It’s early July—a time on one Wisconsin farm when there’s a brief reprieve between the spring rush of putting in crops and the mid-summer hurly-burly of making sure the land and animals are as productive as possible by fall. What better time to take a breather and assess where you’ve been, and where you’re going.
“This past year has been crazy,” says Jim Deutsch while taking a break from grinding feed.
As he says this, the 33-year-old is sitting in the shade of his front yard with his wife Alison and their two children: Lou, 4, and Lily 2. “We’ve just been running from fire-to-fire.”
“This is the third farm we’ve been on in five years,” says Alison, also 33. “But we’re finally here.”
“Here” is a 160-acre farm that the Deutsches own, an operation that is intact and has solid buildings and a good selection of field equipment. It is also a place that’s in close proximity to the eaters, institutions and retail establishments they direct-market pork and chicken to. It’s a welcome change from renting and working on farms owned by others, constantly moving livestock and equipment while trying to stay in touch with markets—something the couple has been doing since they graduated from the Land Stewardship Project’s Farm Beginnings course in 2006.
“Now we can look to the future and get things up and running,” says Jim. “In the past we’ve always had to know in the back of our heads that we would need to prepare to maybe move. Now we can set some plans up for the long term.”
Jim and Alison’s ability to feel settled enough to plan ahead is also a testament to the fact that they’ve found a supportive community of beginning and established farmers through LSP and Farm Beginnings to help them jump-start a viable ag enterprise. That kind of support wasn’t always there.
The Deutsches didn’t grow up in farming, although they both had relatives who farmed. Alison is from southeast Minnesota and studied horticulture in college. Jim is from northern Illinois and trained as a tool and die maker. Both had a desire to farm early on and were drawn to livestock production, particularly dairying and pork. After settling in the southeast Minnesota community of St. Charles in the early 2000s, they began looking around for farming options.
“Pretty much everybody we talked to was pretty negative,” recalls Jim, adding that they had a particularly hard time finding someone who would rent them a farm for livestock.
“Everybody said, ‘You can’t do that.’ You listen to people long enough who say you have to be born into farming, that’s the only way, and it wears on you.”
Finally, they ran into a positive vibe when Alison met Arlene and LaVerne Nelson while she was working as a meter reader in the St. Charles area. The Nelsons are LSP members and have a certified organic dairy operation that their son Ross is part of. LaVerne and Arlene made it clear to the Deutsches that they believe there is a bright future for young farmers, particularly if they avoid the high-input, expensive model of conventional agriculture. Jim said that was a welcome message, given that the type of agriculture he had grown up around in Illinois was “huge and confinement everything.”
That’s how they learned about Farm Beginnings, which for 14 years has been training beginning farmers who are interested in innovative management systems.
The course emphasizes goal setting, financial planning, business plan creation, alternative marketing and innovative production techniques. Farm Beginnings participants also have the opportunity to attend on-farm events where they see firsthand the use of innovative management techniques.
During the fall and winter of 2005-2006, the Deutsches drove to New Prague, Minn., twice a month for classes, which were taught by established farmers and other ag professionals from the community. Although they were a little surprised that not all of their fellow students had their farm goals and plans defined, Alison and Jim were able to get a lot out of the class by following up with the presenters and asking lots of questions. What they found was that these established farmers, who were producing food using a range of alternative systems, were positive about the prospects of getting an operation going from scratch, but were also realistic about what it takes to be successful.
“It’s a business—you have to have your ducks in a row,” says Alison.
The Deutsches settled on raising hogs without antibiotics or hormones in pastured and deep straw systems. With the help of some breeding stock from fellow Farm Beginnings graduate Justin Leonhardt, they started raising pigs for Niman Ranch, which requires animals to be raised to their own antibiotic-free humane standards. They also began building up a direct-marketing clientele of individual consumers, restaurants and retail establishments.
But bouncing around from one rented farm to the next between 2006 and 2010 was hard on the animals—and the farmers. The Deutsches had money saved up to make a down payment on a farm, but were having a hard time finding whole, intact operations where the buildings and equipment weren’t worn down to the point where they were almost unusable—perhaps another product of a lack of confidence in the future of agriculture in numerous communities.
“They let the farm get run down and then say there’s no young people interested in farming,” says Alison of some of the retiring farmers they ran into. “The other misconception is that as beginning farmers we can’t pay a fair market price for the land and the equipment.”
In early 2010, soon after a deal to buy another farm fell through, they learned of this farm near Osseo, Wis. It had a lot going for it: sound buildings, good soil and relatively good accessibility to markets in western Wisconsin and southeast Minnesota. Even better, it was a working farm: dairy cows were being milked on it up until a week before the Deutsches moved onto it. And to top things off, at the last minute they were able to talk the owners into selling them field implements and other equipment as part of the overall deal.
“That really helped to buy a working farm and being able to buy the equipment with the farm,” says Jim. “I don’t think we would have been able to do it otherwise.”
Alison agrees: “We had to have it ready to go to start making money right away.”
It was a bit of a win-win. The farm’s owners were interested in selling it to the Deutsches because they wanted to keep it a small family operation with livestock.
“There’s a large grain farmer here, as there is everywhere, and he would have bought it in a heartbeat and leveled the buildings,” says Alison.
The couple bought the farm in March of that year and by that spring had their crops planted and their hog operation relocated. With the help of people they’d met through Farm Beginnings, the Deutsches were able to relocate fairly quickly from a rented farm 30 miles away to the one they bought near Osseo.
Diversity is security
Today they raise finished pigs for Niman, which accounts for about a quarter of their market. The rest of their hogs (as well as chickens and eggs) are sold direct to consumers, grocery stores and restaurants in the area.
They will finish out some 250 hogs for these direct markets this year, as well as around 800 chickens. They also raise squash for Organic Valley Cooperative. The Deutsches goal is to be finishing 400 hogs annually by a year from now. They are raising hay, corn, oats and wheat to provide as much of their own feed and bedding as possible. Half of the farm is certified organic now; by 2012 the plan is for all of it to be certified. Alison says diversity is key to the farm’s business plan.
“It makes for some long days, but we are never going to have all the enterprises fail at once, hopefully,” she says. “It’s good risk management.”
But the stability of being on a farm you’ve purchased doesn’t mean you are immune to curve balls. As Alison alluded to earlier, it’s been “a crazy year.” The market for hogs, even sustainably-raised ones, is not as lucrative as it was just a few years ago, when feed was relatively cheap and there was fast-rising demand. During the summer of 2010, some of the pastures they were farrowing hogs on were swamped by flooding.
“We spent many a night, all night, bailing the water to keep the pigs from floating away,” says Alison.
As a result, last fall they did a quick construction job: erecting a low-slung open-faced hog building with good drainage and ventilation, as well as loading and unloading facilities. It augments nicely the large hip-roofed dairy barn they also raise hogs in.
Getting the emergency loan for the shed was possible because the Deutsches have a good relationship with their Farm Services Agency lender. Of particular help was having a business plan, something they learned to do in Farm Beginnings.
“At the end of the year we go over what we did and where we want to go and where our markets are,” says Alison. “We create a kind of narrative. Our lender appreciates that. It doesn’t do any good to keep it secret.”
As they settle into farming in a permanent place, the Deutsches say there is still some negativity among a few rural residents about the ability of beginning farmers to contribute to the community’s future. But just within the past year, there’s been a growing interest in local foods in their region. And they’ve also been able to connect with other beginning farmers in the area, sharing equipment, knowledge, even childcare duties.
Perhaps most importantly, the business community is showing signs of seeing these newcomers as financial assets. Jim says when young farmers like he and Alison spend money on goods and services in town, it gets noticed.
“When Alison went into the bank to set up a checking account, the banker said we were the third young couple that had moved into the area and bought a whole farm recently,” says Jim. “They’re starting to realize that it’s an advantage to have beginning farmers in the area.”