Next Gen­er­a­tion

Farm­ing’s fu­ture grows in a mid­west­ern soy­bean field

Farm & Ranch Living - - FRONT PAGE - By An­drew Barsness Hoff­man, Min­ne­sota PHO­TOS BY TAMMIE OL­SON PHO­TOG­RA­PHY

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.”

An­drew Barsness

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.

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