The happenstance farmer: Young MN producer in unexpected career
HOFFMAN, Minn. -- Many farmers say their career is what they always wanted, what they always planned on. Not Andrew Barsness. But the happenstance Hoffman, Minn., organic farmer is making the most of his unexpected profession, in part by advocati...
HOFFMAN, Minn. - Many farmers say their career is what they always wanted, what they always planned on.
Not Andrew Barsness. But the happenstance Hoffman, Minn., organic farmer is making the most of his unexpected profession, in part by advocating for other beginning farmers.
"Farming once seemed so foreign to me. Now I can't imagine doing anything else," he says. "Beginning farmers like me have some things we have to deal with, though."
Access to land - i.e., finding land to buy or rent - can be especially troublesome for young and beginning farmers, he says, echoing a common complaint among farmers starting out. The thinking is, established farmers often have better connections to landlords and the financial strength to pay more for land.
But a new program, one which Barsness worked to create, should help beginning farmers in Minnesota.
The program, approved this spring, gives a state income tax credit to landowners when they sell or rent land or other ag assets to beginning farmers. The credit equals 5 percent of the sale price, or 10 percent of the cash rent, or 15 percent of a cash share agreement.
As many as 400 Minnesota farmers will be helped by the program, according to some estimates.
The Central Minnesota Young Farmers Coalition, of which Barsness is a member, was an active supporter of the proposal. Barsness traveled to St. Paul a number of times to lobby state lawmakers to pass it.
"Getting access to land when you're just starting out can be so difficult. This should make it easier," Barsness says.
Grandson of farmers
Barsness grew up in Detroit Lakes, Minn., a farm and resort town in the state's lake country. His father, Dave, was a fisheries specialist with the state Department of Natural Resources, and his mother, Cheryl, was a teacher.
Cheryl was the daughter of farmers, Harry and Ellen Westberg, who lived on a farm near Hoffman, a town of 700 in central Minnesota. Andrew Barsness sometimes visited his grandparents' farm but had no intention of ever taking over the operation, which has 270 tillable acres.
But that began to change in 2010 after the death of his grandparents, who had continued to operate the farm. Barsness - undecided what to do in life - was encouraged to try farming and he agreed, starting out with 60 acres of soybeans in 2011. Beans and corn, common across Minnesota, are the dominant rotational crops in the Hoffman area.
Cheryl Barsness, who had retired from teaching, taught Andrew how to drive a tractor, fix equipment and other ag basics.
"She was such a big help," as were his grandfather's notes and neighborly advice, Andrew says.
Even so, most of what he knows about farming today came from figuring out things on his own, he says.
Andrew has blogged about his learning process at www.youngfarmers.org/2017-bloggers-heart-and-grain/andrew-barsness/.
Cheryl says she's pleased that her son is farming and respects how hard he's worked and how much he's learned.
Andrew, now 27, found that he enjoyed all aspects of farming and decided to make it a career. That led him to earn a degree in farm and ranch management from the University of Minnesota Crookston in 2015.
This is the third year that Andrew has farmed on his own. He rents the land from family members.
"It's really nice that he's there and farming. And it makes him so happy to be farming, and we're happy for him," Cheryl says.
The farm's relatively small size would make it difficult for Barsness to earn a living through conventional agriculture, so he raises organic crops, which typically fetch a higher price than conventionally grown ones. For example, organic soybeans now sell for between $20 to $30 per bushel, compared with $9 to $10 per bushel for conventional soybeans, he says.
"Organic is a lot more profitable," albeit with greater challenges in controlling weeds, among other things, he says.
Barsness is optimistic he'll finish in the black, "just barely," this crop season.
Organic also appeals to him because he prefers "the natural approach," he says.
Barsness stresses that he's not opposed to conventional crops and that "I'm hesitant to declare organic is better morally. I know there's a lot of controversy surrounding GMOs and chemicals, but I just haven't done enough research (to reach a conclusion)."
Barsness is transitioning his farm to certified organic. He began the 36-month process two years ago and expects to complete it next year, allowing him to market his 2018 crop as certified organic.
Though he's growing only soybeans this year, he plans to raise other organic crops in the future. Organic farmers use diverse crop rotations to control weeds and insects and to improve soil health.
Barsness expects to add organic small grains, which he would sell to brewing companies for use in the burgeoning craft beer industry.
He's also interested in raising and selling organic hops for use in craft beer. Hops would require a big commitment, both in money and time, however.
His future could include farming the remaining 110 acres of his family's 270-acre farm, in addition to the 160 acres he farms now. Those 110 acres currently are rented to other farmers.
More young farmers
By all accounts, the number of young farmers, though low, is growing. That reflects tough times in agriculture in the 1990s and early 2000s, which discouraged would-be young farmers then and kept farms in the hands of older operations. Now, the delayed "generational turn" is picking up, with ag producers in their 60s and 70s finally transferring their farms to young farmers.
One sign of that: The U.S. Department of Agriculture's 2012 Census of Agriculture, which provides the most reliable statistics available, found that farmers aged 25 to 34 with fewer than 10 years on the farm accounted for 17.1 percent of all principal U.S. farmers, up from 13.5 percent in 2007.
The 2017 census, conducted this summer, is expected to show a further increase.
"There are more young farmers now than there were a few years ago," Barsness says.
He offers this respectful suggestion to established farmers who will sell or downsize their operations in the next few years:
"If you're looking to sell or rent your land, it would be nice if you'd consider a young farmer," he says. He also encourages older farmers to consider partnership with young producers or serve as mentors.
There's a "natural tendency to doubt the abilities of young people who might do things a little differently or are entering a new industry," Barsness says, noting he falls into both categories.
"But give us a chance. Farming is important to us, too."
Mentors and more
All farmers and ranchers face challenges. But ag producers just starting out can encounter particularly daunting obstacles.
Finding a mentor - an experienced, established operator who provides personal advice - can help be a huge benefit for newcomers, says Andrew Barsness, a young Hoffman, Minn., farmer and advocate for other beginning farmers.
"If you can, get a mentor. It would really help," he says.
To find a mentor - and to learn more about starting out in farming and ranching in general - consider these sources:
• Beginning Farmers.org: www.beginningfarmers.org/.
• The U.S. Department of Agriculture: https://newfarmers.usda.gov/ .
• USDA's Farm Service Agency (loans for beginning farmers and ranchers): www.fsa.usda.gov/programs-and-services/farm-loan-programs/beginning-farm... .
• The Center for Rural Affairs in Lyons, Neb.: www.cfra.org/resources/beginning_farmer.
• The National Young Farmers Coalition: www.youngfarmers.org/.
• State extension services provide help at the county level or state level or both.
• Some farm membership groups and commodity groups can offer advice.