When Ed Cagney was 8 years old, he fell off a tractor on his father’s farm in Scotts. The tractor ran over him, necessitating a trip to the emergency room to sew up his gashed forehead that still bears the scar of 160 stiches. “I loved to hang out with my dad on the farm,” he says. “So once I was healed up, I was ready to go again.”
That determination to keep on farming and to improve with each growing season is part of the reason he is respected by the ag community. He’s known for his care of the land, forward-thinking practices, leadership and knowledge he freely shares with others. All of these attributes have garnered him the title of a 2018 Michigan Master Farmer. Cagney will receive the award during a luncheon Feb. 1 at the Great Lakes Crop Summit in Mt. Pleasant.
“Ed is a great role model for youth and adults alike,” says Gail Frahm, who nominated him for the award and is the executive director for the Michigan Soybean Promotion Committee. Cagney started serving on the MSPC board in 1997 and remained until 2005, serving as vice president in 1998 and president from 1999 to 2005, making him the longest-seated president.
“Ed invites folks to his farm — from the local level all the way to international guests,” Frahm says. “He’s very giving of his time and has been a great spokesman for MSPC.”
Farming in the family
The farm in Scotts, just outside of Kalamazoo, was first farmed by Cagney’s great-grandfather Edward Cagney, who bought the original 40 acres in 1869. The farm was then passed to his grandfather William Cagney and then to his dad, Bill.
Ed Cagney grew up farming with his dad and participating in 4-H. He has continued that support of 4-H at the livestock sale for the last 30 years.
He went to Michigan State University full time for a couple years and then part time for three years before the farm called him home. “We had the opportunity to farm more ground, so I came back to the farm full time in 1979,” he says, adding that it wasn’t the best timing as shortly thereafter interest rates soared to around 20%. Nonetheless, he was where he wanted to be.
At the time Cagney started farming full time, the farm was 500 acres with some cattle, and the biggest tractor was a 90-horse. With friends retiring from farming, Cagney and his dad were able to more than double the acres in just a couple years.
Today, Cagney owns 1,380 acres and rents another 1,400.
He likes a balanced portfolio, raising seed corn, corn, soybeans, seed beans, green beans, wheat, oats, hay and grain sorghum. He’s now out of livestock, but the crop diversity is because “some things will do very well, and inevitably, there’s something every year that bombs,” he says. “It doesn’t hurt in the long run to do several different things.”
Cagney stopped feeding out cattle in 2000, after he got into the seed corn business in 1996. “I really had no time for livestock,” he adds.
He tried pickles for three years, but it didn’t seem to be a good fit with the operation. “It was also too hard on the soil,” he adds.
Each year, for the last 27 years, he’s raised 100 to 150 acres of green beans. He raised sweet corn for seven years until the cannery closed. He also was in the business of picking seed corn for 16 years, a business he sold a couple of years ago to Mitch Kline — Cagney’s right-hand man on the farm.
To protect the soil, Cagney uses cover crops after green beans and oats to help tie up nutrients. He also grid-samples and applies lime by variable rate. The farm has hosted numerous research plots and field events.
Last year the Cagney Farm was verified through the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program in both the farmstead and cropping systems.
“Ed recently provided his backhoe and dug root pits for our cover crop field demo,” says Linda Zabik, MAEAP Specialist for the Kalamazoo Conservation District. Cagney has served on the board for the district since 2005 and is currently the chair.
“Ed is an early adopter and moves forward with conservation and best management practices before its mainstream agriculture,” Zabik adds. “He displays passion for our mission of conserving water and soil.”
Harvest is nonstop from June to November. “We bale hay in June, harvest wheat and oats in July, green beans in August, start picking seed corn in September, which rolls over into October, soybeans are in October and commercial corn in November,” he explains.
Frahm calls him flexible. “While some operators will go all-in with a style of farming, Ed makes decisions for each part of the farm individually and uses everything from no-till to conventional full tillage,” she says. “He often says, ‘Flexibility is the key to success.’ And when something unforeseen happens, he says, ‘Never straight, always ahead.’”
The farm made it through the lean years of the 1980s, but the 1988 drought changed his farming practices. “We had no emergence in areas,” he says. “I bought irrigation equipment, and we have seen the results of that.”
Today the farm uses 17 center pivots and three traveling guns. For better water efficiency, Cagney has purchased new nozzles.
Technology has also been implemented with autosteer and swath control on the planter and sprayer. “It saves on seed and spray overlap,” he says. “Right now, we don’t control our irrigation pivots with iPhones, but that will be next,” he says with a grin.
After leaving the MSPC board, he was appointed by MSPC in 2006 to serve as its representative on the North Central Soybean Research Program board, which manages an annual research budget of about $3 million to fund, track and communicate research and information to help all soybean farmers.
“Ed’s energy and passion, dedication and commitment, insight and wisdom, prowess and prudence, and the highest ethical standards serve as a model for other board members, staff and researchers,” says Ed Anderson, executive director for NCSRP.
Cagney has served as secretary-treasurer and president of that organization, of which he still belongs.
In addition to his many positions within the ag industry, he is very proud to have served his local, volunteer fire department for 29 years, just recently retiring. “The number of calls and the training requirements were just getting too much with the farm” he says.
However, he’s still giving back. In August, Cagney Farm hosted over 40 firefighters from multiple counties for a two-day ag rescue class.
Welcoming new farmers
Cagney and wife Schelle were married in 1989. They have no children, but have developed a relationship with Mitch and Brandie Kline, who now live on the original home farm.
“His dad worked for me part time, so he grew up on the farm,” Cagney says. “He now works with me, and the farm may someday transition to him. My brother Joe, who also works with me on the farm, has three children that may also someday be interested.”
He’s not focused on increasing the size of farm, but he would be open to organized growth if Mitch chose to expand the acres he’s farming.
Cagney hopes to be to Mitch what his father was to him — a mentor. “I learned a lot from my dad. He’s had the unique perspective of walking behind a horse for the first 10 years of farming to seeing a tractor drive itself.”
Master Farmer Profile
Name: Ed Cagney
Farm: Ed Cagney Farm, with 2,780 (2,300 tillable) acres owed and rented. Raise seed corn, corn, seed soybeans, soybeans, green beans, wheat, oats and hay
Nominator: Gail Frahm
Leadership: Pavilion Township planning commission member and past chairman; Pavilion Township board of review member, and Pavilion Township firefighter
Ag leadership: Kalamazoo Conservation District chairman; state representative for the North Central Soybean Research Program and past president; Battle Creek Farm Bureau Association board president; past president and board member of the Michigan Soybean Promotion Committee; member of the Michigan Farm Bureau, Michigan Corn Growers Association and Michigan Soybean Association; past president of Kalamazoo County Farm Bureau; and past chairman Michigan Farm Bureau State Young Farmer Committee
Awards: Friends of Conservation 2017, Firefighter of the Year 1995 and Kalamazoo Jaycees Outstanding Young Farmer 1994