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Young siblings learn as they go after taking over family farm

HILLSBORO, N.D. -- Jon Bertsch and his sister, Allison Lee, didn't plan on becoming farmers. In fact, 27-year-old Bertsch was a network administrator for a Fargo law firm and 24-year-old Lee was going to school for nursing. But after their dad di...

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Allison Lee and Jon Bertsch took over their family farm near Hillsboro, N.D., in April 2013. Tracy Frank / The Forum

HILLSBORO, N.D. -- Jon Bertsch and his sister, Allison Lee, didn't plan on becoming farmers.

In fact, 27-year-old Bertsch was a network administrator for a Fargo law firm and 24-year-old Lee was going to school for nursing. But after their dad died in 2012, they had some tough decisions to make.

"We didn't want to go two or three years down the road and say, 'We wish we would have,' " Bertsch said.

They grew up around farming, but Bertsch said in some ways, they still felt like they were going in blind.

"We knew what a combine was and we knew what things were on the farm. We'd been out to the fields, we knew where all the fields were," Lee said. "We knew things about the farm, it's just that we never took on the business side of it."

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They hadn't been trained to operate the farm, either, but the siblings officially took it over in April of last year when they signed their partnership for Bertsch Farms, located near Hillsboro, N.D.

Not only did they take over their dad's farm, but they also took over their grandfather's farm. He died shortly after their dad did. The farms are near each other and the men helped each other in many ways, but they still ran their own operations.

"Two family estates were going down and we were rebuilding everything from the bottom up." Lee said.

Bertsch and Lee are not your typically farmers.

Lee said some people can't believe she owns and runs a farm. When she tells people she's a farmer, she said she often has to explain that she and her brother took it over after their dad died.

Once people understand, she said, they're supportive.

"They want to see younger generations going into farming," she said. "Even around here, we've seen a lot of people our age who could have taken over the farm but decided to go in a different direction."

Young farmers, like Bertsch and Lee, are what ag groups say the industry needs.

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Half of all current farmers in the U.S. are likely to retire in the next decade, so enlisting and supporting new farmers is essential to the future of family farms, the farm economy and healthy rural communities, the U.S. Department of Agriculture states.

But new farmers are entering agriculture much slower than older farmers are retiring, according to the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, which stresses the need for more investment in the next generation of farmers.

"Our country urgently needs a far more robust national strategy to restore farming as a viable career for the next generation of producers who will step in and continue to farm our country's land and feed people well into the future," the group states on its website.

Bertsch and Lee said they found some support through things like an Iowa State University Extension Service training session, but their first full year running the farm was still challenging.

"Dad always said if you don't know what you're doing, just pretend like you do," Bertsch said. "We do that a lot around here. The more time passes by, the more comfortable we get in what we're doing."

The siblings have taken on their own roles in the farm operation and even those are not traditional. Bertsch handles more of the business aspects, like bookwork, payroll, marketing and insurance. Lee is more hands-on, working in the shop and running the planter, sprayer and grain cart. Bertsch also runs the air seeder and combine.

"I've always been hands-on," Lee said. "I'm not afraid to go out and do what needs to be done."

They make sure to talk regularly about every aspect of their farm and said communication is a big part of their operation, which continues to grow. They grew corn and soybeans this year. They also run a trucking company.

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Some of the biggest challenges, they said, are learning about the crops and figuring out the best seed, equipment, fertilizers and pest-control methods to use.

"It's all those things you learn as you do it," Bertsch said.

Being young is its own challenge, they said.

"I don't think Allison or I had any idea that it's not just putting a seed in the ground and watching it grow," Bertsch said. "We knew there was more to it, but boy did we find out that there's just a lot more day to day and long-term things to look at."

"It's not just planting and harvest and then going on vacation in the winter," Lee said. "As much as people think farming is like that, it's not."

But in addition to the challenges, there are rewards, too.

"In the fall, we get to see what we worked for all year round," Bertsch said. "Since last November when we got done harvesting and started planning for the 2014 crop, we now get to see it all come together and what we worked our butts off to try to do."

Related Topics: CROPS
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