Andrew Barsness grew up in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, two hours north of his grandparent's 280-acre grain farm near Hoffman. He visited regularly, but he never considered becoming a farmer.
Then life took a turn. While Barsness was attending the University of Minnesota in 2010, his grandfather Harry Westberg died. "After his passing, the future of the farm was in question," Barsness said, "and for some reason I had an urge to try farming."
By spring of 2011, Barsness and his mother were farming the 60 acres his 87-year-old grandfather worked just months before. Cheryl Barsness was familiar with the workings of that small farm. "She knew whom to speak with at the local co-op to purchase crop inputs, at the bank for an operating loan, and at the insurance company for crop insurance," he said. "She taught me how to drive my grandfather's tractor." Barsness' father, Dave would come to help, too.
Harry Westberg left a gift behind. "I learned how to farm through notes that my grandfather had made," said Barsness. He had recorded planting dates, settings for the grain drill and engine settings for field operations. "I think he'd be happy to know that he was able to provide me with guidance as I literally follow in his footsteps."
But Barsness also worked through things on his own --especially maintenance. He couldn't afford to pay someone to repair equipment that inevitably broke. "My only option was to just figure things out."
Barsness soon earned a degree in Farm and Ranch Management. He also studied agronomy, precision agriculture, mobile power systems, and learned practical skills like welding and electrical systems. Barsness now rents 160 acres from his mother and aunt, Karen Westberg.
The farm is on track to be certified organic.
VALUE VS. EXPANSION
Organic farming fits Barsness' business vision. "I've chosen to focus on sustainability, diversification and adding value instead of expanding rapidly," he said. He will focus the organic business on wheat, corn and soybeans. He plans to transition the farm's remaining 110 tillable acres to organic, as well.
Barsness sees a future opportunity in growing organic hops and malting grains for Minnesota's fast-growing craft beer industry. "I would like to develop partnerships with local breweries to produce certified organic beers with my organic hops and grain," he said.
The years haven't been problem-free. There have been frost and floods -- and a combine-consuming fire. "My grandfather experienced a combine fire, so now we have two generations of burned combines sitting next to each other in the grove."
He has found a common bond with members of the newly formed Central Minnesota Young Farmers Coalition, a local chapter of the National Young Farmers Coalition, Hudson, New York (www.youngfarmers.org). "It's important to surround yourself with positive people who inspire and help you to succeed," he said.
The chapter advocates for young and beginning farmers through legislative action. Barsness testified before the Minnesota House Ag Policy Committee in support of a land access bill. The bill, now law, gives landowners a tax credit when they sell or rent land or agricultural assets to a beginning farmer.
Blind in one eye, partially deaf, and unsteady on his feet, Barsness remembers his grandfather stringing wire as a guide from one building to the next. Harry's grandson, 27, treasures that passion. "I appreciate getting dirty and being outside in the fresh air. The connection that I feel to my land, crops and ancestors grows stronger each year."
Dan Miller can be reached at email@example.com
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