Wimbledon farm's goal is '50s-style diversification
WIMBLEDON, N.D. -- A new oilseed press and a processor to convert the oil into biodiesel fuel is only the latest in a string of grant projects to demonstrate unusual "holistic" approaches to agriculture at a place called Bethany Prairie Farm.
The farm's partners have been the recipient of $36,000 in grants to implement and demonstrate what they consider sustainable farming techniques -- an unabashed throwback to late 1940s thinking, when farms were more self-sufficient.
In 2006, the farm, run by owners Dick and Linda Grotberg and their partner, Dick Love-strand, was awarded an $18,000 federal Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education grant. The aim was literally to transition into a stated goal of emulating pre-1950s farming model, featuring an intense grazing system and companion crop system.
"This is basically organic agriculture because it's no chemicals," Linda says.
Last March, they got $13,000 from the North Dakota State Renewable Fuels Division of the Commerce Department. With that, they acquired a press and processor for bio-fuels. So far, they've made about 300 gallons of fuel from 2007 sunflowers, which they're running as straight substitute for diesel. They're pressing 55 gallons in a six-hour processing day, producing about 80 gallons of oil from 2,000 pounds of seeds.
Separately, they were awarded $5,000 from the Agricultural Products Utilization Commission grant for filters and holdings tanks.
"It's more than turning fields from conventional to organic -- it's turning a whole farming model back to something entirely different," says Linda, who has written the grants. "The pre-1950 time is an arbitrary time, but we picked the time of farming before chemicals were used. We went on the premise that whatever we put on the soil is something we eventually would eat. We believe a healthy farm produces everything it needs within itself."
Road to unorthodoxy
Dick Grotberg, 72, grew up where he lives today. He and his parents, Harold and Elsie, farmed and fed cattle on a perfectly conventional farm.
Grotberg met Linda Miller of Blanchard, N.D., in a 4-H event at the North Dakota Winter Show in 1960. They married in 1962 and would have 11 children -- six boys and five girls, born from 1963 to 1979. (Today, they have 31 grandchildren.)
"We were always conventional farmers," says Dick, whose father was an early adapter and started using fertilizer in the early 1950s.
In the 1970s, the Grotbergs shifted. In 1976, they had a "born again" Christian conversion. In 1979, they were some of the first people in the region to home-school their children. They considered going into the Christian mission field with the nondenominational Bethany Fellowship and Missionary Training Institute in Bloomington, Minn. Bethany Fellowship was a communal fellowship also known for its Bible school and Bethany House publishing-printing company.
Instead of going to the mission field, the Grotbergs established a sort of mission field at home -- among their own farm fields.
Missionary Dick Lovestrand, who had grown up in the Bethany Fellowship, had returned to the United States after a five-year stint as a missionary in Brazil. He and his wife, Kay, moved to the farm in Wimbledon in 1979.
Lovestrand was a son of one of the five families who had started Bethany Fellowship in the 1940s. He held a bachelor of science degree in elementary education from Fort Wayne (Ind.) Bible College -- now Taylor University Fort Wayne -- and had a technical mind, operating the fellowship's printing presses in the U.S. and Brazil.
Together, the Grotbergs and the Lovestrands established Bethany Prairie Farm as an informal joint venture.
Linda Grotberg and Dick Lovestrand established Bethany Prairie School in 1978. A precursor to more accepted home schooling today, the family faced legal challenges with the local district, supported by the national Christian Law Association. The first test case in North Dakota languished in court and eventually was dropped.
It wasn't their only struggle.
Living through crises
In the 1980s the hog industry went sour.
Like many farmers, the Grotbergs struggled with the Farm Service Agency (then Farmers Home Administration) to settle $1.3 million in debts on just a few acres of land. They went through a 10-year limbo, ending with Chapter 12 bankruptcy, and reorganized in 1993. Eventually, the hog enterprise was shifted to their sons and then back to them again.
In 1999, their youngest daughter, Ginny, came back to the farm, but the farmstead infrastructure was aging. At the suggestion of their veterinarian, Dick Roth of Fargo, N.D., they got out of the business, starting in 2003.
It was a start of several shifts.
They started exploring "traditional food" and bought some dairy goats. They focused on whole foods, organic foods -- cooking from scratch.
The place has a surreal effect. In 1988, the Grotbergs moved a school building onto the farmstead. In 1989, they moved a country church that has since been refurbished. They operated a home school in the school through 1997. The farm and its many buildings are host to a sort of "hospitality ministry," in which people can come and stay for awhile, for a voluntary compensation.
Besides the pens of goats, the Grotbergs and Lovestrand keep chickens in mobile cage for grazing.
"As we got out of confinement hogs, we came to the conclusion that animals raised under stress of confinementare just not healthy to eat," Linda says. "We decided what we couldn't eat, we couldn't ask God to bless."
And then there are the cattle.
About five years ago, Dick Grotberg became aware of Scottish Highland cattle breed -- what he says is known as the second-oldest breed of cattle in the world.
"The yak is the oldest," Grotberg says.
In 2004, Grotberg had heard of Joe Meade, a breeder near Tolna, N.D., and called him to ask whether the shaggy-looking, long-horned critters could be milked. The fellow said yes, so the Grotbergs bought two cows and a calf. In 2005 and 2006, they bought the rest -- about 40 head -- and they've since multiplied to about 100. The Grotbergs started supplying some of the meat to upscale restaurant markets in Fargo, including the HoDo in downtown Fargo.
"It wasn't certified organic, but it was all 'natural,' " Dick Grotberg says. "It was, no chemicals, no additives and all grass-fed."
The Grotbergs had been renting out some of their land to their son, Dwight, who farms conventionally six miles away. They asked him whether he could farm it organically. He declined, so they like to say they decided to become "beginning farmers" -- again.
In 2006, they applied for the SARE grant for the 2007 cropping season, to make the transition from conventional to organic farming.
A central part of that plan was to make a cell grazing system out of 400 acres. The Grotberg and Lovestrand did some fencing in preparation for a "cell" or intense-grazing system. They have perimeter fencing with four-strand, high-tensile electric wire. Cross-fences are in three strands, and those will be split with one- and two-strand fences. Perimeters are fenced. Within any given field, they put in shallow trenching and water tanks so the fields can be divided by permanent and temporary fences.
They have a quarter-section that's been planted to five varieties of grasses -- fleet meadow bromegrass, Mandan pubescent wheatgrass, Teton creeping alfalfa, Cicer milkvetch and oats.
Another quarter-section will be in annual crops -- annual forages, oil crops or cereal grains. About 20 acres will remain in native prairie. They'll graze the aftermath, after combining cover crop "cocktail" mix of cowpeas, sunflower, lentils, camelina, millet, oats, soybeans (nongenetically modified), turnips and oilseed radishes.
What's oil is new again
Biofuels is a focus, and Linda vows she won't let temporary economics deter her this time.
In the 1980s, Linda was fascinated with a "Flower Power" project, coordinated between North Dakota State University in Fargo and the North Dakota State College of Science in Wahpeton.
Researchers tested a variety of fuels on different tractor engines. Fuels tested included alkali refined and winterized sunflower oil blended with diesel fuel, crude degummed sunflower oil blended with diesel fuel, high-oleic safflower oil blended with diesel fuel, methylester of sunflower oil or soybean oil.
According to abstracts from the study, blends of either 25 percent vegetable oil and 75 percent diesel fuel or 50 percent vegetable oil and 50 percent diesel fuel were used. Methylesters were not blended with diesel fuel. The manufacturers that participated in the project were John Deere, J.I. Case and Allis Chalmers.
The researchers concluded farm diesel tractors can be operated on any of the fuels that were tested. But they said care should be taken because there were signs of premature engine problems and generally couldn't recommend it at the time.
"Under conditions where emergency fuel shortages develop, these sunflower oil fuels may enable farmers to complete field work and economically maintain their operations even though engine life is reduced," they said.
At the time, Linda remembers, Charles Boehm, an implement dealer in New Salem, N.D., had imported some English presses at the time. The presses in those days handled 1 to 2 tons of seed per 24 hours.
She was excited about pressing sunflower oil as the seeds had fallen to 4 cents a pound.
"At the time, 10-cent seeds made $1-per-gallon oil and $100-per-ton meal," she recalls. "It didn't break even, so we decided, why go to all that work for a kind of break-even thing."
But then the seeds stayed at 10 cents a pound for a long time while diesel oil price increased.
Again in the late 1990s, the Grotbergs wanted to press canola to make cake or meal supplement for their hogs. But they passed up the opportunity again.
"For one thing, we needed so much meal for confinement hogs and we didn't go that route," she says.
"About every 10 years we looked at it," she says. "Two years ago, we determined that a healthy farm is one that produces everything on the farm for itself. We thought we could produce this oil using 10 percent of our acres -- about 40 acres -- where if we have to buy that oil, we have to raise 150 acres to make enough net dollars to buy the same amount of oil."
A new kind of machine
This time, they cranked up the grant-writing machine.
Linda acquired a press through Walder Manufacturing in Wittenburg, Wis., It is rated at handling 6 tons of seed per day. Walder imports the presses, takes them apart and cleans the filings out of them and then re-sells them.
"Basically, they don't get all of the sand out of the castings when they manufacture them," Lovestrand says. "You have a mill screw, pulling seeds through this chamber. If you don't have a clean press you don't have a viable screw."
Lovestrand, who worked with printing presses, says the challenges of getting oil out of seeds is somewhat analogous.
"Conditions are not always the same," he says. "You may have a hot day in the summer and that affects the amount of oil you get out," he says. "The seed has to have a certain amount of water or humidity."
About 80 people came to a June field day to see the press run and do workshops on soil health.
"The only people we didn't get here were our conventional, industrial neighbors," Linda says.
The farm has some 2007 sunflowers in the bin, ready to press. A ton of sunflower makes 80 gallons of oil and 1,200 pounds of meal. The oil has to be settled through a series of barrels and then filtered through a series of filters, and then mixed with something to thin it like unleaded gas.
The Grotbergs and Lovestrand dream of farmers spending some of their winter hours pressing oil.
"Our goal is to be able to run this press and to press for other people -- another five farmers," Lovestrand says. "We'll have a working model for an oil press business on this farm."
Linda has visions of making the farm a training center for people coming for workshops.
"People are buying presses on eBay and don't know what they're doing with them," she says. Often, the Chinese presses come with no instruction manuals or in languages buyers can't read.
Lovestrand, a philosopher and lay minister, sees the whole sustainable farming program as like a spiritual journey as much as any kind of economic experiment.
"The whole thing about farming differently is that it is like a conversion experience," Lovestrand says. "In a conversion experience, you say, spiritually, 'What am I living for?' You do a 180-degree and go the other way. That's the way I perceive we have gone."