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Published August 19, 2013, 09:28 AM

A harvest of his own

Leonard Will, who works for the Hvidsten family farm near Stephen, Minn., makes planting and marketing decisions on his own 80-acre field.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

STEPHEN, Minn. — Leonard Will, a displaced California farm kid, has received a rare opportunity in the Red River Valley of northern Minnesota. He’s determined to make the most of it.

“I know how fortunate I am. And I’m excited,” he says.

Will, 25, was hired this spring by Hvidsten Farms of Stephen, Minn., to manage its equipment, a full-time, year-round position. He also serves as what Will describes as “an all-round farm hand.”

What makes the arrangement unusual is that Will, in addition to receiving regular pay, is farming 80 acres of Hvidsten land. In farming the 80 acres, he makes planting and marketing decisions, uses Hvidsten equipment, pays input costs and receives the income from the crop raised on it.

“This way, he can try it and see whether he hates or loves farming,” says Pete Hvidsten, who’s part of the family farming operation. “We want to make it a fairly good representation of what farming is like.”

Just about everyone involved in modern agriculture agrees that it’s virtually impossible to enter farming without help from an established farmer. Finding land to farm and securing financing almost always requires help from someone who farms already.

Bruce Aakre, a professor at the University of Minnesota-Crookston who taught Will in several classes, knows the difficulty of starting farming from scratch.

Will “was one of those people you think won’t get a chance at farming on his own. But he’s making a run at it,” Aakre says.

California transplant

Will, 25, grew up on a family farm in California near the Oregon border. It raised barley, alfalfa, sheep and cattle.

His grandfather, also called Leonard, started the farm in 1947 after serving in World War II. Wade, the older Leonard’s son and the younger Leonard’s father, took over the farm in the 1970s.

In 2001, however, the family lost its irrigation rights, which made farming the land impossible, and had to sell the farm.

“That was the last thing my grandpa wanted to see. He was pretty tore up about it,” says the younger Leonard Will.

Will, then in his early teens, didn’t fully realize the loss at the time. “But the older I got, the more I realized how much agriculture meant to me. So I had this drive, this desire, to seek out farming any way I could,” he says.

“What I like most is farm equipment. When I see it, I just have to try operating it myself. And I love maintaining it so that it keeps on running,” he says.

Will tried several things after high school, including studying chemical engineering and working for a California custom-hay producer. Nothing quite clicked for him. Then he decided to come to the University of Minnesota-Crookston to study agriculture.

“I wanted to see a different part of the world. And I had — still have — a passion for agriculture,” Will says.

After coming to Minnesota, Will met Tim Hvidsten, Pete’s father, in church. Eventually, Tim approached Will and, as Will recalls it, “asked me if I knew anybody at college who would be interested in an internship (working for the summer on the Hvidsten farm).

“I said, ‘Yeah, maybe I know a few guys.’ Then later I thought, ‘Maybe he (Tim) wants me to work for him.’ So I approached him a few minutes later and said I’d be interested. He said, ‘Great, we’d love to have you work for us,’” Will says.

Unusual offer

He interned last summer on the Hvidsten farm before returning to college for his final year. He graduated this spring with a degree in farm and ranch management.

The Hvidstens liked Will and his contributions enough that they decided to hire him full time after he graduated.

“When Leonard worked for us (as an intern) last year, we really appreciated all the skill sets and abilities he brought,” Pete Hvidsten says. “So we wanted to attract him to come and work for us full time. He also stated he had a desire to try farming himself.

“After some thought, I thought it would be good for Leonard to check out the risks involved. I thought this (allowing Will to farm some land himself) would be a good thing to try,” Hvidsten says.

He brought the idea to other family members, who decided it was a good idea.

Will, somewhat to his surprise, didn’t have trouble getting a loan to put in his crop. The bank with which he worked already had approved a home loan for Will and his wife, Amy, which apparently made it easier for him to secure the crop loan.

Wheat was his choice

The field that Will is farming is in a crop rotation that allowed him to plant his choice of wheat, barley or soybeans this spring.

“Fertilizer, variety — it’s all up to him. We make recommendations, but the decisions are his,” Hvidsten says.

Will decided to go with wheat, even though soybeans might have been the better choice financially.

“I decided I’d learn more with wheat,” he says.

He notes that wheat is subject to discounts, or price reductions based on quality. Growing wheat will help him learn more about discounts and marketing, he says.

The field was planted on May 18, about the time it should have been. Hvidsten anticipates the field will yield 65 to 70 bushels per acre, which is about average.

“The wheat looks really nice. It just depends on how it fills out,” Hvidsten says.

Will says he wants all the Hvidsten crops to do well. Inevitably, however, he takes special interest in the field he’s farming.

“When you call the shots, and when you have to put the money out, there’s definitely more stress. I try to do the best I can for every field, but with this one it’s a little more of a gut check,” he says.

Will and Hvidsten expect to combine the field in the third or fourth of August.

Will hasn’t sold any of his wheat in advance of harvest. He studied grain marketing in college, “but I know I have a lot more to learn,” he says.

That’s true of farming in general.

“I learned a lot in college, but there’s something new to learn every day,” he says. “I always try to stay open-minded and keep learning.”

Putting down roots

Will and his wife, who had their first child in March, have been living in Thief River Falls, Minn., about 50 miles from Stephen.

Now, Amy Will has quit her job and the Wills are moving to Stephen, where they’re buying a house.

Leonard Will says he wants to raise his children in a rural farming community.

His wife, he notes, grew up on a hobby farm in Roseau, a town of 2,600 in northwest Minnesota.

“So this (agriculture and a rural lifestyle) isn’t anything new to her,” he says.

Leonard Will also serves in the Minnesota National Guard as a track-vehicle mechanic. He joined as a way to help finance college, and has three years left on his commitment.

He serves two weeks in the spring or summer and usually two or three days a month. Will says the organization has been good about giving him the flexibility to balance his military commitment with his obligations on the farm.

The Hvidstens had some concern about the possibility of Will being called up for active service, “but nothing that scared us away from hiring him,” Pete Hvidsten says.

Expansion is uncertain

Hvidsten says his family hopes Will eventually expands his fledgling farming operation.

Some might wonder whether Will, if he decides to expand in farming, someday could compete with the Hvidstens to rent or buy farmland.

Pete Hvidsten says that’s not an issue.

“I’m not at all concerned that Leonard would do that. That’s not the kind of person he is,” Hvidsten says.

Will says it’s too early to predict if he’ll try to increase the size of his farming operation.

“I’m happy with the acres I have now. It’s more than I could have dreamed of,” he says.

But Will is confident that he wants to stay in farming.

“I can’t see myself doing anything else,” he says.