Farm Beginnings vs. the Cover Curse

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The registration deadlne for the 2007-2008 edition of the Land Stewardship Project’s Farm Beginnings program is Thursday, Aug. 30. Classes will be held in La Crosse, Wis., and Marshall, Minn. This is the 10th anniversary of Farm Beginnings, which provides students training in setting up economically and environmentally sustainable farming operations. The decade mark is a prime opportunity to look back at what’s happened to some of those 300 people that have passed through the course since its humble beginnings in 1997. But taking a trip down memory lane is not for the weak of heart. I learned that while working for a farm magazine almost 20 years ago. Once, at a staff meeting, I brought up the bright idea of launching a “Whatever happened to?” department. The point would be to update readers on someone we had featured in a cover story years before. How did that new technology they had adopted eventually work out? Did their innovative marketing system weather the long-term twists and turns of the economy? What new ideas were they trying out these days? “No way,” said my boss, a former Wall Street Journal reporter who at that time had yet to realize I was the worse hire she had ever made. “Haven’t you ever heard of the cover curse?”

The curse went something like this: within five years of appearing on the cover of our magazine, the chances that your farm was still thriving—or was even a going enterprise for that matter—were pretty slim. I looked at the informal stats, and sure enough, Harry Potter isn’t the only one vexed by curses. (Sorry, had to sneak that reference in to justify standing in a bookstore line until midnight while my son and daughter filled me in on EVERY. LAST. DETAIL. of Potter books 1-6.)

Marriages have the 7-year itch; farm magazines the 5-year ditch. Given our reputation for putting farms under, it was a wonder rural bankers weren’t filing away all of our issues so they could refer to them when a farmer came in asking for a loan. “Let’s see, everything’s seems in order, Mr. Smith… ooops, I see you appeared on the cover of this magazine three years ago. Get out of my office, and close your checking account with us while you’re at it.”

Of course, we weren’t the only ag journal that carried such a stigmata. Looking back now, I realize that any publication which purported to pass onto farmers the secrets to success via articles on how to mine the soil by raising more, more, more corn and soybeans was doomed to failure. We were eating our own by putting subscribers out of business. If it wasn’t for the fact that many farm magazines rely more on agrichemical ads than subscription fees, most all of them would be out of business by now. Some have stayed in business by recognizing that a more sustainable approach to farming is not a cute marketing niche, it’s an economic and environmental necessity. But others are still nothing more than glorified ag input catalogs. It’s no accident they are running out of farmers to write about at the same time that they are running out of farmers to mail magazines to.

So it’s with some trepidation that I track down some of the original grads of Farm Beginnings, particularly ones that had shown a lot of promise early on, and who had received a fair amount of publicity. Roger and Michelle Benrud would probably qualify as a Farm Beginnings cover couple. They were in the first Farm Beginnings class in 1997, and attracted the attention of the local media almost immediately because of their background: they both had grown up on farms, but after high school had attended Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. Michelle got a degree in management information systems and accounting; Roger’s degree was in physics and mathematical statistics. Real slackers.

Then, to the chagrin of their family and friends, they decided to return to southeast Minnesota and go into farming. These are two brains that reversed the drain. And even though they had farming experience under their belts, the Benruds enrolled in a then-untested beginning farmer course called Farm Beginnings. They graduated, and began dairy farming. It’s a great counter-intuitive story: college-educated young people return to rural area to farm. Unfortunately, it’s counter-intuitive because the conventional wisdom, even in rural areas, is that people go into farming when there are no other options, when you don’t have the education or drive to do anything else. Spend any time with a famer and you’ll see what a lie such thinking is, but pop culture, corporate agriculture and even our land grant college system has done a good job of nurturing this myth. As a result, when someone with a college degree goes into farming, it’s still big news. Heck, it’s big news to the media when it finds a farmer who ain’t riding a mule to the outhouse while smoking a corncob pipe and swatting flies with a rolled up copy of The Old Farmer’s Almanac.

The Land Stewardship Project sent press releases out about the Benruds. We even have them featured on the front page of our website with their infant daughter Emily (she is now 7 and has a brother Calvin who is 2; it’s about time we updated that photo).

All great stuff, but after the publicity dies down and the excitement of starting a new business subsides, you are faced with the daily reality of running a farm: milking twice a day, building fence and balancing the books, not to mention struggling with markets, weather and the limits of your own physical stamina. Press clippings don’t get up in the middle of the night to help with calving.

So a decade down the road, where are the Benruds? Well, I visited their farm recently, and so far the cover curse has not left its mark. In fact, as Ear to the Ground podcast 33 makes clear, I’d say they are hitting their stride.

When they launched their farming enterprise near Goodhue, Roger and Michelle had a five-year plan: have the dairy operation support both of them financially without the help of off-farm income. A few years ago, Michelle quit her job at IBM in Rochester, two months shy of that five-year deadline.

Having a farm support an entire family in this day and age is increasingly rare. And the couple’s business isn’t just surviving, it’s thriving. The Benruds, who are in their mid-30s, were named Goodhue County Farm Family of the Year in 2006, and the butter that’s made from their milk has won national awards and gained accolades from prominent chefs. At a time when the conventional wisdom is that young people cannot get started in farming, the Benruds have defied the odds.

“In the six miles between here and Goodue there are three less dairy farms than there were when we started,” Michelle told me after the morning milking earlier this summer. “We kind of started from scratch, which is rare these days, and I hope more people can do that in the future.”

The Benruds feel one of the key reasons they have been able to start from scratch is because of the Farm Beginnings program, which provides firsthand training in low-cost, sustainable methods of farming. Through Farm Beginnings, the Benruds learned business planning, goal setting and marketing methods that help farmers capture the most value for their production. Perhaps most importantly, through the class they were introduced to farmers who were already running profitable operations of their own in southeast Minnesota.

“It’s different than a university where it’s theoretical,” says Michelle. “Farm Beginnings is being taught by people who actually do it.”

From these farmers, the couple learned that in agriculture there are alternatives to raising thousands of acres of corn and soybeans, or investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in a large-scale livestock operation.

“Through Farm Beginnings we began looking at ways we could run 260 acres and make a fulltime living for both of us,” recalls Michelle. “We looked at everything from direct marketing beef and poultry to grapes.”

They eventually settled on grass-based dairying. Crunching the numbers, the Benruds found that milk produced the most consistent source of income for their situation. Grass-based dairying fit because it allowed the couple to get started without investing heavily in housing, manure handling facilities and cropping equipment.

Today, the Benruds milk around 100 cows on a 260-acre farm they rent from Roger’s parents. Milk cows had not been on the farm since the 1940s, so getting it ready for dairying required some infrastructure preparation such as building good fence and converting the barn into a milking parlor. But grazing has allowed the Benruds to keep their input costs relatively low. The genesis of the Benrud herd was an interest-free Heifer International livestock loan they qualified for as Farm Beginnings graduates. Those first 15 heifers provided by the loan primed the pump and led to other creditors taking them seriously.

“That was very important to help us get started because once you’ve got those animals you can finance other animals,” says Roger. “Once you’ve got a milk check people are willing to talk to you about a loan.”

Their certified organic milk is sold to a cooperative consisting of seven southeast Minnesota farms that market grass-based butter and cheese under the PastureLand label. Marketing their milk this way means the Benruds receive a premium price from health-conscious consumers who also appreciate the environmental benefits of pasture-based dairying.

“We knew our milk should be worth something more, but we didn’t want to leave the farm constantly to do direct marketing to consumers,” said Roger. “That’s why marketing through this cooperative has been a good fit for us.”

The Benruds aren’t the only Farm Beginnings graduates farming these days. Surveys show that 60 percent of the more than 300 people who have been through the Minnesota program are established on farms. I’ve interviewed several of those graduates in recent years, and they are involved in a wide array of enterprises, from wholesale vegetable production and CSA farming, to speciality grains, natural meats, even cut flowers. The common thread that connects these grads seems to be that they all have a great appreciation for how to set goals and develop strategies for reaching those goals. Just as importantly, they know how to pasuse midstride and monitor whether they are still on track. Being able to adjust and even modify goals along the way is one of the most important keys to keeping a business sustainable long into the future. It’s no accident goal setting is a critical component of Farm Beginnings. I know a few farm magazine cover subjects who could have learned a thing or two about how to determine if that new tractor is still a means toward reaching a goal, or whether it has taken over and become the goal in itself.

Farm Beginnings, which began in Minnesota’s Wabasha County, has since been extended to central Illinois, northern Illinois and Nebraska. Beginning this fall, Farm Beginnings classes will be held in North Dakota as part of a special “Organics 101” program.

As the Benruds assess their own operation and look to the future, they find themselves revisiting the goals they set for themselves 10 years ago while taking the Farm Beginnings class. Those goals include making sure their farming methods are good for the soil and the environment in general and eventually hiring someone to help with milking so they can get away from the farm more. One overall goal is to make sure their children can be safely involved in the operation. Besides the low-cost, environmentally-sound nature of grazing, this method of producing milk drew the Benruds because it could allow the children to help with chores. Their daughter, Emily, already helps get the cows for the milkings and has become a bit of an outspoken expert on grazing rates.

“She said the other day, ‘We should really graze this a little shorter Mom—you’re giving them too much feed,’ ” Michelle says with a laugh.

“It’s amazing how she knows what’s going on with the day-to-day operation,” adds Roger.

They’ve also taken tentative steps toward another long-term goal: mentoring yet another generation of farmers. For the past several months a couple that recently graduated from Farm Beginnings has been coming to the Benrud farm periodically to learn the basics of grass-based dairying.

Says Michelle, “We’re starting to do the kind of giving back that we had always wanted to do.”

Of course, not every day is a bucolic paradise on the Benrud farm. The odds are still stacked against them attaining long-term success. But when one feels confident enough to invite other beginning farmers onto your land to learn the ropes, it’s a good sign your operation is not a paper tiger. Cover curse deflecto.

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