Make hay while the sun shines (and market grain while the toddler sleeps)

By Halee Wepking, Meadowlark Organics and Bickford Organics 

Hello! Halee Wepking here, trying to do what I can to help out my husband, John, who is currently turning over windrows of hay that was rained on yesterday in hopes that the predicted storm will miss us tonight and they can bale dry hay tomorrow. As they say, make hay when the sun shines, and get to work when your toddler’s napping!

I don’t spend much time on a tractor these days, but I have been spending most of our son’s naps working on our packaging copy, marketing plan, and coordinating a few wholesale orders for a local grocery store, catering company, and independent bakers who use our flour. Though we’re just a few years into growing small grains, we have made many valuable connections with bakers, larger retail stores, distilleries, and grain buyers. (more…)

An Ever-Changing Puzzle

By Andrew Barsness

The crops are thirsty. My farm is on the outer edge of the area affected by the severe drought in the Dakotas, and it’s been over a month without any significant rain. Standing in my fields, I’ve watched as rain fell just a few miles to the north or south, tantalizingly close yet so far away. Despite prudent planning, passion, and working from before sunup till after sundown, farmers are ultimately at the mercy of Mother Nature.

Ironically, rain was in abundance early this spring. So much so that I had to delay planting soybeans from late May to mid-June due to wet conditions, among other things. I did manage to plant one 60-acre field of wheat in early May, which benefited from the early rain. In the past, this particular field has been very problematic in terms of weed pressure. Unfortunately, several weeks after planting it became clear that the weeds would take over the field, and nothing could be done about it. I decided to terminate the wheat crop and replant the field with soybeans instead. This set me back a bit in added costs and a later planting date, which reduces yield, but it was a necessary evil. The ground was dry at the time, and it hasn’t rained since. As a result, germination has been poor, and it’s questionable as to whether or not that field will be successful. Then, of course—to add insult to injury—after I terminated the wheat and planted soybeans, the market price for wheat went up by about 60 percent. That’s farming for you. (more…)

Organic farming is freedom

Halee and Henry posing on the Oliver.

By John Wepking, Meadowlark Organics and Bickford Organics 

This spring has been marked by extremes: long periods of frequent rain and then weeks without a drop. Our soils have plenty of room for improvement, but I am grateful to be farming ground that is relatively balanced and has a decent level of organic matter, which allows our soils to receive moisture during heavy rains and hold that water during droughts. Without cover cropping and crop rotation we’d certainly be losing this battle.

For me, organic farming is freedom: freedom to choose the way we farm. In a conventional system, nearly everything is prescribed for you: when and what to plant, when to spray, what to spray, where to sell your grain, how much your grain is worth. You may decide to use cover crops or no-till equipment, but beyond that, conventional grain farming is relatively devoid of choice and full of expenses that we in the organic world do not rely on to the same degree. In order to succeed, we need to listen to the world around us. Nature has no shareholders, needs no profits. Given the choice of listening to nature or listening to the businesses that exist, fundamentally, to make ever-increasing profits off of farmers, I’ll listen to nature every time. (more…)

The one thing my farm training never covered: racism

Mai speaking on a leadership panel at the 2016 NYFC Leadership Convergence.

By Mai Nguyen

When I started farming grains and vegetables in California in 2014, I already had a lot of the knowledge, skills, and experience essential to farming. When I was a child, my grandmother taught me to how grow plants and save seed. In college, I studied geography, focusing on atmospheric physics and later on soil science, which enabled me to assess landscapes and their hydrology and microclimates. After college, I created a restaurant that sourced from local farms, which gave me business skills I could apply to my farm.

But this wasn’t nearly enough. I attended every farm conference, intensive, forum, panel, workshop, and field day I could. I sought apprenticeships and internships. I learned from other farmers how to scale up and efficiently cultivate and harvest. Through study and practice, I learned how to take on the immensely complex task of farming.

But no farm conference, internship, or book prepared me for the challenges of farming as a person of color.

I don’t want to be labeled the farm blogger who only talks about race, but it’s something I can’t ignore. Race permeates my life. It is something I live with and through, that we all live with and through, even as farmers. Racism isn’t unique to cities; in the country—in the bucolic landscapes in which we farm—it is also a problem, one that hinders a large segment of young farmers and keeps others from farming altogether. (more…)

Heart and Grain: Learning to farm from my mom and YouTube

Andrew’s father helps him with a repair. It was actually Andrew’s mother who taught him how to drive a tractor and care for his farm. Meet Andrew’s parents in the video at the end of this post.

By Andrew Barsness

When I started farming in 2011, I had no idea what I was doing or what I was in for. Consequently, my naiveté spared me the appropriate terror and trepidation that may have deterred a well-informed individual from such an endeavor.

I didn’t grow up on a farm or in a farming community. Despite regular visits to my grandparents’ 280-acre grain farm, I never really participated in the actual farming operations. Sometimes I would help my grandfather with simple tasks that he found difficult or time-consuming at his age, but that was the extent of my involvement. Luckily, there are several people who have helped me find my way as a new farmer.

After the passing of my grandparents, my mom and I started farming the same 60-acre field that my grandfather was still farming when he died. My mom was relatively familiar with the way that my grandfather had done things on the farm. She knew whom to speak with at the local co-op to purchase crop inputs, and who to speak to at the bank to get an operating loan, and how to go about securing crop insurance. She also had a sense of which pieces of equipment to use for different tasks, and she taught me how to drive my grandfather’s tractor. I would have been lost without her guidance. My mom even drove the old Chevy C50 grain truck back and forth from the field to the grain elevator in town during harvest.

My mom also showed me the notes that my grandfather wrote every year. He recorded critical details like planting dates, how to set the grain drill for the desired seeding rate and depth, and the proper tractor gears and engine RPMs for different field operations. My grandfather died before I took an interest in farming, but I think he’d be happy to know that he was able to provide me with guidance as I literally follow in his footsteps. (more…)

Heart and Grain: When oak leaves are the size of squirrels’ ears

 

By John Wepking, Meadowlark Organics and Bickford Organics 

Last year, after we harvested our wheat, we planted a diverse cover crop mix designed for forage and biomass production. It was a rainy summer, and we were getting close to the date when seeding this mix wouldn’t be as effective since the days were getting shorter. I was on my last field, after just refilling the grain drill with seed, and as I passed through a grass waterway, my right grain drill tire (a very specialized tire, of course!) was completely punctured by a 20-year-old hay rake that was lying hidden in the grass. Rains were imminent, and I was stuck. Walking back to the farm would have taken me 30 minutes. I called Paul, who was working in the shop. (more…)

Heart and Grain: Farmers are matchmakers between land and seed

By Mai Nguyen

I keep searching for ground to grow on. Literally. I drive up and down California looking for a place to plant my grain, hoping to someday find a long-term lease or even purchase land. This past February, two farmers in Sonoma County offered to let me farm their fallow land, one six-acre plot and one three-acre plot. While I was excited for the opportunity, I was limited by my seed supply.

The seeds I need aren’t readily available. I grow heritage wheat and barley—Sonora, Spanish Spelt, Ethiopian Blue Tinge Emmer, and Wit Wolkering. These varieties have done well for thousands of years in regions with conditions similar to where I farm, but they aren’t available through commercial seed companies. (more…)

Heart and Grain: Big farms require big equipment. And lots of money.

By Andrew Barsness

Along with blood, sweat, and tears, farming requires a significant financial investment, and grain farming is one of the most capital-intensive types of farming. To support a small family, a grain farmer typically needs hundreds of acres of land, tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in machinery and infrastructure, and an equally large amount of cash to cover annual costs like seed, fertilizer, fuel, and repairs. It is common for family grain farms to span more than 1,000 acres. Even at this seemingly large scale, most grain farmers need an additional, off-farm source of income just to make ends meet.

I’ve noticed that people unfamiliar with grain farming sometimes perceive these larger-scale farms as corporate or “factory farm” operations. However, when it comes to grain farming, that simply isn’t the case.

I have two neighbors, a father and son, who farm roughly 2,000 acres together. They don’t have any employees—it’s just the two of them. Their farm supports the father, the son, and his family. Yes, 2,000 acres is a substantial amount of land, but it’s the scale at which most grain farmers have to operate in order to make a living thanks to small profit margins. (more…)

Heart and Grain: A not-so-restful winter

By John Wepking, Meadowlark Organics and Bickford Organics 

As anyone who has had a garden can attest, buying seed is one of the most exciting activities of the farming year. Seed-buying is always full of hope and promise—nothing has had the opportunity to go wrong… yet. But this winter was so busy, seed buying really got away from us.  (more…)

Heart and Grain: Meet John and Halee

By John Wepking, Meadowlark Organics and Bickford Organics 

In late January, a surprise calf was born on our farm. Out of context, this may seem like a happy accident, even a bonus. However, it was still mid-winter in Wisconsin, and we were unprepared. Calving is a regular event in a beef herd, and we had been looking forward to our first calving, but we weren’t expecting any births until late April, when the weather would be warmer and the cows would all be on good green grass. (more…)