Heart and Grain: Meet Andrew:

By Andrew Barsness

Before the spring of 2011, the idea of becoming a farmer was completely foreign to me. Now I know that there is nothing that I would rather do for a living. I grew up in Central Minnesota, almost two hours north of my late grandparents’ 280-acre grain farm. During visits to the farm when I was young, I would occasionally help my grandfather with simple tasks that would otherwise take him a long time to do alone. This was the extent of my farming experience growing up.

My grandfather was still farming one 60-acre field when he died in June of 2010 at the age of 87. At the time, he was renting the rest of his farmland to a neighbor. Blind in one eye, partially deaf, and unsteady on his feet, he strung wire between the farm buildings to hang onto as he walked from one building to the next. I was in my first year of college when my grandfather died. I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to major in or pursue at school, but I did have the urge to try farming.

In response to my strong interest and despite my lack of any real farming knowledge or experience, my mother joined me as we decided to try farming the same 60-acre field that my grandfather was farming when he died. She assumed the official title of farmer while I took on the role of farm manager and laborer. This arrangement allowed me to gain experience without all of the financial risk of going it alone. After my first season, I was hooked. Now that I’m aware of how little I knew back then, I’m amazed that it wasn’t a complete disaster. I spent the next four years working with my mother while pursuing a degree in farm and ranch management. During this time I was able to purchase some equipment of my own. After finishing my degree, I started farming by myself, renting land from my mother and aunt.

I’m currently renting and farming 160 acres. My mother still helps out around the farm, and my father has been helping quite a bit since retiring from his job in 2013. I’m currently transitioning the land that I’m farming to organic. This will be year two of the three-year transition period required prior to being certified organic. After certifying my current 160 acres as organic, I plan to start farming and transitioning the remaining 110 tillable acres of the family farm. I don’t think that I would say that I’m against conventional or non-organic farming, but I do prefer a more natural approach. I think that all farmers should focus on sustainability, minimizing negative environmental impacts, and producing a quality product. I also think that being certified organic demonstrates and rewards dedication to those ideals and helps ensure that they are a primary focus.

Sustainability is crucial to farming successfully and responsibly. It’s critical for global food security, environmental preservation, and public health for present and future generations. On my farm I’m always striving to be as sustainable as possible. I use only organic weed, pest, and disease control methods. My crop rotations are carefully and strategically designed for sustainability. I practice conservation tillage, and I use drip irrigation to conserve water. I plant cover crops, green manure crops, and smother crops that build soil health, prevent soil erosion, control weeds, pests and disease, and conserve water. This year I’m also planting perennial native prairie grass and flowers to prevent erosion, suppress weeds, provide wildlife habitat, and attract beneficial insects and pollinators. I’m also frequently monitoring and testing things like soil fertility, plant health, and water quality to evaluate the effectiveness of my crop, soil, and water management efforts.

I grow grains primarily because that’s what my grandfather grew. His land, equipment, and farm infrastructure were all purposed for grain production. In this part of the country, grain is what farmers grow. The local agricultural infrastructure, markets, co-ops, and businesses support and revolve around producing grain. However, without additional off-farm income, a small grain farm like mine needs to produce more product volume or a more valuable product in order to be financially successful. I’ve chosen to focus on sustainability, diversification, and adding value instead of expanding rapidly. This includes exploring specialty crops and farming techniques not typically used in conventional agriculture. For example, I’m planting hops for the first time this year to sell directly to local craft breweries. Also, becoming certified organic will add value to my crops, making my operation more profitable.

I’ve suffered major crop losses, crippling crop prices, limiting finances and substantial debt. I’ve literally watched thousands of dollars go up in flames, and felt the pressure of being a young newcomer doing things that others consider strange. Hardships are inherent in farming. For me however, the freedom, variety, and entrepreneurship that farming offers make it as rewarding as it is addictive. I’m passionate about working with my hands, plants, machines, and tools. I appreciate getting dirty and being outside in the fresh air and sunshine. The connection that I feel to my land, crops, and ancestors grows stronger each year. I’ll be 27 in April, and I wouldn’t be surprised if another wire is strung between those farm buildings in 60 years.

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About this series: The National Young Farmers Coalition and King Arthur Flour present Heart and Grain,  new blog and film series profiling three pioneering young grain farmers. While all farmers face challenges, the high start-up costs associated with grain farming can make it an especially difficult field to enter for new and young farmers. Learn more about the series here.

About our series sponsor: Farmers are at the heart of baking. That’s why King Arthur Flour proudly supports the National Young Farmers Coalition and its mission of empowering the next generation of grain growers. As America’s appetite for sustainable food increases, King Arthur Flour is dedicated to helping farms grow with demand and strengthening people’s connection to real food. 

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