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

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.

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

Roughly two-thirds of my soybean crop was damaged by a hard frost earlier this fall. Frost-damaged soybean pods become difficult or impossible to thresh with the combine harvester, further complicating the harvesting process. When the damage is severe, the soybeans inside of the pods never fully mature, and they fail to dry down properly. As a result, the grain quality is diminished and the soybeans can become worthless. In my case, some are worthless and some are salvageable. I won’t know the full extent of the damage until I’ve finished harvesting.

I’m hoping that the recent frost damage and current harvest difficulties are the end of this year’s troubles, although there’s still time for a snowstorm or something else unfortunate to happen before I’m finished.

On a more positive note, this was my second year transitioning to organic, and I finally feel like I’ve figured out the basics of organic weed control when the weather is at least somewhat cooperative. I managed to grow a crop of relatively weed-free soybeans in a field that didn’t experience as much adverse weather as my other crops. It’s definitely a confidence booster going into next year, which will be my first year growing certified organic.

Weed-free soybeans!

When I started farming in 2011, grain prices were much better. These last few years have been difficult for most grain farmers, and some have gone out of business entirely. As profit margins shrink, farmers need to farm more acres in order to remain profitable. This fact, combined with our nation’s aging population of farmers and substantial barriers preventing young people from entering the industry, leads me to expect farmland consolidation to continue for quite some time.

On the other hand, I think it’s likely that there will be a simultaneous increase in the number of farmers looking to diversify and add value to their operations in order to remain profitable, which is the route that I’m pursuing. This strategy seems to be more prevalent with younger farmers who are more likely to try new things, and for whom adding value is often a more practical approach than rapid expansion.

The main barrier faced by the new generation of potential young farmers is access to land and capital. This is especially true for those who didn’t grow up in a farm family. Earlier this year, our local National Young Farmers Coalition (NYFC) chapter, the Central Minnesota Young Farmers Coalition (CMNYFC), successfully worked to pass a new, first-in-the-nation bill in the Minnesota State Legislature that will help young and beginning farmers gain access to agricultural land and assets. For most of us it was our first time getting political. Our success is an example of the effectiveness of young farmers advocating for young farmers. Our passion, energy, determination, and inclusiveness were central to this success, and I believe other young farmers can have the same impact in states across the country. With a new farm bill in the works, now is the time to focus and organize to ensure that young farmers are supported. The future of agriculture and our rural communities depends on it.

Taken at the end of #hellharvest17.

With all of the inherent hardships in farming, people might wonder why anyone would ever want to be a farmer. I farm because it’s the only path that I’ve ever truly been drawn to and passionate about. Farming is an occupation and a lifestyle that fits me like a glove, and I’m absolutely addicted to it. I cherish the freedom and independence that farming provides.

Most people probably don’t realize it, but farming can be a very creative process, which I find engaging and exhilarating. Every day is different. I enjoy being an entrepreneur, exploring new opportunities, and taking the road less traveled. I appreciate getting dirty and being outside in the fresh air and sunshine. I also find it very satisfying to work with my hands and watch my crops grow. I’m grateful for the opportunity to preserve and improve the land that I’m responsible for, to leave it in a better condition than I found it. Also, I’m grateful to have found what I feel is a meaningful way to contribute to society. I am proud to be following in the footsteps of my ancestors, and I hope to build something that I can pass on to any children I might have.

Going forward as a farmer, I intend to continue to strive to be as sustainable as possible while producing a quality product. I will continue to focus on diversification, value-added products, and specialty crops. After completing the organic certification of my current 160 acres, I intend to start farming and transitioning the remaining 110 tillable acres of our family farm.

I’d also like to continue to participate in efforts to advocate for young farmers. We need more of them, and it’d be great if we could make it a little less difficult for young farmers to start farming.


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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