Breaking the Barnyard Silence

Posted by .

During the past 14 years or so, graduates of LSP’s Farm Beginnings program have shown there are countless ways of making a successful go of it on the land. That’s one reason the program was recognized last month as a national model for getting farming careers launched. Is there one single magic bullet for making the farm life click financially and environmentally? Of course not. But throughout the history of Farm Beginnings, one common anchor element has  been emphasized above all else: good communication.

That point was reinforced for me recently while spending time on a dairy operation in west central Minnesota. Communication on a dairy farm is never easy—with weather, markets and other fickle factors setting the tempo, there’s often little room for lengthy discussions on strategy, methods or future plans beyond the next chore time.

Add into the mix that many farmers choose the profession specifically because they like the independence and self-sufficiency that comes with making decisions on their own, and the silence on the Back 40 can be downright deafening. And when you’re someone like Adrian Murtha, who is naturally shy about voicing concerns anyway, lack of communication can be a real barrier to making a go of it on a dairy operation owned by one’s in-laws.

“I don’t like communicating, because I’m afraid it will sound like complaining,” Murtha, 31, told me. “But you have to communicate, otherwise you are walking around the farm looking at each other saying, ‘What’s wrong with him? I know something’s wrong.’ “

The ‘him’ in this case is Hans Kroll, Murtha’s farther-in-law. In 2003, Murtha married Leah, Hans and Lynn’s daughter. In 2005, Adrian joined the Krolls’ certified organic dairy operation near the community of Long Prairie as an employee.

Murtha, who grew up farming, found working the land a nice change of pace from his previous job as a welder for a billboard company. But it became clear a little over a year ago that working hard on the land couldn’t completely replace planning and communication. The organic dairy market had hit a bit of a slump and the Murthas were trying to figure out if their agricultural future lay on the Kroll farm or somewhere else.

“I said, we need to talk,” Adrian recalls saying to Hans one hot summer day while they were chopping haylage. “That’s when Hans suggested Farm Beginnings.”

So twice a month during the fall and winter of 2009-2010 the Murthas attended Farm Beginnings classes in the Minnesota community of Saint Joseph. The Murthas say what they found particularly helpful about Farm Beginnings was the business planning segment. They also enrolled in the Minnesota Farm Business Management Association program, an initiative that helps farmers with basic financial management.

“We know the lifestyle and how much work it’s going to be,” Leah told me. “But we needed help with the business planning part of it, getting things on paper.”

But Farm Beginnings wasn’t all numbers and bookkeeping. The Murthas also learned a little more about what type of lifestyle they would prefer on the land. Through their interactions with other Farm Beginnings participants as well as class presenters, the young couple saw that one doesn’t necessarily have to get big and take on huge amounts of debt in order to make it farming.

The couple wanted to stay small, but knew that came with a catch if they were to be financially secure. They found by crunching the numbers that with 30 cows organically one can make it. “Thirty cows conventionally—no way,” says Adrian.

The Krolls came to a similar conclusion several years ago. Hans’ great-great grandfather settled the original farm, which is 240 acres (they also own an additional 145 acres nearby). Hans came back to the operation in 1976, and in 1988 he and Lynn bought it on contract for deed from Hans’ parents (his father John, 83, still lives on the farm).

Long Prairie is in the heart of Minnesota’s dairy belt, and many farms have expanded significantly over the years in an attempt to remain viable as margins become increasingly tight. Expansion with no end in sight didn’t appeal to the Krolls. The farm has been certified organic since 2003.

“Organics was kind of an economic decision really,” Hans told me. “I wanted to farm in a way that the farm would pay for itself. It was kind of a spiritual decision too. I had been pushing the cows. I was walking across the yard one day and I thought to myself, ‘What am I pushing for?’ “

The organic price premium the Krolls receive helps them make a viable living with their small, 36-cow herd. They’ve also kept expenses down by relying on low-cost production techniques like managed rotational grazing. In addition, they recently built a swing-six milking parlor for $16,500 utilizing a local welder and some of their own labor. Not only was the parlor relatively cheap to build, but it also added efficiencies to the operation—it takes about 45 minutes for Hans and Adrian to milk the cows.

But when the organic market hit a plateau last year, the Krolls wondered if the farm could support two families long into the future—or at least long enough to allow them to retire and have their daughter and son-in-law take over. That day may be some time off: Hans and Lynn are only in their mid-50s and show no signs of slowing down.

“It will be a few years before I’m ready to retire and so if something comes up that looks better, sooner, then they might want to pursue it,” says Hans.

“Mom and dad didn’t want us to feel tied to the farm if other opportunities came up,” says Leah, 29.

Hans, who had presented on a Farm Beginnings panel and hosted a Farm Beginnings field day on low-cost dairy parlors, had been impressed with the course’s ability to get wannabe farmers thinking about different options on the land—even options that might not include organic dairy farming.

But for now, Leah and Adrian see their opportunities on the home farm. After taking the Farm Beginnings class, they decided they were in no hurry to strike out on their own, especially if it entailed taking on large amounts of debt. The couple is currently living in Long Prairie in a house they are remodeling, and a typical day consists of the whole Murtha family loading up the van and “commuting” to the farm. “We are kind of comfortable where we are at,” says Adrian.

One tentative option is that the Murthas will take over the dairy herd in stages. The farm is in the middle of a four-year contract with Horizon, the organic dairy firm, providing some financial stability for the immediate future.

As the young couple takes on more responsibility for the dairy operation, the Krolls may focus increasingly on an enterprise that’s grown significantly in recent years: maple syruping. They produce 400 to 500 gallons of syrup annually from the extensive stands of maple trees that grow amongst their pastures and fields, and can’t keep up with demand, which comes mostly from bulk return customers. They’ve recently purchased a reverse osmosis machine to take water out of the syrup so they can cook more sap in a shorter time.

“It’s three weeks of intense work but it definitely makes money for the time put in,” says Lynn of syruping.

“If the maple syruping income was more, I’d feel comfortable transitioning out of the dairy side,” says Hans.

They also have an extensive garden, and are considering marketing some organic garlic. In the meantime, both families are working on that communication thing.

“It is tough being a hired hand and a family member,” Adrian says while sitting at the kitchen table with me, the Krolls and Leah on a recent rainy day. The animated sounds of children being home schooled could be heard in an adjoining room—the Krolls have seven children, ages 11-31, and the Murthas have four kids, ages seven months to six years. As they talk, the Murthas’ two youngest take turns sitting on their parents’ and grandparents’ laps.

It’s clear that the family has become more comfortable with open discussions and the airing of grievances, and efforts are made to make sure everyone is heard. These discussions are fueled by directness, with a good dose of self-depreciating humor thrown in.

“Sometimes you have to have a sit-down-say-what-you-have-to-say kind of meeting,” says Hans. “It was lack of communication that made me want to get out of the partnership with my dad. I’m not a very good manager. There are days I might change my mind three times, which might be frustrating to work with.”

At this, Adrian laughs and nods his head: “Yeah, it’s like you feel lucky to get through the day without his mind changing.”

The two families have taken concrete, day-to-day steps to make it easier for Adrian to be an employee and a family member. One of the sticking points before was that the young farmer had no structured time off, and Hans concedes that when that problem was first brought up, his reaction was, “I had to work every day when I was with my dad, so why shouldn’t he?” But that was then, this is now. Adrian now gets every-other-weekend off from milking chores.

The two families have also had to deal with the fact that an important part of what makes farming fun is trying out new ideas.

“Ther’s a lot of things I’d like to try, but I can’t because Hans is still trying things,” says Adrian.

However, they’ve found ways to give newer ideas a trial run. For example, Adrian recently observed other organic dairy producers housing cows outside during the winter on a bedding pack, rather than inside a barn. The cows seemed healthier and it was another way to lower housing costs. He broached the idea on the Kroll farm and they tried it—albeit with some trepidation.

“It was interesting to watch he and his dad’s reaction when we pushed the cows out of the barn and onto the bedding pack,” recalls Adrian of Hans’ and John’s acceptance of the new idea. “As it started snowing, they got more and more nervous.”

But the experiment was a success—the cows are healthier and less stressed out and the farmers have since erected a low-cost hoop house over the bedding back to provide more shelter.

As the Krolls and Murthas wrap up their rainy day roundtable discussion and prepare to head outside, Lynn brings up a question that will no doubt be bandied about for some time to come: “One thing is when you buy the farm, what about labor?”

The young couple discusses the possibility of hiring neighbors or others in the neighborhood. Finally, with a twinkle in her eye, Leah looks at her parents and brings up another option: “Maybe we’ll hire you guys.”

Comments are closed.