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Published May 19, 2014, 09:41 AM

Rancher works as shop foreman

For two decades, Strom of Hill River Farm was a ranch without cattle. But Mark Strom, a fifth-generation rancher, brought them back. “Animals, livestock — whether it’s a dog or cat — I pretty much have a passion for it,” he says.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

MCINTOSH, Minn. — For two decades, Strom of Hill River Farm was a ranch without cattle. But Mark Strom, a fifth-generation rancher, brought them back.

“Animals, livestock — whether it’s a dog or cat — I pretty much have a passion for it,” he says.

Strom operates Strom of Hill River Farm on a wooded hill overlooking the Hill River north of McIntosh, Minn. He and his wife, Danette, have a small but growing herd of beef cattle that began in 2007.

Mark Strom, 42, also is production shop manager for Team Industries, which builds recreational drive line components in Bagley, Minn. He’s worked there for 21 years and now oversees upwards of 75 employees. The off-farm income allows him to farm, he says.

“My goal is to have the farm pay its way by working it,” Strom says.

Strom reflects the national trend of more small farms, often operated by people with off-farm incomes, according to data from the 2012 Census of Agriculture, released earlier this spring.

“We’re seeing more of that. More big farms, more small farms, fewer farms in the middle. And more farmers with off-farm jobs,” says Jim Stordahl, McIntosh-based ag production systems educator with University of Minnesota Extension, who knows the Strom family.

In most cases, people with off-farm jobs who get into farming “aren’t doing it just for the income. They’re doing it for the lifestyle. They like being part of agriculture,” Stordahl says.

If you spend any time with Strom, you’ll see how much he enjoys being a rancher.

Since 1890

Wayne Strom, Mark’s father, once operated the farm, which has been in the family since 1890. Wayne got out of cattle in the late 1980s. In the 1990s, when times were tough economically, Wayne got out of farming altogether to concentrate on other jobs, including running his own trucking company.

Mark Strom finished high school in 1990 and went to study machine tool manufacturing at a technical college in Alexandria, Minn. He worked for a while in the Twin Cities, but returned to McIntosh in 1993.

“Dad didn’t think me coming back was such a good idea,” Mark Strom recalls. “But it’s worked out pretty well.”

He joined Team Industries in 1993 and has done a lot of things there. His current position, one he clearly takes seriously, “is a very good job for the area,” he says.

His employer knows about his ranching and is good about giving him the flexibility he needs, he says.

Being a farmer and rancher, on the side, always appealed to him. He saw opportunity to do that in 2006 and 2007, when Strom family land began coming off the Conservation Reserve Program in which it had been enrolled.

So in late 2006, Strom bought bred cows and brought them to the farm. He also tried crop farming, but found it wasn’t feasible, given his off-farm job. So he’s been concentrating on his cow-calf operation, which uses Red Angus bulls for breeding.

Cattle country

Rolling hills and often-sandy soil north of McIntosh generally are better suited for cattle than crops, Wayne Strom says.

“This is cattle country here. It always has been,” he says.

Mark Strom says his father helps regularly on the farm. He also praises the contributions of his wife.

“I couldn’t do it without her,” he says.

Danette says farm life “is so peaceful. I just love it.”

The opportunity to work with other family members, including ones of a different generation, is a big reason some people with off-farm jobs get into agriculture, Stordahl says.

Mark and Danette have moved to the farmstead. Wayne, 64, and Vicki, 62, who had been on the farm, now live in town.

Mark Strom says he and his wife sometimes hire labor, too, often from nearby Amish communities, for fencing and working with cattle.

Expanding the herd

Strom has been expanding his herd and hasn’t sold heifers for three years. Forty-eight cows, 13 of them heifers, will calve this spring. When Agweek visited in early May, 38 cows had given birth, with no losses and three sets of twins.

Ultimately, he’d like to have 60 to 75 cows calving each spring.

“It’s not a numbers game. I’m just trying to suit the farm to what works,” he says.

Unusually dry conditions the past two years have complicated expansion. Like much of the Upper Midwest, the McIntosh area suffered from drought in 2012. Unlike much of the region, the McIntosh area also came up short of moisture in 2013.

“I’d say 2013 was tougher than the year before,” Strom says. “In 2013, I only grazed cows for nine weeks. Other than that, I fed 'em the whole time. I started feeding hay in the middle of August.”

The Stroms put up their own hay and get beet pulp from sugar beet processing plants in Crookston, Minn., and East Grand Forks, Minn. They’re also working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to graze cattle on nearby FWS land, with the goal of restoring the land to its original prairie condition, Mark and Wayne say.

Next guy down the line

Mark Strom says he’s made a substantial investment in cattle handling equipment. Work by Temple Grandin, America’s most prominent cattle handling scientist, inspired the corral the Stroms installed.

“I try to do a good job for the next guy down the line (the person who buys the Strom cattle),” Strom says.

The Stroms usually sell their steers in January.

Strom says he’s been careful not to overextend himself financially.

“It’s a lot easier if you’re not up to your neck in debt, if you’re only up to your waist,” he says with a smile.

Strom is reluctant to give advice to others who might be interested in farming or ranching, in addition to having another job.

But he stresses the importance of avoiding too much debt and the need to ask questions of knowledgeable people.

He’s glad he brought back cattle to Strom of Hill River Farm, even after two moisture-short summers.

“I like cattle. I like the country. These dry years were tough, but this is what I want to be doing,” he says.

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