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Back on the Farm

Love of the land brings a former serviceman home again

Landscapes Winter 2011
Cadena family with tractor

Orlando Cadena, center, with his two oldest daughters, Noreen, left, and Liana, right

Photo by Eddie Seal

The road to becoming a full-time farmer isn’t always straight or short or easy. But when the journey is long and hard, it can make you appreciate the destination even more. Just ask Orlando Cadena.

Since the time he could first carry two five-gallon buckets full of feed, Cadena has known what it’s like to work hard as a farmer. Growing up on a dairy and grain farm in South Texas, he helped his father with his daily tasks and learned firsthand what it takes to succeed in agriculture.

“We had to walk a long way and go through about six fences,” Cadena recalls of his childhood chores with a laugh. But mainly, he adds, he remembers just working. “I grew up driving tractors, and that’s really all I wanted to do. It’s in my blood.”

The strong work ethic he built then is still obvious today as Cadena farms several thousand acres across two counties in Texas’ Coastal Bend area near Corpus Christi. Over the past 14 years, he has worked tirelessly to expand and transition his diversified farming operation from a part-time passion into a full-time job.

From the Farm to Europe — and Back

Cadena’s road to becoming a farmer began, ironically, when he left his small town and joined the United States Army after graduating from high school. His service in the Army took him to seven countries, including a stint in Albania during the Bosnian conflict in the mid-1990s. While in Albania, Cadena worked on a then brand-new Army operation involving military drone airplanes known as predator spy planes. His primary job was to control the cameras, and he also had a hand in planning drone-associated missions. 

After four years of service, Cadena returned to South Texas in 1996, and without a real vision of becoming a farmer, he entered a fire academy and took a job with a local fire department. At the time, his father was farming, and Cadena began helping him. Starting with 250 acres, Cadena started farming on his own.

Soon, he began to change his focus, and farming took up more and more of his time.

“I was working the graveyard shift [at the fire station] and then farming all day. There were many days when I would go back to work without sleeping,” he says.

While maintaining a full-time job, first as a firefighter and then later as a police officer at the Corpus Christi International Airport, Cadena slowly started expanding his farming operation. He wasn’t comfortable farming on a small scale because of the impact that equipment failures and other obstacles had on his efficiency.

“Every little breakdown can really hurt you,” he says. “If the tractor breaks down or you have a bad engine, it is just all magnified because you don’t have the leeway. There’s no backup.”

By 2006 he had increased his total acreage to 2,000 acres. Not wanting to spend money for new equipment, and having a family to support and two careers to juggle, Cadena says that working to buy that first 2,000 acres was hard, but very worthwhile.

Orlando Cadena in the cab of a tractor

Cadena grew his farming operation from 250 acres to 5,000 acres in 14 years.

“Those acres were the hardest to get, but my farming operation really began to grow after I got them,” he acknowledges. “You need to have the acreage to get the equipment, and you can’t have the equipment without the acreage. There’s always going to be growing pains, but that first 2,000 acres was tough. I didn’t take any money out of my operation for a long time, and I was okay with that.”

Finding the Right Lender

With a decade of growing pains behind him and solid acreage under his feet, Cadena realized it was time to become serious about developing his operation. However, his commercial bank was unable to help him expand the farm in the way he wanted, and they instead referred him to Texas AgFinance.

Because Cadena was considered a Farm Credit YBS (young, beginning and small) customer, John O’Brien, vice president in Texas AgFinance’s Robstown branch office and now Cadena’s loan officer, was able to offer different loan components especially for his operation. These features are commonly offered by Farm Credit to producers who are under 35 years of age, bring in less than $250,000 in farming revenue, or, like Cadena at the time, have been in business for 10 years or less.

“The commercial bank really didn’t understand my farm financing needs, and they required way too much paperwork,” he says. 

“With the help of Texas AgFinance, I was able to really grow my farming operation and take on a substantial amount of acreage,” Cadena adds. By buying out a farmer in a neighboring county, he was able to more than double the size of his operation.

“It’s hard to break into the tight-knit farming community when you are trying to grow your operation yourself from scratch versus taking over a family operation,” O’Brien says. “The route Orlando took was difficult, slowly earning landlords’ trust and operating used equipment, but it has paid sizable dividends for him at this point.”

Adding Land and Dropping a Career

Since adding the acres to his operation, Cadena has been able to achieve another milestone — becoming a full-time farmer. Today, his diversified operation includes cotton, grain sorghum and sunflowers. He enjoys how his life has changed since having only one career, and especially notices how much more time he has. Cadena now has more time to spend on the business aspects of his operation and more time to spend with his family. He’s also noticed how his farming operation has improved.

“We farm better,” he states. “We farm better because we can make better decisions because we are there more. It’s more beneficial for everyone for me to be there.”

Cadena’s road has been paved with hard work and, according to him, a little luck, and he has taken advantage of every bump or detour thrown in his way. He admits that 10 years ago he never thought he’d be in the position he is in today; however, he has succeeded by staying focused on the big picture and doing what was needed to reach his destination.

“I can’t complain,” Cadena says. “We’ve done a lot of physical work and are finally reaping the benefits. I’m still the guy on the tractor, and I don’t ever want to get to the point that I’m not.” – Staff

Slow and Steady Wins the Race: Advice for Young, Beginning and Small Farmers

Orlando Cadena proves that young, beginning or small farmers can be successful no matter how much they own or how long they’ve been in business. He offers these suggestions to other producers in his position:

Hang around other farmers. And don’t just make small talk, Cadena advises. Several times a year, he and other local farmers get together to share ideas, tour other farming operations and just learn from each other.

Have a good banker. For Cadena, having a lender that really understood his business was a key that helped take his operation to the next level. Today, he and his loan officer, John O’Brien, visit regularly and always discuss any capital expenditures that Cadena is considering. “I call John and make sure any purchases I make won’t negatively affect my financial position,” he says. “I have a very good relationship with Texas AgFinance and John.”

Reinvest your profits wisely. For Cadena, the priority was purchasing property, not equipment, to grow his operation. While that strategy might not work for everyone, O’Brien says that sometimes borrowers don’t realize that a new equipment purchase is not in their best interest. Cadena purchased his first brand-new piece of equipment, a grain cart, just last year — 13 years after he first started farming.

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