Sustainable farming depends on sustaining farmers

By Mai Nguyen

I am writing in the aftermath of the Tubbs and Mendocino Lake Complex fires that devastated my farm community. To remain optimistic, I think of what I’m grateful for. In this context, I’m honored that the National Young Farmers Coalition invited me to share my farming experiences and reflections, and I appreciate King Arthur Flour’s support of this project. I thank you, the reader, for taking interest in the lives of young grain farmers. Andrew, Halee, and John have inspired me with their different approaches and techniques, and I wish them great success. We should all be able to enjoy responsibly-grown food while living in a cared-for environment.

But collective success requires collective action. It took community cooperation to nourish and shelter those displaced by the fire, and continued collaboration will be required for rebuilding homes and farms. We as a society must work together to address farming’s broader challenges.

The primary challenge is compensation.

Sustainable farming depends first on our ability to sustain farmers. Our country has never equitably compensated farm labor, and has too often worked actively against it. We haven’t invested in the human and environmental health conditions for safe farming and eating. Is it a wonder, then, why young people don’t remain in or take up farm work? (more…)

Why I’m not giving up, despite a harvest from hell

In the midst of what Andrew came to think of as “#hellharvest17.”

By Andrew Barsness

With this being my final blog post for this series, I thought that I might reflect on my season and share some of my thoughts about the future of both my farm and agriculture in general.

This year’s harvest season has been very difficult for most grain farmers here in Minnesota, myself included. It’s been a constant battle against the weather. My harvest has been dragging on for over a month longer than any of my previous seasons, and now it’s a race to get the crop off of the field before a major snowfall.

As I look back on this season I can pick out a number of ups and downs, which is generally how farming and life itself tends to go. The weather just didn’t want to cooperate this year. Excess rain delayed spring planting. Then when I finally finished planting, we slipped into a drought and went well over a month without any rain. Germination after planting was quite poor due to low soil moisture, and a quarter of the crop never germinated at all. Naturally, once it did rain it didn’t stop raining for weeks, creating weed control issues that persisted all season. I was also forced to replant 60 acres of wheat due to weed pressure. (more…)

My one piece of advice to aspiring farmers

Planting buckwheat and clover with my dad.

By John Wepking, Meadowlark Organics and Bickford Organics 

I’ve never had a job so rooted in place as farming, and I’ve certainly never known a career that combined proactivity with futility so beautifully. For the most part, the calendar sets us, we don’t set our calendar. We always aim to cut first crop hay on the 15th of May, but as we get closer and closer to that date, we invariably surrender our best laid plans and spend the rest of the summer doing our best to keep up with the swirling clouds and make the best decisions we can along the way. Each year has its spectacular challenges, humbling setbacks, and plenty of room for improvement.

Now that the leaves are falling and a killing frost looms, we have our eye on the next season: winter. Perhaps in a few years, winter will become more of the reflective and expectant season it is intended to be, but for the next few years, I’m sure it will be as busy as any other season. This winter we have a daunting to-do list: fencing and treeline management; weaning calves; building our grain cleaning and processing facility; developing expertise in grain cleaning and dehulling and establishing a business around it; beginning to market our flour and grain to bakeries, restaurants, distillers and brewers in the region; and creating a grain and flour CSA to reach our own rural community (shameless plug: send an email to meadowlarkorganics@gmail.com, and we’ll be sure to keep you in the loop about how to get our flour). Oh, and we’re expecting our second child in February. (more…)

Marketing my grain is a mouthful

By Mai Nguyen

My grain is a mouthful. It is  identity-preserved, non-Plant Variety Protection (PVP), incrementally upscaled heritage seed grown using rain-fed, on-site fertility, carbon sequestering, integrated pest management, nonsynthetic sprays, low fossil fuel, no-till practices and brought to market as stone milled whole grain flour. That’s a mouthful that the commodity market can’t swallow. But that’s okay because what I do isn’t only palatable to the public, it’s craved.

In my first year, I took my grain to my local farmers’ markets. My booth stood out from the pepper baskets, vegetable pyramids, and flower bouquets. People aren’t used to seeing grain at the farmers’ market. I wondered how many people would stop at my booth, and before I finished that thought I saw a tuft of curls shoulder past the casual market strollers. “I’ve been waiting for you my whole life!” she exclaimed as she reached for jars of whole grain. “The market manager posted on Facebook that you’re selling whole grains—whole grains with names and flavor. This is what I’ve wanted my whole life!” This woman, Carol, seemed increasingly excited as she perused my display of farm photos,  the hand-drawn histories of each grain, and the color-coded reusable jars.

Later, another woman came by and expressed gratitude for my endeavors. Her husband had diabetes and needed to eat whole grains, which she had difficulty finding for bread making. Driven by a search for flavor or healthy food, a group of regulars came each week to exchange jars and stories. I learned about how the Red Fife rose, they learned about the next steps in field prep, and we gained a relationship of accountability and care.

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Ready, set, harvest: fixing equipment & finding markets

By Andrew Barsness

The fate of my crop—and my profit—often comes down to the state of my equipment. As harvest approaches, farmers are busy prepping all of their harvest equipment while they still have an opportunity to do so. During harvest we’re often working hard from before sunup to after sundown, leaving little time to work on broken machinery. Due to the time-sensitive nature of harvest, downtime resulting from equipment breakdowns can be disastrous.

Every grain crop has a moisture content range in which it can be successfully harvested. Grain that’s too moist makes the harvesting process difficult or impossible; grain that’s too dry is also problematic, and reduces both yield and quality. It’s critical to get the crop off of the field and transported to a buyer or a storage facility when it’s in that Goldilocks moisture range. It also needs to be harvested before any inclement weather arrives. Every time a grain crop that’s ready to harvest gets rained on, the grain quality goes down. Multiple wetting and drying cycles can have a devastating impact on quality. (more…)

Farming is all about timing, but climate change is changing the rules

By Mai Nguyen

There was a worrying absence of metronomic clicks. I took out my voltmeter and detected only a faint current in the sheep fencing. In search of the impediment, I checked the solar panel output, connections, and electric twine that made up the portable fence. The problem lay in an entanglement of wire and brambles.

I wondered if I should corral the sheep into their pen while I fixed the problem or leave them grazing. It was already late in the day, and I needed the sheep to finish mowing the field before seeding time—before the big rain that was forecasted to arrive three weeks earlier than usual. I decided to leave the sheep to their urgent task as I worked on mine, delicately untangling the barbed twine.

I must have tugged too hard. An adjacent post fell, then another, and the one after that teased the wire’s tautness with a wavering tilt. The domino of poles provided a sufficient opening to new pasture: the neighbor’s vineyard.

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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…)