Reflections on Farm Transitions with Darlene Livingston and Marlin Hartzler



Show Notes

Marlin Hartzler



On the second episode of our Farm Transition Planning series, guest host Darlene Livingston, Executive Director from PA Farm Link interviews Marlin Hartzler, a crop and hog farmer in Belleville, Pennsylvania. We learn about Marlin’s journey in farming and transitions he’s gone through along the way.

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Johanna Rohrer:

Welcome back to the AgVocates podcast. I'm Johanna Rohrer, Outreach and Educational Program Specialist here at Farm Credit. This is our second episode of the Farm Transition Planning podcast series with our guest host, Darlene Livingston from Pennsylvania Farm Link.  We'll explore farm family succession planning, business planning, and more.

If you missed the first episode in the series, we encourage you to explore going back and taking a listen to our first episode about Guiding Families through Transition with John Black.

Without further ado, I'll kick it over to Darlene to get us started with our next episode.

Darlene Livingston:

I'm Darlene Livingston, your host. I’m also the Executive Director of Pennsylvania Farm Link and operate a livestock and crop farm with my family in Indiana County.

Today's guest is Marlin Hartzler, a crop and hog farmer in Belleville, Pennsylvania. Marlin will discuss his journey in farming and the transition along the way.

Marlin, thank you for joining the podcast.

Marlin Hartzler:

Glad I could be here today.

Darlene Livingston:

Marlin, tell our listeners about yourself and your farm.

When did you start farming and can you walk us through a timeline of your farm business?

Marlin's Farm Business

Marlin Hartzler:

I am a fourth generation dairy farmer, although I'm not a dairy farmer anymore. I started farming in 2008. I bought my farm from my grandfather and we started milking cows in 2008. From 2008 to 2010, we were farming the way grandpa did. In 2011, we took an AgBiz Masters class, which was a turning point in our operation.

We worked with Farm Credit from 2000 to 2016, when we sold the cows. Those years were very foundational. There was a lot of financial foundation in those six years, and I can't quite stress that enough. We sold the cows in February 2016, I got an off-farm job, and raised dairy heifers until we got our hog barn built.

We populated our hog barn in November 2018 and started with finisher hogs. We did finisher hogs from 2018 until January 2020. We then switched to nursery pigs. We've been doing nursery pigs from January 2020 to present, so over two years now.

Darlene Livingston:


You mentioned the transition from your grandfather when you bought the farm in 2008.

Why did you want to take over the farm? What were your greatest hopes and fears at that time?

Taking Over the Farm

Marlin Hartzler:

I feel like I was very naive going into the transition. It might sound odd to say this, but my ambition at the time was just carrying on the family tradition. There wasn't a lot of forethought on my part as to taking on a business.

Much to my detriment, thinking about if the business was going to fail or make it, was not really on my radar at that point. It came bubbling to the surface between 2008 and 2010 when we realized that it was not working. Shortly after we realized that it was not working, we needed to do something.

Darlene Livingston:

I think that's critical that you recognized that and I would say that's created success in your business today. I also commend you for recognizing and realizing that you needed to make some changes.

You've also gone through a transition of farm enterprise from dairy to hogs, which I'm sure was not an easy decision.

Tell us about that transition, how you came to that conclusion and why it was important for the future of the farm.

From Dairy to Hogs

Marlin Hartzler:

We realized soon after we started that things were not going well. We got involved with Farm Credit and we worked with them for six years.

During that time, we implemented a lot of changes and played catch up financially. We had dug ourselves in a hole and it was not pretty. Farm Credit was great with helping us benchmarking against ourselves.  

With enough history on the books, we saw that our diary setup was not working financially. You could look at six years of numbers and records we had for six years and knew that it was going nowhere. We were at the point where we needed to up our cow numbers to expand for more income. The income was just not there, so we started to look at other options.

Could we still be dairy farming today? Probably, but we would have had to supplement income. We would have had to get off-farm income. Our vision was our family working together on the farm. Those options did not fit our vision, so we looked for something that we could do on the farm that would be a complete income and a way forward for our family farm.

Darlene Livingston:

I think it is important that you noted that you kept in touch with your family's vision for the farm. As farmers, we may lose that vision or not think about it when we're in the midst of something. I think it’s very important that you maintained your focus and found your way to success.

Sometimes we may not realize all the benefits of a change or transition until a few years go by.

What benefits have you seen now that a few years have passed with your change from dairy to the swine operation?

Benefits of Change

Marlin Hartzler:

The financial benefit is number one. It works out on paper at the end of the month and it pans out with the bills. It's still a livestock operation that we are tied to, but there is more flexibility and more time as a family. We can plan family events and vacations, which I'm finding is important for a farmer. A lot of farmers think vacation is extravagant, but it's not.

One of the other benefits was that we were the first hog operation locally. We were able to educate people on the hog operation. There was very little knowledge of hogs locally, so we were able to calm people's fears and explain to them how it worked. I don't know if you would call that a benefit or not, but that was one thing that if we were still dairy, we wouldn't have had that opportunity.

Darlene Livingston:

I think you mentioned two important things there. One is work-life balance and how that positively impacts your family. The other is really a job that all of us farmers should take seriously and that's educating others about what we do.  I think we can be our own best advocate if we do that as well.

Looking back, is there anything you would've done differently during your farming career, and if so, how might it have changed where you are today?

What Would you do Differently?

Marlin Hartzler:

We should have known what we were getting into. We should have had some financial training.

Although farming is a lifestyle, it's also a business. We completely missed the business aspect of it and knowing what we were getting into. I think it would have cut our worst years if we would've had more financial knowledge going into the business when we started.

Now having said that, the school of hard knocks is a good teacher. I do not want to relive those years, but they have taught us what we know and got us to where we are today.

Darlene Livingston:

I think those are a very wise words.

As a part of our podcast series, we're asking all our guests a sign off question.

What is one piece of advice farm families should remember while embarking on a family farm transition?

Things to Remember During a Transition

Marlin Hartzler:

I have two things in mind. The first is get hands-on, off-farm experience working with another business or another farm if possible. I think off-farm experience and doing something like AgBiz Masters or other financial classes is crucial to get a bigger perspective for what you're trying to do back on the farm.

My second is relationships. If you don't have a good relationship with family when you start the transition, you certainly won't when you're done. Good relationships go a long way in smoothing out the bumps. Not everything's going to be done right every time. Good relationships go a long way at covering up some of those blunders and being able to move on successfully for both generations.

Darlene Livingston:

Thank you very much Marlin. I think those are wise words. I think you've provided us some extremely important information and a look into your experience. I thank you for that because I fully believe that your experience will help others as they tackle the whole topic of farm transition.

Thanks for sharing your story and for being here.

Marlin Hartzler:

Glad I could help you out.

Johanna Rohrer:

Thanks for hosting Darlene.

To learn more about the mission of Pennsylvania Farm Link visit

Interested in learning more about farm family transitions? Join us next week for the final episode in the series, Legal Considerations in Farm Transitions with Jody Anderson Leighty, of Stock and Leader

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