Farming’s future grows in a midwestern soybean field
I’m Andrew Barsness, an organic grain farmer in Minnesota. My grandparents were farmers; I was a college freshman when they died in 2010. With the future of the family farm in question, I decided to try my hand at farming. Lacking an ag background, I learned how to farm through a mishmash of resources: online farm forums, equipment manuals, my grandfather’s notes, YouTube, neighborly advice, my mom, lots of trial and error—and, eventually, a degree in agricultural systems management with a focus in farm and ranch management from the University of Minnesota.
I farm 156 of the farm’s 270 tillable acres, renting the land from my mom and aunt. I started transitioning this part of the farm to organic in 2016; it will be officially certified this year. As I write, I’m growing soybeans only, although I’ve grown other grains, including corn and wheat.
I’ve found farming to be a lifestyle and an occupation that fits me like
a glove. I cherish the freedom and independence it provides and the creativity and entrepreneurship it demands. And I often think of my grandfather. Reminders of him are all over the farm, from parts he hung on shed walls to tools and equipment I use on a daily basis. This makes me feel connected to him as a grandson and as a fellow farmer. I am proud to be following in his footsteps.
MONDAY I spent most of the day scouting my soybean fields. The plants have established a pretty good canopy to help shade out new weed growth, and the pods are getting bigger and starting to fill with beans.
Earlier in the year I experienced a substantial infestation of soybean aphids. Fortunately, and to my surprise, recent heavy rains seem to have reduced aphid numbers to the point where they’re no longer a major concern. There aren’t many cost-effective options for dealing with pests or diseases in an organic system, so crop rotation and variety selection are extremely important.
TUESDAY Today I cultivated 60 acres of soybeans. Of my three fields, this is definitely the best. In my opinion, weed control is the biggest challenge of growing organic grain crops. I’m proud to have produced a relatively weed-free field of soybeans without using any herbicides. I refer to that field as my “proof of concept field,” in response to the doubters and critics who don’t believe organic farming is a viable method of grain production. It also helps quell some of the self-doubt that inevitably creeps in from time to time.
My loan officer from the USDA Farm Service Agency came out to see how things were going. We looked at all of my equipment and crops. While walking through the proof of concept field, he mentioned that my crop looks “better than a lot of the conventional (non-organic) fields” he’s seen. It was a definite morale booster.
WEDNESDAY I finished getting the old John Deere 6620 combine prepped and ready for harvest. I also changed and checked the fluids and filters on the combine, made sure the settings were right for harvesting soybeans, and blew off any grain dust or chaff that I missed last fall. Keeping the combine maintained and clean is essential for preventing fires, which are surprisingly common during harvest. Soybean dust is notoriously prone to catching fire. The dry, incredibly fine dust accumulates on the combine and can ignite as a result of heat from the engine and exhaust, bad bearings, or the sparks from static or exposed wires.
During my first year of farming, my combine was destroyed by fire. When I woke up the next morning, my neighbors were out in the field harvesting the remainder of my crop unannounced—an act of kindness I’ll never forget. My grandfather had a combine fire not too many years prior, so we have two generations of burned combines sitting next to each other in the grove.
THURSDAY Today I spent time planning for the future. Within the next several years I’ll likely need to invest in some newer equipment and additional grain storage. Adequate grain storage is particularly important for organic farmers. Conventional farmers usually have a grain buyer close enough to allow convenient
shipping from the field directly to the buyer at any time. They can harvest the grain, load it onto a truck and drive it to town on the same day. But organic grain buyers are few and far between. As a result, organic farmers often have to sell grain to a buyer much farther away or in an entirely different state, which often necessitates storing it all on the farm in the meantime.
An example: During my transition to organic, I sold the majority of my grain to the local grain elevator at the lower conventional grain prices. But last year I was able to forwardcontract a portion of my wheat crop to an out-of-state buyer who was offering a premium for transitional organic wheat. And so I had to store the wheat in a grain bin for several months before shipping it.
FRIDAY After scouting the fields again, I determined that 60 acres are looking great, 40 acres are in good condition, 30 acres are decent and another 30 are very poor. We had a bad drought in early spring followed by rain that didn’t stop for a month. A few days ago there was a hazardous weather warning in effect predicting large hail, 75 mph winds, tornadoes and flash flooding. If any of that had actually materialized, my crops would have been done for. Right now I’m hoping for warmer weather so my soybeans can reach full maturity before we get a hard frost. As a farmer, I’ve learned to accept that there’s a lot out of my control. Even if you do everything right, things will inevitably go wrong. You just have to plan and prepare for every possible outcome and hope for the best.
EPILOGUE On Oct. 10, we did get a hard frost, which damaged roughly two-thirds of the crop. Subsequent rain and snow made the bean pods damp and tough to thresh with a combine harvester. Frost-damaged soybeans further complicated the process. I finally finished harvesting soybeans in early December. The yields ended up being quite poor because of the weather. However, I’ve gained some confidence in knowing I can succeed at organic weed control when the weather is at least somewhat cooperative.
With all 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 I’ve ever truly been passionate about. I appreciate getting dirty, and I like being outside in the fresh air, working with my hands and seeing my crops grow. I’m grateful for the opportunity to preserve and improve the land I’m responsible for, and I hope to build something I can pass along to any children I may have someday.
Thanks so much for following my journey. You can continue to do so on Instagram, @andrewobarsness.
“In Minnesota, only 4 percent of principal farm operators are younger than 35. I’m 28, and young farmers like me face barriers—specifically to land access, affordability and funding for loan programs. I work with the National Young Farmers Coalition and my local chapter, the Central Minnesota YFC, to make farming more accessible. We recently helped pass a first-in-the-nation law to help young farmers enter the industry. I plan to continue advocating—sharing the struggles, passions and stories that other young farmers and I share, and bridging the gap between food producers and consumers.”
From left, Andrew Barsness (with his father, Dave) positions an auger for transferring grain into a bin; harvests soybeans with a combine; and prepares to move them along in the grain truck.