A New York strip-tiller known by a colorful moniker on social media farms by an inspirational post-worthy quote: Keep your eyes on the prize.
In 2010, at age 41 and after years as an employee, Tom Corcoran started farming on his own. A decade later, he grows crops on 1,000-plus acres and maintains a bustling sidecar of farm-related businesses, including the popular Instagram page "Some Unique Machines Brought In To Commemorate History," better known by the acronym SUMBITCH. Once a banker’s nightmare, Corcoran has earned a highly respected seat at agriculture’s table.
“Anyone can do what I’ve done,” Corcoran tells Farm Journal Ag Web, “but how far are you willing to go? Sitting at home after 40 hours won’t cut it; there’s still 128 hours left in the week. What are you prepared to do?”
Corcoran farms alongside his wife, Diane, and son, Troy. The trio grows dryland black beans, corn, soybeans and winter wheat in Livingston County loam, outside the small town of Caledonia, New York. They also custom combine, custom strip-till, haul salt and sell seed — all part of an effort to ensure side-stream income.
“We hustle and we’re blessed to do so,” Tom says. "It’s cliché, but determination was a huge factor. I always knew I’d have my own farm.”
Corcoran grew up on a 50-cow dairy farm. At 18, he hired himself off to bigger operations. Year after year, Corcoran patiently pocketed one growing lesson after another as a hired man, while gaining a foothold on the future through custom cutting and the purchase of a handful of acres.
In 2009, Corcoran chanced upon a farm widow selling used equipment, and he dropped $25,000 on the deal — although the family checking account only contained a lean $500.
Fortunately, Diane was all in. Growing up, her father started a dairy farm as a secondary job and made sure she fed cows before school and worked herd chores after getting home. The model of toil and ancillary income was seeded in her blood, and Diane backed her husband's new endeavor.
With no significant equity, cash flow, or track record, Corcoran called a banker friend and found a lifeline. In 2010 and working out of his garage, Corcoran planted corn and soybeans on 140 acres of rented land 24 miles away. Along with finding budget-priced equipment, Corcoran faced a challenge often overlooked when starting from scratch: the need for an arsenal of endless shop-related items.
In 2011, while Diane waitressed, Corcoran added a few more acres, built a pole barn to serve as a shop and burned extra time on side hustles. In 2012, he direct-cut dry beans, bucking western New York traditions. Direct-cutting dry beans was common in the West, and Corcoran followed suit.
“People thought we were crazy. They said, ‘It can’t be done here.’ Why not? I don’t believe you leave any yield behind, and the labor, time and fuel savings are huge. You can do more in one day with just one person than you can do in a week the other way.”
Others rapidly began to copy Corcoran’s technique.
The operation got a major boost in 2016 when Troy graduated from diesel college and returned to the farm able to do motor rebuilds, transmission repairs and a litany of other fixes. The farming operation continued to grow, boosted by Corcoran’s reputation as a tenant with integrity.
“We have fantastic landlords,” he says. “They see how we treat the land with strip-till and covers, and they’re not afraid to give us a shot.”
Meanwhile, Corcoran was approached by Bob Pawlowski, a friend, farmer and Channel Seed salesman in Oneida County, New York, about selling seed.
“Tom is and was hungry,” Pawlowski says. “He’s aggressive in growing a crop and looking for opportunity. For example, strip-tilling was not common here, but he jumped on it ahead of the curve and made some money. It’s very rare to see a guy start so small and succeed. People respect Tom and want to work with him because he’s a guy that creates opportunities because of his attitude and preparation. When a chance comes you have to be ready.”
As a natural people-person, Channel Seed was an ideal fit for Corcoran, and he says seed is one more example of why he's been able to make it in farming.
Along with crops, Corcoran’s ground grows stones — or so it seems. Every spring, he strip-tills prior to planting and then rolls back across with a rock picker. Diane follows with a 35-foot cultipacker, manually grabbing anything left behind.
Beyond occasional equipment damage from rocks, a far more chronic concern is a relatively short growing season. Corcoran’s geography gets 39 inches of annual precipitation and also 90 inches of snow. A frost into the first 2 weeks of May is a strong possibility, bookended by frost again by October 1, making corn beyond 100 days risky. The first big snow often arrives in late October, and snow through a combine is major trouble, unless the temperatures are brutally low enough to ensure snow particles crystalize and blow through.
Corcoran averages 97-day corn. Typically, his corn is cut at 18-25% moisture and runs through a dryer.
“We’ve had to combine soybeans in January because of too much snow and cut corn for friends at Christmas," Corcoran says. "That’s farming sometimes in our area.”
Social Media Evolution
After hosting a Channel Seed field day in 2018, Corcoran was left with a surplus of food. He invited 12 friends with 12 old tractors to a party and charged $5 per head in order to make a donation for Alzheimer’s research. In 2016, Diane’s father, Warren Hunt Sr., passed away after living with the disease.
Recognizing an opportunity keep raising research funds, Corcoran searched for a unique tag for the tractor show to attract more interest. And thus, the colorful acronym of “Some Unique Machines Brought In To Commemorate History" was born.
Word got around, and today the farm show attracts hundreds of people and raises money for a good cause. Corcoran jokingly started calling himself by the event's acronym on social media, with the intent of switching it to his own name, but the moniker stuck. Diane soon followed suit, adopting her own version of the moniker on Instagram.
“Social media has truly helped us as farmers,” Corcoran says. “We’ve got a community beyond our town, and we need to see when other farmers in other places succeed and struggle because that is like a mirror of our lives. One state has guys in drought; another has guys in flood; another has guys in crop disease. I’ve never met most of these people in person, but they are my support network. They understand.”