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

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.

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.

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.

I’ve also learned things from talking to my neighbors, simple things like the necessity of tilling at a slight angle to the crop rows rather than perpendicular in order to prevent bouncing every bone in my body loose on the uneven ground.

Now that I know how little I knew when I started farming, it’s a wonder how I made it through at all. Of course that’s not to say that I haven’t made more than my fair share of rookie mistakes.

In my first year of farming I grew soybeans. The ideal moisture content for soybeans at harvest is around 13 percent or slightly higher, but I waited too long to harvest, and the moisture content had dropped to 8 percent. When the moisture content is too low, the soybean pods are prone to shattering as the harvester (which is called a combine) first comes into contact with them. Ideally the soybeans aren’t separated from the pods until after they’ve been gathered and pulled into the combine to be threshed. Premature pod shattering sends soybeans flying off in every direction. Many of these soybeans fall to the ground instead of entering the combine as intended. As a result, a significant portion of the crop is lost. Overly dry soybeans are also more brittle and prone to cracking or splitting, which can reduce the amount that a buyer is willing to pay for them. Additionally, soybeans under 13 percent moisture contain less water weight per bushel, reducing the overall poundage of grain to be sold.

Two generations of burned combines.

There were also events beyond my control that really made my first year a proper initiation into farming. Earlier in the season, the soybean crop had been damaged due to both frost and flooding. Then one night after a day of harvesting, I parked the combine near the field and shut it off for the night. As I climbed down from the cab I noticed some dust or smoke on the opposite side of the machine. Worried it was smoke, I ran around to the other side to find a smoldering pile of soybean dust and debris atop the front right combine axle. It only took me seconds to grab a fire extinguisher from the cab, but the fire had already spread out of control up the entire right side of the combine. The local fire department arrived to put out the fire, but the combine was completely destroyed. The cause of the fire is unknown.

Combine fires are fairly common, particularly when harvesting soybeans due to the extra-fine soybean dust that collects all over the combine. It could have been a bad bearing, a spark, embers created by dust landing on the exhaust manifold, or just bad luck. Some grain farmers go so far as to drag a chain along the ground attached to the rear axle of the combine, believing that it discharges static electricity and prevents sparks. My grandfather had a combine fire a few years prior, so we now have two generations of combine carcasses parked alongside one another.

Of course now I’m borderline paranoid of any odd smells or sounds when combining. Every day during harvest, I clean off the combine with compressed air, make sure all maintenance and greasing has been done, check for hot bearings, and make sure several fire extinguishers are at the ready.

Reading the manual never hurts.

My farm education didn’t stop after my first year. In fact it only intensified. Maintaining and repairing equipment is arguably what farmers spend most of their time doing. I had very little mechanical expertise, and I couldn’t afford to pay someone to repair broken equipment. It’s hard to believe, but these facts didn’t stop things from breaking. My only option was to just figure things out as I went. When something was in need of repair, I was usually able to fix it through some combination of trial and error, reading technical manuals, and consulting the internet.

I’ve spent countless hours on AgTalk, which is an online farming forum focused primarily on grain farming, with thousands of members who are currently farming or have farming experience. If you can’t find the answer you’re looking for among the hundreds of thousands of existing message threads, you can make a post of your own and instantaneously pose your question to thousands of farmers. YouTube is a great resource as well. Just last year I was researching how to replace the load control shaft and bushings on my tractor, and I found a step-by-step video detailing the entire process from beginning to end. My mechanical knowledge and expertise has grown exponentially over the years, along with my confidence to tackle increasingly complex projects.

Through completion of my bachelor’s degree, I gained valuable knowledge pertaining to all aspects of farm business management. This is especially important for me now that I’m farming on my own. I also studied subjects like agronomy, precision agriculture, mobile power systems, and practical skills like welding and working with electrical systems.

That just about covers the various ways in which I’ve learned how to farm, generally speaking. However, I’m currently transitioning my farm to organic, which requires an entirely different knowledge base.

I’ve learned a great deal about farming organically from attending organic farming conferences and workshops and field days hosted by the University of Minnesota. However, I owe the majority of my organic farming knowledge to mentors, namely farmers Carmen Fernholtz of A-Frame Farm and Joe and Matthew Fitzgerald of Fitzgerald Organics. I won’t attempt to list all of their respective accomplishments and accolades as I don’t have the room in this blog post. Suffice it to say that both family farms have been growing grains organically for decades, actively contributing to organic research and the organic community, and educating and assisting countless farmers like me along the way. Their selflessness and willingness to help is unparalleled and makes all the difference to someone like me. The ability to pick up a phone and call someone who is truly passionate about helping you succeed in moments of despair and uncertainty is almost indescribable. I can only hope that they know how much I appreciate their guidance and support. Hopefully they’ll continue to tolerate my incessant phone calls for a while longer.


About this series: The National Young Farmers Coalition and King Arthur Flour present Heart and Grain, a 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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