Growing up, all Allen Hatley knew was farming.
“My grandfather farmed. My dad farmed. It was our life.”
By fifth grade, he was driving trucks and tractors on the family’s leased acreage south of Pullman.
Hatley attended Washington State University, earning degrees in agronomy and agricultural economics.
“Even while I was getting my master’s, I saw myself eventually working with my dad. But after I graduated, we agreed the farm wasn’t large enough to support two families, and he suggested I look for a job elsewhere.
“So I went back to WSU’s ag econ department, where the database for jobs was a little metal box of three-by-five index cards with names of companies that had contacted WSU.
“I flipped through the cards and came across one that said the Seattle First National Bank trust department in Spokane was looking for a farm manager.
“I had no idea what a trust department was. I didn’t own a suit – my dress code was jeans and T-shirts. And I thought Spokane was a big city.
“But I called up the bank, described my background, and they said, ‘We’d like to talk to you.’ So I went to Spokane the next day, and was hired on the spot.
“That’s how I got into the farm management business.”
Thirty-nine years later, Hatley is senior partner of Hatley/Cobb Farm Land Management (formerly Sharp & Hatley), which supervises operations on 120 farms, appraises farmland and brokers agricultural real-estate transactions.
He discussed his career and his hobby during a recent interview at the company’s headquarters, 2828 E. 32nd Ave.
S-R: Was your transition from farmer to banker difficult?
Hatley: It would have been if I’d been stuck behind a desk. But my job was to take care of properties, so I got to ride around farms and talk to farmers.
S-R: Early on, did you ever sense that tenants thought you were too young to manage farms?
Hatley: Farmers can figure out pretty fast if you know what you’re talking about. I never had any problem, because I’d been around farms my whole life. Not that I’m an expert.
S-R: Did you marry a farm girl?
Hatley: Not even close. I married a girl from Hawaii who I met at WSU, and she’d never been on a farm in her life. That was 42 years ago, and we’re still together.
S-R: How long were you with SeaFirst?
Hatley: About seven years. That’s where I really learned the business. When I was 33, I went out on my own. And in 1993, (former SeaFirst farm manager) John Sharp and I formed Sharp & Hatley Inc. Tim Cobb joined the company two years ago. Earlier this year, John went part time and we changed the company name to Hatley/Cobb. But we haven’t changed our focus.
S-R: How has the business evolved?
Hatley: The customer base is much more stable now. What’s really changed, though, is technology – computers, the Internet, cellphones, online banking. It’s hard to compare how we did things 40 years ago and how we do them now.
S-R: Do you travel less?
Hatley: No. A big part of my job is still hands-on – visiting farms and meeting with tenants.
S-R: What do you look for when choosing tenant farmers?
Hatley: That’s difficult to quantify, because there are so many good farmers out there. And the demand to lease land is so strong that it’s not unusual to have 15 or 20 farmers who want to farm a piece of ground we have for rent. We choose the farmer we’re most comfortable with.
S-R: Are you involved in day-to-day operations?
Hatley: No, we don’t tell farmers when to seed or spray or harvest. That’s what they’re hired to do, and they have a vested interest in doing the best job they can, since the majority of the crop is theirs.
S-R: How is farm revenue divided?
Hatley: Almost all the land in this area is leased on a crop-share basis. The tenant generally gets around two-thirds of production, and pays most of the operating expenses. The owner receives about a third of production. We work for the owner, and usually get between 5 and 8 percent of the owner’s share.
S-R: Who are your clients?
Hatley: The majority are absentee landowners – people who have inherited land from their parents or grandparents. They’re not on the farm, but still have strong ties to it and no desire to sell.
S-R: Did the recession impact farm income?
Hatley: No. Agriculture has done very well in recent years. Washington farmers are very efficient, very productive, and generally speaking they’re profitable.
S-R: Most farmers seem reluctant to say things are going well.
Hatley: Oh, no. They predict they’re going to lose their crop three or four times a year. It’s too hot, too cold, too wet, too dry. In spite of all that, they do just fine.
S-R: What are some challenges the industry faces today?
Hatley: One we see is the transition from the current generation that owns land to the younger generation coming into the operation. A lot of the farms we manage have numerous owners with different needs, and problems arise. Consequently, sales have become a bigger part of our business.
S-R: How has the value of Palouse land changed?
Hatley: When I started managing properties in the ’70s, the best farmland went for around $500 an acre. That same land today would cost in excess of $2,500 an acre.
S-R: Who’s buying?
Hatley: We work with private individuals and outside capital looking to invest in farmland. We get calls from Texas, the coast, pension funds. There’s really strong demand right now.
S-R: If someone were to win the lottery and decide to buy a Palouse farm big enough to support a family, how much would they have to spend?
Hatley: They’d need at least $2 million, and that wouldn’t be a big operation, by any means.
S-R: What’s the minimum size of a commercially viable wheat farm in Eastern Washington?
Hatley: That depends on location. In high-rainfall areas of the Palouse, that could be 2,000 acres. In drier regions, like Ritzville, you’d need at least twice that.
S-R: What do you like most about your job?
Hatley: Dealing with farmers. We sit down at their kitchen table or talk in their pickup, and I’m comfortable both places.
S-R: What do you like least?
Hatley: Awkward situations caused when multiple owners have conflicting goals and objectives. Family dynamics can be very challenging. But 99 percent of the time it’s a great job.
S-R: What’s the outlook for Washington agribusiness?
Hatley: Very strong. We have good farmers, good land, and the risks, as far as weather, are pretty minimal.
S-R: Having said that, what advice would you offer someone who wants to get into farming?
Hatley: I’d discourage it. Farming is a way of life. You almost have to be born and raised in it to really understand it and be willing to do what you have to do. It’s not an 8-to-5 job – it’s more of a 5-to-8 job. People romanticize it, but it’s a lot of work.
S-R: Do you farm?
S-R: Do you have a garden?
Hatley: A very small one.
S-R: For the past 16 years, you’ve been a board member and tournament director for the Washington Junior Golf Association. Why golf?
Hatley: Our kids were very involved with golf, and even though they’ve moved on, my wife and I still get great enjoyment working with young golfers. So we put on tournaments during the summer. I’d rather watch kids play golf than play the game myself. I was raised on a farm. I’m not a golfer.