Longtime Rochester, Minn., farmer gets a new view on planting

Tom Pyfferoen grows crops in Northwest Rochester and Pine Island, where he also raises livestock. This year he's growing corn, soybeans, alfalfa, oats and several other cover crops.

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Tom Pyfferoen stands in one of his crop fields in northwest Rochester on May 3, 2021. (Noah Fish / Agweek)

ROCHESTER, Minn. ― The eye that Tom Pyfferoen has on his crops is different this planting season.

Literally, he's seeing through a new lens.

Pyfferoen underwent cataract surgery one week before he got into the fields to start planting this spring.

"So we're just just kind of getting rolling with it," he said. "It's been a challenge, actually."

According to a description from the Mayo Clinic, cataract surgery is a procedure that removes the lens of an eye and replaces it with an artificial lens. Albeit a common and generally safe procedure, it'll be a few weeks until Pyfferoen is able to see properly.


He started the process to get the surgery in January after failing a physical to renew a commercial driver's license. Pyfferoen admitted he didn't really know what he was getting into, just that he needed the procedure.

"So I'm having a little bit of a tough time, because I don't have glasses yet that work, and I have to wait a month until I can get to that point," said Pyfferoen, standing in one of his crop fields in northwest Rochester where his son Aaron was operating a planter.

He can see at a distance, but reading things up close, like a monitor in a combine, is difficult.

"If I get a marker track to the field that's not real visible, I really have to kind of squint and figure out where it's at," he said. "With the tractor we plant with having GPS, it's not a big deal, but it's just something that I'm going through."

Pyfferoen also owns and farms land in Pine Island, just off of County Road 24, where they grow crops , feed cattle and graze lambs . He said this year he's growing corn , soybeans , alfalfa, oats and several other cover crops, most of which they harvest for feed.

"This year we planted quite a bit of fall cereal rye," Pyfferoen said. "In some of it we planted peas this spring, just as kind of another combination and to see what happens."

He said the peas will come off probably the last week of May or early June and they'll replace that ground by planting either beans or corn in it.


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Aaron Pyfferoen operates a planter on his family's farm in Northwest Rochester on May 3, 2021. (Noah Fish / Agweek)

Pyfferoen said they started planting this year on April 27, and described the planting conditions in southeast Minnesota as good.

"We haven't had much rain here in the last month, so the ground is getting fairly dry," he said on May 3. "We're still planting into good moisture yet."

Pyfferoen isn't concerned about the dry conditions now and actually prefers it, but if the streak stretches through the summer it could have an impact on their crops.

"I do like it a little bit dry when you're planting because you have a tendency to get a better root system, under corn and soybeans, where the roots go down instead of spread out," he said. "And if you get dry weather later on in the season, I believe it makes a big difference."

Read more about the 2021 planting season:

Changing landscape

The basic conservation practices that Pyfferoen has relied on for decades to increase yield and profitability are nowadays more common than they were not that long ago.

"You're starting to see more and more of it," Pyfferoen said of practices like cover cropping and no-till. "People are doing a little bit here and there."


Not far from Pyfferoen's land in northwest Rochester are crop fields operated by farmer Martin Larsen, who also works for the Olmsted County Soil and Water Conservation District, where he has done research on cover crops and nitrate reduction in waterways.

"We try to get 100% of the ground covered in cover crops in the fall," Pyfferoen said. "We probably had about 16 or 20 acres this year that we didn't get some cover on."

From the field his son was planting on, Pyfferoen gestured to the farm just down the road, in the direction of the city streets of Rochester.

"I moved there in 1975 and milked for 20 years," he said.

He got out of the dairy business in 1995 and bought the land he now farms and lives on in Pine Island. Pyfferoen said he believes it won't be long until most of the farmland closest to or inside of Rochester will be used for something other than growing crops.

"Eventually this land is going to be used for something other than agriculture," he said of his acreage in northwest Rochester. "The time is coming, with all the solar projects and that kind of stuff — things will change.

Since 1991, Pyfferoen's land in Rochester has been neighbor to Olmsted County's Kalmar Landfill. The natural geology below the site, which is located between Rochester and Byron, is an ideal location for a landfill.

Pyfferoen said in the early '90s it was common for wind to blow plastic shopping bags past the landfill walls and into their crop fields. The borders to the landfill have been built taller and stronger since then, preventing that from happening anymore.

Maneuvering equipment in the outskirts of Rochester has already become a daily challenge, said Pyfferoen, and there are a couple of intersections where he said it's "just about impossible" to get across with machinery.

While congestion from the growing city chips away at what's left of its rural border, markets haven't made it easier for farmers to keep a balance sheet in order.

"Last year you were looking at three-and-a-half-dollar corn, and this year, you're looking at six or seven dollar corn, so things changed immensely in a short amount of time," said Pyfferoen. "You just have to kind of hit for the middle of the road, and you pick up the opportunities when you can and hopefully you don't get burdened by bad decisions."

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Aaron Pyfferoen operates a planter on his family's farm in northwest Rochester on May 3, 2021. (Noah Fish / Agweek)

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