Brothers manage risks through diversification

By Susan Hurt
It has been said that farming is “in the blood,” and for the Underhill family that statement holds true. Brothers Kerry and Mike Underhill have been farming since they were old enough to ride on the fender of their daddy’s tractor. Before either could legally drive, both boys were well on their way to learning the family business, which has been passed down for several generations.
Their father, Buddy Underhill, and his wife, Joyce, both grew up on family farms in what is now referred to as Land Between the Lakes. The boys were both born in what was called “Between the Rivers” before the Tennessee Valley Authority invoked eminent domain on resident farmers.
The condemnation of land was part of President John F. Kennedy’s original concept of LBL being part of a great nationwide land reclamation project and was an effort to preserve wilderness areas. Looking for a new place to lay roots, the family settled in the Donaldson Creek area of Trigg County, where they remain today.
Starting over, the Underhill family slowly purchased one piece of ground at a time, growing crops and raising cattle to support the family until they eventually ended up with 1,500 acres, which they still own today.
After the family relocated, TVA needed farmers to work the reclaimed land, so the Underhills began renting the very land in LBL that their family once owned.
In the mid-1980s, when the Underhill brothers both graduated from high school and were ready to join their father full-time on the farm, tough times hit the industry and the family farm could no longer support all three families. Mike made the tough decision to leave farming to make a living in logging, while Kerry worked as a welder in a factory.
Due to the economic hardships, many farmers lost their land leases in LBL — most losing everything they had — but the Underhills were determined to hang on.
When the economy improved in the early nineties, the Underhill brothers left their jobs, came back to the family farm and committed their lives to full-time farming again.
In 2011, their father passed away and Joyce retired, leaving the family operation to Mike and Kerry.
After nearly two decades farming alongside their parents, the brothers knew they had to continue the family tradition, so they grew the business operations.
“It’s always been just a family thing,” Kerry said. “We have never hired help until daddy passed away in 2011 and mom retired.”
The two run the operation with the help of just two part-time employees when necessary.
Currently, the family works 3,000 acres of row crops comprised of 2,000 acres of corn and 1,000 acres of soybeans all on leased land at Land Between the Lakes.
If managing 3,000 acres of row crops isn’t enough, the Underhills also own 200 head of breeder cows and 200 calves, which reside on their family farm of 1,500 acres. And with 200 cows, comes 200 mouths to feed through the winter, so the Underhills grow and roll approximately 900 rolls of hay each year.
Kerry jokingly refers to himself as “a jack of all trades and a master of none.” The Underhills are self-taught mechanics, self-educated veterinarians, cattle ranchers and farmers.
They are among the few farm families that successfully manage a large-scale grain and cattle operation — an agricultural strategy to reduce economic risk on the farm through diversification.
When asked which part of the operation each likes best, both agreed that the cattle is their top choice this year due to the return on investment. As the declining supply of cattle and beef continue, 2014 is shaping up to possibly be a record-breaking year in the cattle industry.
According to agweb.com, the 2013 inventory of beef cows was the lowest in 60 years and predictions indicate 2014 will be even smaller, resulting in higher returns for cattle farmers.
Since the majority of their land is leased from TVA in Land Between the Lakes, the Underhills realized the risks they were taking by putting most of their eggs in one basket.
When TVA was seriously considering turning the land management over to the U.S. Forestry, the Underhills decided they needed to diversify to protect their hard-earned assets. (The U.S. Forestry does not allow any row cropping on their land, which is where the problem lies for Underhill Farms.)
“There was a big chance we were getting ready to lose a big portion of our row crops,” Kerry said. “I didn’t want to go back to the factory, and I don’t imagine Mike wanted to go back to logging, so we needed another source of income if we lost that land.”
In 2000, the brothers branched out of the traditional farming box and started Donaldson Creek Outfitters on their own land, where they currently manage over 2,500 acres of deer and turkey hunting in Western Kentucky.
The two, along with a partner, provide a full-service hunting guide and lodging service to hunters all over the country. The three provide all home-cooked meals, delivery to deer stands and deluxe accommodations in the log cabin the Underhills built.
During the busy hunting season, their days begin well before dawn. Before heading out to check the cattle and prepare for a long day in the fields, they can take as many as 12 hunters to their stands before daylight. Then after cutting soybeans all day, the duo head back out to the cabin to field dress deer, prepare meals and wash dishes.
“It gives us something to do through the winter months besides caring for the cattle,” Kerry said.
There is no downtime for the Underhills, and they admit it can be exhausting working 12-14-hour days; however Kerry says, “When the next year rolls around, you forget about it and are ready to hit it wide open again.”
The family’s resilience continues as the duo shows no signs of slowing down. When asked about retirement, Kerry simply replied, “After about a month with nowhere to go, I don’t know what I would do.”

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