Farming finds a way: Series looks to feature new ways of farming

By: 
Jordan Gerard

Editor’s note: This is the first story in a series about the current farming crisis and what farmers are doing differently to alleviate financial pressure and stress on themselves and their farms. I hope the series will add a sense of positivity for farmers and showcase different options.

The current farming crisis in the U.S. has farmers trudging on through tough times.

Whether they’ve invented new ways of producing crops, like no till, or found different markets, or started something completely new, farmers are hanging in there as long as they can.

The crisis is a multilayered piece, says University of Minnesota Extension Educator for Fillmore and Houston counties Mike Cruse.

“We’ve had a string of years where commodity prices were generally low, which made finances tight for most people,” he explained. “Adding wet spring [seasons] to that, the prices go down even further. It was a lot of pieces coming together for a sustained period of time.”

For Brownsville Township beef producer Bob Scanlan, his method of raising beef has cushioned the effect of the crisis.

Farming is, and has been, a way of life since his grandparents bought a farm in the 1940s.

His parents inherited the farm in 1978 after his grandpa passed away. Scanlan and his wife, Michelle, would eventually buy the farm and raise beef on rotational grazing.

Currently, they have 42 cow-calf pairs and raise a few Holstein steers as well. Sometimes they’ll buy the calves or feeder calves and add value to them.

Scanlan markets his cattle a few different ways, one of which is to sell groups of their own feeder calves to farmers looking to buy.

Another way is feeding them out until they reach market weight, which is between 1,100 to 1,400 lbs., depending on the market. Occasionally, they also sell quarters, halves or hamburger.

In addition, they also keep costs down by raising their own feed and only buying corn or hay if it’s needed. 

“Growing hay is a lot cheaper than buying it, but when you do buy it, it’s fulfilling someone else’s market,” he said. 

Though beef prices are lower than where they should be, beef producers have been surviving. 

Cruse estimates the crisis began about five years ago. Though today’s current political climate has many on the edge of their seat because of tariff deals, much of the crisis is attributed to the efficiency and how much of one thing is produced.

While the industry waited for modern farming methods and equipment to be invented, operating farms during the 1950s through the ‘70s had a lot of diversification.

Farms often raised beef and dairy cattle, hogs, chickens and grew row crops, hay and small grains. A variety of livestock and crops led to more revenue streams.

“That’s gone by the wayside and farmers are more specialized now,” Scanlan said. “They’re kind of forced into it because of efficiencies. They have to get better at what they’re doing.”

Since then, efficiencies of producing crops and raising livestock skyrocketed, thus fulfilling markets all over. 

But because the farming industry has developed better ways of raising livestock and crops, it is overproducing supply for what the market demands.

Looking at the dairy industry for example, the amount of milk produced per cow has increased. When you get more milk per cow, you need fewer cows and fewer farms to produce the same amount of milk, Cruse said.

“If we don’t have limits on what we produce, we can overproduce for our available markets,” he added.

Scanlan echoed this and said farmers have focused on commodity in order to be “super-efficient.”

“They can ride the waves of highs and lows when the milk price is a little lower, but it’s not where it should be,” he said. “It’s the same for cash crop farmers with beans and corn. It costs more to grow than to sell it.”

One thing that has helped is different marketing strategies. It is becoming more common for farmers to have a marketing strategist on hand when contemplating which markets to sell to.

At the round table discussion in May, Houston County Commissioner Eric Johnson said conventional farmers will still be around, but they need to go toward marketing.

“It’s key to keeping your head above water these days,” he said. “I’m going to a meeting today with my marketing person. It’s someone with a second opinion.”

Political influences

The turbulence of the political world is also affecting prices and financing for farmers.

If the overseas markets are reduced, farmers lose their outlet for crops and livestock, which drives commodity prices down. Even though the tariffs and deals might turn out good for the farmers in the end, it’s hard to determine when that will happen.

As was discussed at the recent farmer roundtable discussion on May 29, a farmer’s lifestyle and the way they farm are constantly revolving. For a while now, farmers and spouses hold or take off-the-farm jobs to have extra income.

Scanlan said he and his wife both have off-farm jobs, which help cushion the effect of tough times.

In fact, about 90% of family farms receive off-farm income throughout the U.S. It’s essential for medical care and health insurance.

New opportunities

With traditional ways of farming in a rut, a few farmers have found new opportunities to earn income, though not all farmers have the opportunity.

“There’s always opportunities, [but] farmers are locked in and they only have so much leeway on what to spend money on,” Scanlan said. “They have to come up with a plan every year to turn a profit and get a financial advisor to go along with it.”

With opportunity come challenges. If a dairy farm wanted to sell dairy products off the farm, such as producing their own milk, turning it into cheese or ice cream, the profit might be there, but they’ll also need equipment, staff and a building to house it in.

He added beef producers grow more hay than needed, so they are able to sell it to other farmers.

“Making money in a different form is not always easy,” he said. “The niche markets are there and there’s a group right now trying to find them, but farmers need to think about other ways to produce income.”

There’s always the health of the land to consider too, in terms of conservation. Scanlan mentioned farmers could try planting their crops with no till, meaning not chisel plowing. 

It might result in a slightly lower yield, but the effort saves time and money on fuel. In addition to harvesting crops, the land gets big gains like water infiltration and better soil health.

What happens now?

Another challenge to consider is the baby boomer generation cycling out with older farmers looking to retire and pass their farm on. 

However, there are not a lot of young people who are interested in farming. If they are, it’s got to take a lot of ingenuity and guts to make a go of it.

Dee Slinde of Workforce Development said growing up on a farm that is going through financial problems is tough for kids. Those kids also see their friends with easier jobs and weekends off.

“I had a young farmhand who grew up on a dairy farm his whole life watching everyone struggle,” she said. “Now he’s getting retrained to become a cement mason. He’s already lined up for a $29 an hour job. It’s hard to do mason work, but no harder than being a dairy farmer. 

“But there goes one more 20-something that thought about being a farmer and won’t be anymore.”

So what happens now with high efficiency, over producing, few new farmers and uncertain markets?

Farmers diversify. 

“There’s always a risk in trying to find that different market of agriculture,” Cruse said. “It’s a little scary for people to get into.”

Cruse pointed to examples like growing crops for Sno Pac Organic Foods and Wold’s Strawberry Farm. As previously mentioned, there’s also hemp farming in the Minnesota Hemp Pilot Program, organic crops or livestock and niche markets. 

At the roundtable conversation, Bonnie Haugen of the Grazing Apprenticeship said the conversation and narrative needs to be changed, but in some ways, it already has. 

“Change is constant, so why not look for a better change than what I am in now?” she said. “We really need to change the narrative of the land, so no one is scared to come for help.”

For more ideas, there is a booklet for farmers that includes local resources such as Workforce Development, Sustainable Farming Association and more; agricultural alternatives; Extension office resources; resources to help with stress; and podcasts, videos and articles of interest. 

Copies of those are available by contacting Houston County Economic Development Authority (EDA) Director Allison Wagner at allison.wagner@cedausa.com or 507-458-2492. The booklet will also be available online soon, most likely on the Houston County EDA website.

Stay tuned for the next part of our series.