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Published June 27, 2011, 05:55 AM

They’re ‘encore farmers’

WIMBLEDON, N.D. — Linda Grotberg says she and her two partners in Bethany Prairie Farm in Wimbledon, N.D., are “encore farmers.” She also describes herself, husband Dick Grotberg and their friend and partner, Dick Love-strand, as “senior citizen beginning farmers.”

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

WIMBLEDON, N.D. — Linda Grotberg says she and her two partners in Bethany Prairie Farm in Wimbledon, N.D., are “encore farmers.”

She also describes herself, husband Dick Grotberg and their friend and partner, Dick Love-strand, as “senior citizen beginning farmers.”

The three — all past traditional retirement age — have switched from conventional farming to an operation that stresses achieving sustainability “one component at a time,” as Linda puts it.

The Grotbergs and Lovestrand are involved in several ventures on their organic 400-acre farm that they hope will help other people interested in small, self-sustaining farms.

“Small farmers, if they’re going to survive, need to produce everything they use so it’s the same as buying it wholesale,” she says.

Among the projects on Bethany Prairie Farm:

- They raise and sell dairy goats.

- They raise chickens and operate the Central North Dakota Pastured Poultry Institute, which advises other people interested in raising chickens.

- They raise Scottish Highland cattle, and the meat is sold locally.

- With help from a team of soil scientists, they use a nine-year rotation on their farmland designed to enhance the soil’s health.

- They’re involved in a small-scale biofuel production project, in which sunflower oil replaces diesel fuel for use in tractors. Meal from the process is fed to the poultry.

This spring, Linda was named one of five winners in the national Launch Pad contest, which seeks to help people older than 45 turn problem-solving ideas into working solutions.

She received $5,000. More information on the contest and Launch Pad program: http://launchpad.encore.org.

Epiphany, encore career

“Encore career” refers to work in the second half of life, in what traditionally would be considered retirement. Often, these encore careers involve personal fulfillment or social impact or both.

For many years, the Grotbergs ran a confinement-hog operation and farmed conventionally. But in 2004, often-volatile hog prices were strong enough that the Grotbergs thought they could afford to get out of the hog business.

Health problems they encountered when they reached their 60s also played a huge role in their decision to shift from conventional to sustainable agriculture.

Linda is now 66, Dick Grotberg 75 and Dick Lovestrand 68.

“We were at the age where we were having more health issues,” Linda says. “We really came to the conclusion that healthy soil makes healthy food.”

Lovestrand, a well-spoken man who chooses his words with care, describes what happened as an “epiphany,” or moment of great insight or revelation.

The insight led Bethany Prairie Farm’s operators, who already had been scaling back on their conventional farming, to switch to sustainable ag.

Paul Aakre, assistant professor of mechanized agriculture at the University of Minnesota-Crookston, has worked with Bethany Prairie Farm on its biofuel project.

He says he understands why the Grotbergs and Lovestrand shifted course.

“I think that for the age they’re at, and the lifestyle they want, they made an excellent choice,” Aakre says.

He also notes that, “Some people like to be pioneers.”

Unconventional thinking people are critical,” he says.

“The rest of the people kind of pat us on the head and think, ‘Grandma and Grandpa are fine but a little strange,’” she says.

As the Grotbergs and Lovestrand get older, they’ll slowly transition from hands-on work into more of an advisory role, Linda says.

But they’re in no hurry to retire.

“Dick Grotberg has a nice way of putting it. When he’s asked when he’s going to retire, he says ‘I don’t know. But I’m sure the ladies will have a nice lunch afterward,’” Linda says.

Sustainable ag is viewed skeptically by some in agriculture, particularly when crop prices are high, as they are now, Linda acknowledges.

But sustainable ag — which a brochure from Bethany Prairie Farm describes as “healthy soil = healthy plants = healthy animals = meat, eggs, milk = healthy people — has a vital role, Linda says.

The key, she says, is adopting sustainable agriculture step by step, rather than trying to do it all at once.

“Our goal is to make it so that people can be sustainable on the farm. It’s not a goal that you can probably achieve right away; you need to take it one component at a time,” she says.

Helping people do that is satisfying, she says.

“It’s a fun thing. Encore famers can teach, we can mentor, we can experiment. We can do a lot of things that people in their first careers as farmers can’t do,” she says.

Though they used conventional farming methods for many years, the Grotbergs and Lovestrand are accustomed to doing what they believe in, even when it’s outside the mainstream.

From 1979 to 1997, the Grotbergs and Lovestrand homeschooled their children in a rural schoolhouse that had been moved on to the farmstead. Lovestrand has an elementary teaching degree; Linda helped with what she calls “the fun things,” such as school plays.

“We like to say that we couldn’t be doing this organic farming if we hadn’t homeschooled. In those days, homeschooling was going against the stream, and so is what we’re doing now,” Linda says.

She and her husband, who have been married 49 years, have 10 children and 37 grandchildren.

A rural church also was moved on to the farmstead, and religious services and family events have been held in it.

Linda describes herself as the “innovator” at Bethany Prairie Farm. She says her husband is the “farmer and salesman,” while Lovestrand is the “researcher” who searches, often online, for ways to accomplish specific goals.

“Dick Grotberg and I come up with so many ideas,” Linda says with a laugh. “By the time Dick Lovestrand gets into it (researching), we have more ideas for him.”

‘Flower Power’ revisited

Years ago, Aakre, then a graduate student at North Dakota State University in Fargo, wrote his thesis on the so-called “Flower Power Study.” That study — conducted in the late 1970s, a time of high fuel prices and much concern about the future availability of petroleum — looked at the viability of using vegetable oil to power farm equipment.

Now, Aakre is researching the use of sunflower oil in engines at the University of Minnesota-Crookston.

With help from him, Bethany Prairie Farm is processing sunflower oil and using it in a field tractor. Linda also hopes to use the sunflower oil in a generator to provide supplemental electricity for the farm.

Record sunflower prices, which have soared to more than $30 per hundredweight for sunflowers in storage, have muted the appeal of using sunflowers for fuel, Linda says.

“If the commodity price weren’t so high, there would be a lot more interest,” she says.

Aakre says small-scale biofuel production isn’t economically viable given current crop prices, but that could change if prices drop sharply.

Aakre will be among the speakers June 28 at Bethany Prairie Farm’s 2011 Field Day and Farm Tour. Other presenters will include a number of soil scientists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.

More than 100 people have attended the annual show in the past, Linda says.

As the lineup of speakers at the show indicates, the Grotbergs and Aakre haven’t hesitated to enlist professional help in their transition to sustainable farming.

Second farming career

The shift into sustainable ag has drawn a mixed reaction from friends, neighbors and relatives, Linda says.

“People our age seem to get it, (while) some other

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