Walking down a sloping lane on a spring afternoon, Luke and Liana Tessum surprise an Angus beef cow wandering up from a bottomland paddock. The lone bovine, and 18 cow-calf pairs grazing on the pasture below, represent the reaching of what the 30-something couple calls yet one more “micro-goal.” In December, the Tessums paid off a no-interest livestock loan they had received through the Land Stewardship Project’s Farm Beginnings Program. That loan helped them launch this herd, which is an integral part of their overall plan to bring profitable livestock production back to around 200 acres of family land in southeastern Minnesota.
“I feel like we really had a passion and an interest in farming, but before jumping in we had to break it down and develop smaller steps toward our ultimate goal of owning and operating a farm,” says Liana.
Some of the goals have been relatively modest: installing fencing and water lines, seeding pastures, revamping a well. Others are anything but diminutive in nature: getting a cattle herd going, setting up a marketing plan, purchasing the family farm.
The farm, which sits just outside the Root River Valley community of Preston, has been in the Tessum family since 1946. Luke grew up in Rochester, which is a 35-minute drive away. But he had the farming bug early on, and as a teenager made it clear where he wanted to be and what he wanted to be doing.
“From age 13 to 17, I was pretty much down here as much as I could be,” he recalls.
For a time, Luke’s father, Steve, was farming as much as 600 acres with a brother-in-law. Row crops were a major focus, even though raising cattle on the side-hill and bottomland pastures of the home place was always the elder Tessum’s first love. But in the mid-1990s, Steve got out of farming, sold the beef herd and went to work for IBM in Rochester. For the next dozen years or so, the cropped portion of the home place was rented out to local farmers and the pastures were basically abandoned. That was the first time livestock had not been on the farm in almost 100 years.
Meanwhile, Luke and Liana, who were high school sweethearts, knew they wanted to farm eventually, but also realized they needed a back-up plan. They both got degrees at the University of Minnesota-Duluth and made their way back to southeastern Minnesota, where she works as the statewide community partnership director for the Minnesota Girl Scouts and Luke does energy efficient weatherization for low-income residents. They enjoy their respective jobs, but over the years have never lost sight of their original farming dream. In fact, Luke went to college with Rick Dalen, who, along with his wife Karola, operates Northern Harvest Farm, a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) operation in northeastern Minnesota. One day Luke was helping the Dalens build a greenhouse and had an epiphany, or at least the reinforcement of one he had when he was a teenager.
“I was walking around and I realized I wanted to farm,” he recalls.
The Dalens are 2005 graduates of LSP’s Farm Beginnings course, which, through presentations given by established farmers, provides students an intensive grounding in business planning, innovative marketing and goal setting, among other things. They recommended the class to Luke and Liana and during the winter of 2006-2007, the Tessums took the course when it was offered in Winona, Minn. While in the class, they not only learned the basics of setting up a successful farm business, but were able to network with established farmers in the region who were doing what they wanted to do: operate a pasture-based livestock farm. In fact, 2001 Farm Beginnings graduate and local grass-based cattle producer Brad Hodgson now serves as a mentor to the Tessums.
Luke says although he has been around beef production much of his life, Farm Beginnings opened his eyes to a whole new world when it came to getting the most out of southeastern Minnesota pastures utilizing managed rotational grazing. Such a system moves livestock frequently through a series of paddocks, which extends the grazing season while building long-term soil health and pasture productivity.
“I didn’t realize what grass-based farming really was,” Luke concedes.
Through networking with area graziers and attending on-farm workshops and field days, the Tessums were able to get a good grounding in the basics of rotational grazing. Another major helping hand came in the form of the Livestock Loan. It not only made building a cattle herd affordable—with it came technical help in the form of a team of advisers/mentors. Besides Hodgson, also serving on the team was a grazing consultant and a farm financial specialist, as well as Farm Beginnings organizer and livestock expert Richard Ness.
“To be able to take your new ideas and run them by a group of people was invaluable,” says Liana. “I think that was really kind of a safety net. Not that it guarded us completely against failure, but it certainly helped drive us toward a successful position.”
That successful position means having a healthy herd of brood cows on well-established pastures. This is year five of their grazing plan, and Luke says it’s having a positive impact on the farm—a healthy mix of forages is replacing invasive species that had crept in since cattle were removed in the 1990s, and the soil is rebuilding itself. “It’s good to see now what it’s doing on the land,” he says of the rotational grazing system.
Making a grass-based, soil-friendly production system viable on this land is important to the Tessums. The farm has three springs on it, a constantly flowing reminder of how vulnerable groundwater is in a part of the state dominated by hills and porous karst geology.
“We are right in the middle of the Root River watershed, and all these springs flow to that,” says Luke as he points in the direction of the river less than two miles away. “This farm is not one that should be tilled too much. That’s why, infrastructure wise, everything was put into pasture development.”
They used USDA Environmental Quality Incentives Program cost-share funds to put in fencing and water lines for their grazing system. On a recent spring day the cattle herd was “beating up” and disturbing the soil on a low pasture, preparing it for a seeding of teff grass, a warm season, fast-growing annual that can help provide forage when other cool season varieties tend to go dormant.
Next Micro Moves
With a solid rotational grazing system established, the couple is looking forward to making the farm a fulltime, profitable venture. They bought their brood cows from area farmer Dan Miller and have been selling calves back to him as a source of income. In January, Luke enrolled in a Farm Business Management class that Miller teaches.
One idea the Tessums have is to start a CSA operation based on offering subscribers pasture-based meat. “I work in the Twin Cities a lot, and people want to support farms like us, they really do,” says Liana.
But the couple realizes they have a lot to learn about direct marketing before they take such a significant step.
“It’s one thing to sell my feeder calves to Dan and another to deal with the general public,” says Luke.
They’ve already dipped a toe into the sometimes-rough waters of direct marketing by selling pork raised under natural conditions to area consumers. Their Dirty Knee farm utilizes deep-bedded, open pens for hog production, which produces “Healthy, happy pigs—you can taste it in the meat,” says Luke. Eaters seem to agree—through word-of-mouth the Tessums marketed 27 hogs in just one year.
“It might be one way to diversify things,” says Luke, adding that because they provide a quicker cash turnaround than cattle, hogs could be one more tool for transitioning the farm into a fulltime business over the next several years.
“I’m not just one to jump off the ledge,” he says. “If I don’t do everything in five years, I’m okay with that.”
With a few production and marketing goals either out of the way or well into the works, the Tessums are turning their attention to perhaps the most daunting step on their list: transitioning the farm from one generation to the next.
No one has lived on the Tessum place in years, and the only standing buildings are an old barn used for hay storage and a recently constructed machine shed. Luke and Liana live five miles away in Lanesboro, and would eventually like to buy the land and build a house on the home place for them and their children, Teague, 5, and Malia, 11, ending their days as commuter farmers.
On the face of it, they would seem to have an ideal situation many beginning farmers don’t enjoy: access to family land. Luke says it does provide a huge leg-up, but it also comes with the responsibility of balancing innovation and change with respect for a family farm’s legacy
“There is a little pressure in that you think, ‘Gosh, if I do this and this isn’t the way that my dad did it, the whole thing’s going to fall in on
me,’ ” he says. “So you have to make sure the new ideas you bring in are carried on in a respectful manner. It definitely takes open communication from everybody involved.”
A huge step forward in opening up communication was when Steve Tessum sat in on the Farm Beginnings classes himself. Steve, 68, is retired now and spends several days a week on the farm helping out. He attended the first Farm Beginnings session out of curiosity and was hooked, even attending on-farm field days sponsored by LSP to see firsthand some of the innovative production systems discussed in the class.
Steve says he particularly appreciated the presentations given by established farmers from the area. Enterprises ranging from pasture-based beef, pork and chicken production to CSA vegetables and specialty products were featured during the sessions. “It kind of showed what today’s farmers can do,” he says. “I think there’s a way for smaller farmers to make a living.”
Steve says it also showed him that transitioning the farm to Luke and Liana would be a way to pass on a viable agricultural business, not just land. In fact, Steve and his wife Kay went to a two-day farm transition workshop sponsored by LSP this past winter. One thing they learned was that many other farmland owners face the same situation they do, and successfully transitioning a farm can be, like building up the enterprise in the first place, a matter of doing things in small chunks. That’s something he and Luke talk about frequently.
“Sometimes I have to pull in the reins, but for the most part we’ve worked out a pretty good father-son relationship,” says Steve. “The youth can lead the way but there’s a lot to learn from the older farmers too. I’m pretty excited about it.”
Brian DeVore is the editor of the Land Stewardship Letter.