Xtreme Farming

Posted by .

The dog days of summer are in full cry, nipping at the sweaty heels of a crabby populance. It’s good to remember at times like this that the Upper Midwest doesn’t always resemble a sauna at the New Orleans Y. Like last January, when I visited a southeast Minnesota farm on a high ridge above the Mississippi River. The mercury read 7 above zero, and a harsh wind sent the real temperature well into negative territory. But food was being produced on that farm, even under such harsh conditions. And it’s being produced there today, under harsh conditions on the other end of the spectrum. That food is being produced by young people who are using sustainable, environmentally-friendly methods that don’t rely on intense inputs of energy and other resources. Industrial agriculture doesn’t want you to think that your pantry can be stocked by such farms. The world is a dangerous place, and thus our food must be produced using dangerous methods, goes the industrial way of thinking. Well, the CEOs at Big Ag Incorporated need to get out of their climate-controlled offices and get a glimpse at real farming. While they are at it, they can sign up for the 2007-2008 edition of the Land Stewardship Project’s Farm Beginnings course before the Aug. 30 deadline. How’s that for a transition from talking about the weather to nakedly promoting a beginning farmer program? Lame, I know. Blame it on the humidity.

There wasn’t much humidity on that coolish January day 83-degrees-ago when Justin Leonhardt took a break from fixing hog feeders to check on how some baby pigs were doing. He walked me toward a group of six hoop houses, lifted the flap on one, and ducked inside. Snuggled into the straw bedding were a half-a-dozen sows. Behind them was a low-slung miniature Quonset hut-type shelter the size of a utility shed where the baby pigs were sleeping under heat lamps. Leonhardt’s entrance prompted the pigs to wake up, rocket toward the sows in a noisy tumble and begin feeding. Soon the contented sounds of a late morning breakfast competed with the howling of wind whipping at the hoop building’s fabric.

Leonhardt, 33, is raising pigs in a natural, humane environment without the use of antibiotics–a challenge for even veteran livestock producers. In fact, the pork he produces recently received a quality award from Niman Ranch Pork Company, a natural meats firm that buys most of Leonhardt’s production. But what’s really impressive is he’s farrowing these pigs in a Minnesota winter, a time when many pork industry experts say hogs have to be raised in full confinement. And he’s doing all this two years after a farrowing barn was destroyed in a fire–a potentially career-ending agricultural setback.

Pretty good for someone who once swore off farming forever.

“When I graduated from high school, I said I would never farm.” Leonhardt told me.

He grew up on a dairy operation the next ridge over above the Mississippi River town of Kellogg, where his parents, Larry and Diane Leonhardt, still farm. Justin liked living in the country, but was less enamored with the seven-day-a-week, twice-a-day routine of milking cows.

Okay, maybe “less than enamored” is a bit of an understatement. “I hate it,” Justin told me.

That’s why after high school he trained to become an aircraft mechanic, a 9-5 job that can pay $50 an hour. But when it came time to move to the Pacific Northwest to work for Boeing, Leonhardt couldn’t bring himself to leave southeast Minnesota behind. He ended up working a factory job close to home and doing some carpentry. Slowly, steadily, the draw of the land became too hard to resist. In 2000, he and his partner Gayle Hanson took the Land Stewardship Project’s Farm Beginnings course in nearby Plainview, Minn.

Farm Beginnings provides participants a chance to learn firsthand about low-cost, sustainable methods of farming. It provides workshops on goal setting, financial planning, business plan creation, alternative marketing and innovative production techniques. Established farmers and other professionals present at the seminars. The course also offers a series of on-farm educational field days during the spring and summer where students get to see the production systems they are learning about in action. In addition, class participants have an opportunity to network with established farmers and utilize them as mentors.

(The next round of Farm Beginnings classes begin in October in two new locations: La Crosse, Wis., and Marshall, Minn. The registration deadline for the 2007-2008 edition is Thursday, Aug. 30. For more information, contact Karen Benson in the Land Stewardship Project’s Lewiston office at 507-523-3366, or see the Farm Beginnings website.)

In 2007, Farm Beginnings is celebrating its 10th year of providing firsthand training in low-cost, sustainable methods of farming. During the past decade, over 300 people have graduated from the Minnesota-region Farm Beginnings program, and 60 percent of them are actively farming, according to class data. In 2005, Farm Beginnings was extended to Illinois and Nebraska. Beginning this fall, Farm Beginnings classes will be held in North Dakota.

I recently tracked down two of those 300 grads: Roger and Michelle Benrud, who were in that original Farm Beginnings class back in 1997. Guess what? Their farm is thriving and they’re being recognized by their neighbors as valuable members of the community.

The Benruds operate a grass-based organic dairy farm near Goodhue, Minn., and they market their milk through the PastureLand cheese and butter cooperative. In 2005, Michelle quit her job when the operation became viable enough to support the Benruds and their two young children without off-farm income. In 2006, the Benruds were named the Goodhue County Farm Family of the Year. They say a real strength of Farm Beginnings is that established farmers from the community teach the classes.

“It’s different than a university where it’s theoretical,” Michelle told me after a recent morning milking. “Farm Beginnings is being taught by people who actually do it.”

“When you’re talking about something like grass-based dairying that’s not part of the mainstream, it lends more credibility to a class to have it led by successful, happy people that are doing that type of thing,” said Roger. (To hear a podcast featuring the Benruds, check out Ear to the Ground No. 33.)

Justin Leonhardt agrees that the core strength of Farm Beginnings is that it shows there are established farmers out there who are going against the tide, and succeeding. Don’t underestimate the power of role models. Leonhardt says seeing and hearing how others in his own community were making a go of it without buying into the industrialized model of agriculture helped him think outside the box as far as what enterprises he could undertake.

Today, Leonhardt and Hanson farm Justin’s grandparents’ land. The farm consists of 135 tillable acres, and they rent an additional 70, raising alfalfa, corn and soybeans. Through Farm Beginnings, Leonhardt and Hanson also got a Heifer International interest-free livestock loan, which they used to purchase 10 brood cows with calves and five heifers. The beef cattle are rotationally grazed on land that’s too rough to crop farm on these hilly acres.

But 95 percent of the farm’s income is derived from hogs. When he returned to the farm, Leonhardt knew he didn’t want to dairy, but the advantage of milking cows is that it produces a steady cash flow. The next best thing is hogs, which can be marketed on a regular basis. The trouble was, Justin had no experience raising pigs.

The advantage to his lack of hog experience was that he didn’t have any bad habits to unlearn. But still, starting from scratch with a new form of livestock production is a major challenge. Through Farm Beginnings, Leonhardt was able to network with area hog farmers Dennis Rabe and the late Dave Serfling. Through them he learned about producing pork without antibiotics in deep-straw systems, and how firms like Niman will pay a premium price for such hogs. Rabe, who farms a few miles away near Lake City, remains a mentor for Leonhardt.

But Leonhardt and Hanson’s farming enterprise almost ended just a few years after it got started. In May 2005, a retrofitted dairy barn that was being used to farrow pigs was destroyed by fire. It was a major blow.

“I either had to quit, or cut back or expand,” recalls Leonhardt of his choices after the fire. “I didn’t want to go back to work in town so I doubled my sow herd.”

They already had one hoop house, and after the fire built five more. This year 1,500 pigs will be marketed, mostly to Niman, from around 115 sows.

As he headed back to a heated shop on that winter day to repair pig feeders, Leonhardt expressed frustration that he’s not further along in making the farm more financially stable. The fire and expansion has put him further in debt than he’s comfortable with, and the farmer is constantly challenged to find ways of increasing income while reducing expenses. Leonhardt said Farm Beginnings helped him develop a business plan and figure out how much cash flow is needed to stay viable, as well as how to determine if certain purchases really help him attain his goals.

“It’s a plan, which is better than just blundering forward. Right now my biggest goal is debt reduction,” said Leonhardt. “There are a lot of things I want, but don’t necessarily need.”

But then he brightens up as he talks about the pigs he just checked on. The hut-within-a-hut shelter the pigs were using is a bit of an experiment for Leonhardt. Normally during the winter he would be farrowing pigs inside smaller hutches about the size of a large pup tent–just large enough for a sow and her pigs to lounge comfortably in. But a few weeks before the cold snap he had ran out of hutches, and so improvised with one larger shelter that the sows and pigs use communally.

“I’m always experimenting,” Leonhardt said, adding that working with mentors such as Rabe has given him the confidence to try new things. “It actually has gotten to where Dennis is asking me as many questions about pigs as I’m asking him. That’s pretty cool.”

“Cool” as in “Okay,” not “cool” as in, “It’s cool enough today to freeze hell twice over.”

I suppose you knew what Justin meant—just thought I should conclude things on a weather note, since that’s what brought us to the dance.

Comments are closed.