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Double duty on, off the farm: Series begins featuring farmers with off-farm jobs

About this series

This spring, I invited Agweek readers to nominate farmers for a series I was planning on part-time farmers. My goal was to profile ag producers who, in addition to farming or ranching, have off-farm jobs that provide necessary income to supplement what's generated by the farm.

I expected a strong response. And I sure got it, receiving dozens of email nominations from multiple states. All the nominated farmers were worthy, and many were outstanding. Selecting the farmers to profile was difficult indeed, but I ended up with three producers that I'm confident Agweek readers and viewers will enjoy meeting.

The three-part series begins this week with a Minnesota farmer who drives 120 miles, five days a week, to a full-time job that allows him to pursue his passion for farming.

Part two, to run Aug. 19 in Agweek, will look at a man who overcame his aversion to suits and ties to launch a full-time career in ag banking that nicely complements his part-time farming operation.

The series concludes Aug 26 with a profile of a young North Dakota woman who's a full-time agronomist as well as a part-time farmer.

There are AgweekTV stories with each segment — check local TV listings or watch on agweek.com.

By all accounts, off-farm income is increasingly important for U.S. farmers. Poor prices continue to sap farm income, so income from another job becomes necessary for many farmers to continue doing what they love.

Of America's 3.4 million farmers, 2.1 million work, to varying degrees, off the farm. That's nearly two out of three farmers. And 40% (1.36 million) of the 3.4 million work 200 or more days off the farm every year, according to the 2017 U.S. Census of Agriculture.

Other statistics find that about 60% of U.S. farm households rely on off-farm jobs to provide their health insurance.

The farmer profiled this week says the off-farm income — and the health insurance the job provides — is vital.

Evan Grandstrand, who farms near Stephen, Minn., purchased farrm equipment with the help of a USDA loan. 

STEPHEN, Minn. — It's a soggy July weekday morning — the good-looking crops don't need more moisture — and the afternoon is destined to turn hot and humid. Evan Grandstrand, thoughts of crops and rain running through his head, gets into his car for his regular five-days-a-week trip to his "other" job, the one that provides him with needed income, health insurance and the opportunity to pursue his passion for farming.

It's one thing to say you love farming. It's another thing to prove it, five days a week, 12 months a year. Grandstrand, who farms near Stephen in northwest Minnesota, also has a full-time job at Digi-Key in Thief River Falls, Minn., 60 miles away, to which he drives Monday through Friday.

"So far it's worked out pretty well," Grandstrand said.

Grandstrand, 30, a fifth-generation farmer, grew up on the family farm and always enjoyed farming. But tough times in ag caused his father, John, to quit farming in 1997 and put most of the farmland into the Conservation Reserve Program. Since then, John has worked in an energy sales position for CHS Ag Services, based in Stephen.

But in 2009, John asked Evan if the latter — then studying agronomy at the University of Minnesota Crookston — would be interested in farming the one field that wasn't in CRP.

"I encouraged him to farm. I thought it would be a good fit," John Grandstand said.

Evan, though surprised, definitely was interested, and began farming the parcel in 2009, the official start of his own farming career, with borrowed equipment. Later, he picked up more land and machinery of his own.

After finishing college, he worked two years as an agronomist in the Devils Lake, N.D, area, while continuing to farm part-time on a small scale back in Stephen. Then he took a job as a crop consultant in Stephen, which he held for several years, still farming himself.

"Frankly, it got to be too much doing both (farming on his own and being a crop consultant). I was burning myself out on both ends," Evan said.

That led to his interest in joining Digi-Key, where an uncle had worked for several years. Evan began working there in January 2017.

Evan Grandstrand, who farms near Stephen, Minn., works at Digi-Key as a "picker."Digi-Key management "are good people to work with. Decent pay, very good benefits. Having the medical (insurance) is well worth it. Because I'm single with no kids, my health insurance is free," Evan said.

At Digi-Key, an electronics distributor, Evan works as a "picker." He takes items off shelves and puts them on conveyor belts, from which employees called "packagers" place the items into boxes for shipment to customers.

"It's not easy work. I'm on my feet almost all the time," Evan told Agweek in his main Digi-Key work area. (He's prudently invested in high-quality work shoes.)

But he clearly finds at least some satisfaction in the work, which he performs efficiently and cheerfully. And as he walks through the sprawling Digi-Key building, he greets fellow employees, many by first name.

"I'm home at 11 p.m., in bed by midnight, up at 6 a.m to do some farming before leaving at noon" for another day at Digi-Key, Evan said.

He normally carpools part of the way with two other Digi-Key employees, reducing the physical and financial demands of the trip.

Global reach

Digi-Key offers flexible employment opportunities, said Chris Lauer, Vice President of order fulfillment.Digi-Key has grown into an iconic northwest Minnesota business, one that does business worldwide and with a reputation for offering flexible, innovative employment opportunities.

Digi-Key has 4,000 employees, about 3,500 in Thief River Falls, population about 6,800. The company also has offices in Fargo, N.D., and Bloomington, Minn., as well as other small locations overseas.

"We're truly a global economy," Chris Lauer, vice president of order fulfillment, told Agweek in his Thief River Falls office.

"Half our business is domestic, half foreign. I think our claim to fame is we give our customers exactly what they're looking for. They can come in and buy one transistor and they can buy 5,000 transistors," Lauer said.

As for employees and compensation, "We can't always give employees everything they're looking for. But I think we can give them a pretty wide plethora of choices. It's the people component that makes us successful," Lauer said.

Grandstrand said Digital-Key is very good at giving him vacation time at busy times in his farming operation. The company also lets him work special hours so that he can attend evening meetings as a township supervisor.

His 600 acres

Grandstrand now farms 600 acres, on which he's raising two- and six-row barley, spring wheat, canola and soybeans this year.

"It's all family land. All purchased or rented from family members. Admittedly I get a pretty good deal on rent, " he said.

As for machinery, "I have what I need. Always would like more, of course," Grandstrand said. He bought much of the machinery with a first-time farmer's loan, "which has been a godsend." The loan was through Farm Service Agency, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Grandstrand's background in agronomy is a big help. And he's comfortable with other aspects of farming, too. "Not to brag too much, but I think I'm pretty good at this," he said.

Help at key times from multiple family members, including his father, is a huge benefit. "No way could I do this as a one-man job," Grandstrand said.

John Grandstrand, of Stephen, Minn., encouraged his son, Evan, to farm.John Grandstrand smiled when asked about his help. "I still get to play around with farming and tractors. And there's no financial risk (to me)," he said.

Despite the family contributions, 600 acres doesn't generate nearly enough income to support himself, so Evan needs the additional income and medical insurance that an off-farm job provides.

Alternatives, options

An alternative to working at Digi-Key is becoming an agronomist again.

"The thought has crossed my mind to be a full-time agronomist again. But I won't lie, part of the reason I left the job was the constant phone calls (from clients)," Grandstrand said. "Now, I don't get phone calls and I love it."

Another option, at least in theory, is picking up more land, either by buying or renting, and expanding his operation to the point Grandstrand wouldn't need an off-farm job.

But that's much easier said than done.

"I'd like to pick up land. But it's hard to justify the means of doing it," Grandstrand said.

Put differently, the income generated from additional land probably wouldn't be sufficient to cover the cost of buying or renting it and upgrading his farm equipment.

Evan GrandstrandHe had an opportunity to buy a quarter of land (160 acres), but "it was just too expensive." Instead, he used what would have been the downpayment to tile some land this spring that he already owned, and Grandstrand is confident the investment was sound.

So, at least for now, he plugs away as a part-time farmer and full-time Digi-Key picker. Asked if he'll still be able to do both when he's 45, Grandstrand shrugged and said, "I don't know. I'd like to think so, at least that I could handle it."

Good time management is essential to his dual career, he said.

"You've got to allot time for specific things," said Grandstrand, who has a weekly list of to-do activities, at least a few of which he completes every day. His schedule includes "occasional take-it-easy, lazy days," to promote mental and emotional health. He especially enjoys fishing and hunting

Grandstrand lives in the house he grew up in, which his parents bought in 1991. They now live in Stephen after selling the house to their son.

It's a busy life for Evan Grandstrand, and a demanding one.

But he enjoys it nonetheless.

"There's just so much I like about farming, especially the sense of accomplishment when something gets done," he said.

"This is definitely what I want to be doing."