When Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan announced the awarding of the first round of Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program grants on Tuesday, it was no accident she chose the home of Eric and Lisa Klein in southeast Minnesota as the location. Their Hidden Stream Farm has deep roots in the Land Stewardship Project, and it was LSP’s Policy Program organizing that made BFRDP a reality. It is also LSP’s Farm Beginnings program that Merrigan is holding up as a national community-based model for training the next generation of farmers. Last but not least, Hidden Stream is where Lisa’s father, Everett Koenig, first began to “give a damn” about the future of family farming.
Eric and Lisa Klein were graduates of one of the first Farm Beginnings courses offered by LSP over a decade ago. When the couple had shown interest in taking over Everett and Rosemary Koenig’s farm and utilizing alternative production systems like managed rotational grazing, Everett strongly suggested they take the course.
No wonder—he was one of the original “Wabasha County Give A Damns”—this was a group of ornery farmers who had approached LSP back in the 1990s about creating a comprehensive training program for the next generation of sustainable farmers.
Koenig knows the importance of good training and networking if one is going to step out of the agricultural norm and pursue sustainable farming. In 1972, after 11 years of conventional dairy farming, he and Rosemary dropped chemicals cold turkey. In 1991 they converted much of their operation to grass and started using managed rotational grazing.
During the late 1980s, the Koenigs were one of 25 farm families who belonged to LSP’s Stewardship Farming Program. That initiative was set up to promote on-farm research and farmer-to-farmer education as it relates to alternative methods. In fact, it had more than a passing resemblance to today’s Farm Beginnings program.
“I thought by 1986 I knew how to farm without chemicals,” Everett recalls. “But then I got into the Stewardship Farming Program and found out I knew nothing. Through the program I met other farmers and exchanged ideas.”
So with that lesson in mind, in 1998 Eric and Lisa enrolled in Farm Beginnings. It proved a worthy successor to the original Stewardship Farming Program. The Kleins say they got invaluable exposure to the latest information on such techniques as managed grazing and deep straw pork production.
Just as importantly, they were able to network with farmers in the area that were using direct marketing as a way to add value to livestock, making it possible to make a living on a moderate number of acres. That was an eye-opener for Eric especially, whose main farming experience had been on the large ranch in South Dakota.
“It took me awhile to get out of the South Dakota mindset, to adjust my thinking to a smaller scale of farming,” he recalls. “The networking’s the key.”
What they learned from this networking was that the Koenig farm is in a prime location when it comes to direct marketing. It lies within a 30-minute drive of Rochester, and is less than two hours from the Twin Cities. After taking Farm Beginnings, the couple began ramping up the farm’s direct marketing enterprise. The hog marketing business had started years before when a pork lover was driving by the farm and, seeing pigs on pasture, offered to buy one. The chicken operation began with a modest 200 birds.
The Kleins now operate a livestock operation that uses well-managed pastures and deep-straw hoop house systems to raise pork, chickens and beef that are marketed in southeast Minnesota and the Twin Cities. This year they’ll end up selling some 2,500 chickens, around 100 head of cattle and 1,000 pigs straight off the farm. Their 180-acre operation supports Eric and Lisa, who are 41 and 42 respectively, as well as their five children—Andy 10, Ben 8, Katy 6, Sarah 3, and Isaac 1.
“We can’t keep up with the demand for our products,” Lisa told me the other day. “I think more of our niche is that we show that we care for the land, we care for the animals and that in turn has created a good product. We’re not quite sure what we’re doing, but there must be something in there that’s right.”
And Eric and Lisa are carrying on the “Give A Damn” legacy by helping launch more farming enterprises like their own. They have served as Farm Beginnings mentors and presenters; Eric currently serves on the Farm Beginnings steering committee.
It’s because of successful mentors/leaders like the Kleins that Farm Beginnings has become so successful: hundreds of graduates are now on the land throughout the Midwest, and Farm Beginnings-licensed classes are now offered by various groups in six states, including Minnesota.
Lisa told me they have a simple message for the beginning farmers they mentor: “You can do this and make a living.”
During the BFRDP ceremony Tuesday, Deputy Secretary Merrigan lauded that “Give A Damn” attitude.
“The Kleins got their start with their very wise parents sitting around the kitchen table with local community leaders wondering where that next generation was going to come from,” Merrigan said.
Wise indeed. One way to affect the future is to create it.