New combine sharing program aims to boost farm income by putting idled equipment to work

A combine-sharing program touted Wednesday as the first of its kind aims to give farmers a chance to make some money off expensive equipment that sits idle once harvest is finished, and could provide competition next season for custom cutters.

The "Farmer to Farmer" program from FarmLink, a Kansas City, Missouri-based agribusiness, will let farmers in Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas who have spring or early summer harvests of winter wheat or other crops rent their equipment to farmers farther north. While farm equipment rentals themselves are nothing new, industry officials say the idea and scale of this program is somewhat of a novelty.

"It is very similar to kind of vacation sharing or car sharing program," according to FarmLink spokeswoman Meredith Powell.

FarmLink would contract with farmers who own certain combines from model years 2012 or newer, pick up the equipment after the harvest and deliver them to those who rent the machines for the late summer and fall harvests. Combine owners could make as much as $40,000 a year in extra income by participating, a price based mostly on how much the rental combine is used, she said, and FarmLink would shoulder the cost of any needed maintenance and repairs.

Tracy Zeorian, executive director of the industry group U.S. Custom Harvesters, said she expects farmers will see the program as a great opportunity.

"When the commodity prices were high, we were seeing farmers with brand new combines that we never would have seen otherwise," she said, adding that many farmers are still saddled with payments. "Unfortunately, the cost of equipment is so tremendously high that a farmer can't justify having a combine sitting around for two to three weeks a year."

But Zeorian, who also operates a custom harvesting operation with her husband out of Manley, Nebraska, fears the FarmLink program also amounts to more competition for custom harvesters like herself who travel the country cutting crops.

"When we start losing jobs it is going to hurt custom harvesters," she said. "And the continual profit loss means less and less harvesters out there."

Upon learning FarmLink's estimated added income for farmers, even Zeorian was a bit interested: "Sheesh, maybe we should be renting out our combine — it sure would be a whole lot less headache. That's a fact," she said.