover crops are adding to the soil tilth and soil fertility.”

Cotton reflected on what he called “the biggest thing to happen in the years he’s managed farms,” the farm crisis of the 1980s which he attributed to high interest rates. He noted land dropped 62% from 1981-86 and there were 456 farm bankruptcies in Iowa in 1984 alone. In Spencer, two savings and loan institutions closed and banks suffered substantial losses.

“That was hard for us emotionally,” he admitted.

Graves concurred, “That was one of the most emotional times in agriculture.”

Cotton also reminded “farming is a dangerous occupation,” noting the loss of 11 tenants over his tenure who were involved in tractor accidents, grain bin tragedies and chemical-related illness.

Koenecke said, “Compared to what practices were in 1960, input technologies have drastically improved.”

Today, he said a large percentage of their clients are third and fourth generation owners.

“We’ve seen an increasing degree of transition in land ownership type,” Koenecke said, poi-nting to an investment of individuals in land and larger scale farmers.

“The vast majority of those purchasing land continue to be farmers” Grave stressed.

Outside of the office, all three are active in community service. Cotton is the 1993 Spencer Citizen of the Year, is active in Rotary, served on the boards at Luther College, Spencer Municipal Hospital and Spencer Regional Healthcare Foundation and continues to serve on the Iowa Public Television Board. In 1998, he was awarded the ISU Professional Agri-Business Award. Grave has served with Daybreakers Kiwanis, Spencer Association of Business & Industry, Spencer Family YMCA Board, Iowa Lakes Community College Advisory Board, and as Community State Bank director. Koenecke’s various pursuits include roles on the Spencer Family YMCA board, Spencer Schools Community Foundation Board and a board position with Love Takes Root.

The veteran Cotton-Grave team remain fully committed to serving clients and have no intention of stepping away anytime soon. Grave assured they would remain active “as long as we’re on the right side of the earth.”

“We’re optimistic about the future of farm management and the clients we serve,” Cotton said.

Article courtesy of Spencer Daily Reporter, Randy M. Cauthron, author.


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