From Pixy Dust to Permanence

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“I love to come up with great ideas and I sometimes think pixy dust is all you need to accomplish them,” Erin Yanish told me recently during a recent LSP podcast interview (episode 68). “Unfortunately, they don’t take that for the mortgage payment.”

Erin, 29, is a self-described “ideas person.” But she knows that, especially when taking on an endeavor as challenging as farming, even the best ideas aren’t enough. So almost exactly a year ago, she and her husband Joe enrolled in the Land Stewardship Project’s Farm Beginnings course to learn how to turn those fantasies into reality.

Twice a month from October to March, the Yanishes traveled to Paynesville, Minn., to participate in sessions on low-cost, sustainable methods of farming. They learned goal setting, financial planning, business plan creation, alternative marketing and innovative production techniques.

The classes were taught by established farmers and other ag professionals representing a range of enterprises: from grass-based livestock production and organic cropping to vegetables and specialty products. The Yanishes and other course participants also attended on-farm events where they saw firsthand the use of innovative management techniques.

Many of the 2008-2009 class participants were young like Joe and Erin, but there were also mid-career people looking for a change. Some had extensive farming backgrounds; others had none at all.

“My first reaction was, ‘Why would I need to take Farm Beginnings?’ ” recalled Erin, who grew up on a farm. “But it helped me focus and take things from the ideas stage to the planning stage.”

Joe, who’s 26, said the class linked them to a network of established farmers who provide advice and support on everything from business planning to pasture improvement.

“We can see how their operations are running,” he said. “We can learn from their good fortune and mistakes.”

Today, the couple’s main source of income is Joe’s farrier business and a horse drawn trolley enterprise hired out for celebrations and events. But Joe said Farm Beginnings gave them the confidence to pursue their goal of converting a 185-acre crop farm formerly owned by Erin’s late grandfather, Wilfred Schultz, into an operation that can produce food for local markets.

The Yanishes live with their 3-year-old son Gabriele in the original farmhouse on the family land, which is near the west-central Minnesota community of Litchfield. Erin’s parents, Wayne and Yvonne Johnson, live on the other side of the property, which was named Silver Leaf Farms soon after it was homesteaded by the family in the 1880s, a sign they planned on the operation being around for multiple generations.

“You can feel the life in this place some days. There’s been three deaths in this house, and I don’t know how many births,” said Erin. “Even though there are only three of us, it feels like 10 people are moving around here. The life and energy are here.”

She was telling me this as she and Joe sat around the dining room table of the farmhouse; Gabriele was on the floor playing with a car that belted out “Wild Thing” periodically. A sign above the kitchen door read, “Change your thoughts and you can change the world.”

And changes are in the works. Joe and Erin are establishing a large garden with the hopes of someday direct-marketing vegetables to consumers via the Community Supported Agriculture model and farmers’ markets. But perhaps the most significant change coming to the farm are the 150 acres of grazing paddocks the couple has planned. In recent decades the land had been devoted to intensive row-crop production, and it took its toll in the form of erosion and low organic matter.

“In my grandfather’s later years he and my mother witnessed that the soil was starting to lose its life,” Erin said. “They noticed how they could dig a patch of soil and there wouldn’t be the worms.”

Johnson vowed to Erin’s grandfather before he died that diversity would be brought back to the farm. Erin told me Farm Beginnings showed her there are ways to bring life back to a farm while being financially viable.

Joe and Erin are dedicated to bringing life to the land using perennial forages like grass and hay. They have a herd of nine bred Piedmontese cattle that they plan on using as a basis for a grass-fed beef enterprise. This breed, which originated in the Italian Alps, is known for its lean meat. Within a year they hope to have product they can sell to customers interested in grass-fed, lean beef.

Developing a consistent market for their products is an important part of the Yanish business plan. Before moving to the farm three years ago, they lived in the Twin Cities. That gave the couple a sense of what many consumers were looking for: a healthy, local product.

One day this summer Joe and Erin showed me a former cornfield that had been planted to oats, the first step toward conversion to a rotationally grazed pasture. Next to the stand of oats was an alfalfa field.

“Right here is where there used to be bad erosion,” Erin said, pointing to a ditchless slope that ran from the oats down through the alfalfa.

As they walked through the alfalfa field, a leopard frog flushed, making a few desperate leaps before Joe snatched it. He held it up to Gabriele so the boy could get a closer look at its speckled skin, stretched tight over a muscular body.

After releasing the frog, the Yanishes walked back to the farmhouse, along the way pointing out some recent plantings of fruit trees—proof the family is in it for the long haul. Also present were black walnut saplings, a species that represents an even bigger long-term investment since they can take a generation to reach maturity.

“We won’t benefit from them,” Joe said. “But Gabe will.”

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