Farm Beginnings Profile: A Land-Based Launching Pad

Four Winds Farm Serves as a Staging Ground for New Agrarians

By Brian DeVore

On a warm day in early October, the owner-operators of Clover Bee Farm are preparing a delivery for the 43 shareholders that make up their Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) vegetable operation. Standing in a hoop house, Andrew Hanson-Pierre cleans dozens of fat onions, while across the farmyard in a barn that’s been converted to a packing shed, his life partner Margo washes a bumper crop of orange carrots. The couple is wrapping up their first growing season on this land, which they purchased last winter with the assistance of a USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) beginning farmer loan.

As he pulls a heavy wagon of red and yellow onions toward the packing shed, Andrew explains that the family who previously owned this 20 acres of farmland near the east-central Minnesota community of Shafer were rooting for he and Margo to get the FSA loan, even though the young couple hadn’t submitted the highest bid. It seems that another bidder’s plan was to make it yet another field of row crops, one that did not require the presence of fences, barns, houses or people.

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Andrew and Margo Hanson-Pierre on their farm near Shafer, Minn.

“They were really excited about seeing the farm stay as a farm, rather than have the house and buildings bulldozed in and just made into more corn and soybean fields,” says Andrew, explaining that FSA beginning farmer loans can take several months to go through the approval process. “They were very, very patient. They were pulling for us.”

A little less than an hour’s drive south of here, others are pulling for the Hanson-Pierres as well, and recently took that support beyond just providing a little patience and moral backing. For three growing seasons beginning in 2015, Juliet Tomkins and Prescott Bergh provided a staging area of sorts for Margo and Andrew, giving them access to land, some equipment and a little confidence-building at a key point in their career. In fact, over the past few years, Tomkins and Bergh’s Four Winds Farm has helped launch at least one other vegetable farming operation besides Clover Bee. In addition, the owners of a beef cattle operation are ready to take their next entrepreneurial steps as a result of time they’ve spent on Tomkins and Bergh’s land.

“We are anxious to have them succeed,” says Juliet of the farming operations Four Winds has supported during the past few years. As she says this, she and Prescott— they are in their early 60s—are sitting at the kitchen table on their 107-acre farm in western Wisconsin. “The term ‘landlords’ may be correct, but I’d like to think of us as partners in helping them get established. Our intention is to give them an opportunity to do something that they might not have been able to do otherwise.”

Tomkins and Bergh have provided this agricultural launching pad through a structured process that goes beyond merely renting out a few acres of unused land. At the core of this process are written leases that attempt to strike a balance between laying out expectations and leaving room for the kind of relationship building that only comes with good interpersonal communication.

Farmland rental arrangements can take many forms, depending on the goals of the various parties involved. The process set up by Four Winds is an example of how sometimes such an arrangement can resemble more a landowner-renter partnership than a simple exchange of cash. Such partnerships can result in a bumper crop of positives, including farmland access for beginning farmers, stewardship of the soil and an additional economic enterprise in a rural community.

Building Soil

When Tomkins and Bergh bought that 107 acres 10 miles east of River Falls in 1987, they were attracted to its diverse topography and varied ecosystems. It has a mix of pasture, woodlands, wetlands, even a native prairie. Natural habitat and land stewardship are important to both of them. Tomkins grew up in a part of New Jersey that at the time was very rural, and she became passionate about land stewardship via the influence of her father; she helped him plant 15,000 black walnut trees on the family’s land. Tomkins went on to get a law degree and worked extensively with family farmers as an attorney with the Farmers’ Legal Action Group in Minnesota. She also served as an adjunct professor at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, where she taught courses on agricultural law, cooperatives, experiential learning, land use law and sustainable agriculture law.

Bergh has a strong interest in conservation as well, and a deep background in the organic agriculture community. He has traveled the country as an organic inspector and consultant, and for a time worked on promoting sustainable and organic agriculture for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.

The couple concedes that when they first moved onto the farm, they weren’t quite sure what to do with it. It had been a small dairy many years prior, but at the time they purchased the land it was being leased out for crop farming to a neighboring operation. Because the land was being leased on a yearly contract, a lot of nutrients were being removed but not returned, so the soil was seriously depleted.

In 1992, Bergh and Tomkins started raising grass-fed beef utilizing a managed rotational grazing system on 65 acres of pasture. Over the subsequent years, they noticed how the reintroduction of nutrients via manure, which was spread evenly across the land through the rotational grazing system, was revitalizing the soil.

“When we first got there, the soil was so poor that when we tried to plant some improved legumes, we couldn’t even get them to grow,” recalls Bergh. “We really used the cattle as the fertility machine and over time it improved the soil a lot. It really needed that manure.”

They direct-marketed the beef to consumers, and later built a hoop house for raising hogs in deep straw bedding, a system that produces pork in a natural setting that reduces the need for inputs such as antibiotics. The beef and pork enterprises, along with a small pastured chicken business, were a good fit for a farm that was relatively close to major markets in the Twin Cities and western Wisconsin.

In 2009, Four Winds got out of the livestock business. Bergh was traveling for work a fair bit and their two sons had left the farm to pursue their own career paths; by not being tied down to livestock chores, the couple felt they would have more freedom to travel and visit extended family. They also realized that parts of the farm had been in continuous production since 1850, and they wanted to give it a bit of a rest.

Indeed, once livestock production stopped, the land started returning to a more natural state. In fact, students at UW-River Falls have done various conservation projects on the farm, including a pollinator study and prairie restoration.

“It was like having a park around here, basically,” says Tomkins. “You had wildlife coming through and there was not a whole lot of maintenance. It was pretty gorgeous.”

But after a few years of leaving the land fallow, they noticed that the fencelines were becoming decrepit and getting overgrown with weeds; trees were starting to take over parts of their pastures. In 2014, Tomkins and Bergh began thinking about bringing production agriculture back to the land, but this time they wouldn’t be doing the farming. Tomkins had become particularly interested in giving beginning farmers access to land after joining the Land Stewardship Project’s board of directors in 2012. There were a lot of discussions within the organization about how LSP’s Farm Beginnings Program was providing top-notch training for the next generation of farmers, only to find that these new agrarians were running into significant barriers when it came to getting access to acres. Many Farm Beginnings graduates are interested in enterprises such as small-scale vegetable production or grass-fed livestock raising, and do not require thousands, or even hundreds, of acres to be viable; often size-appropriate, affordable parcels just aren’t available.

“I said to Prescott, ‘What do you think of having more people on the farm?’ ” Tomkins recalls.

He agreed that this would be a good opportunity to not only provide land access to beginning farmers, but help revitalize and maintain parts of the operation that had become overgrown.

Tomkins started scanning the listings posted by beginning farmers in LSP’s Seeking Farmers-Seeking Land Clearinghouse, which helps match up landowners and established farmers with beginning producers. That’s where she learned that two young people with some farming experience, the Hanson-Pierres, were looking for a few acres to take their vegetable enterprise to the next level.

Filling the Tank

Margo Hanson-Pierre grew up in Faribault in southeastern Minnesota, and Andrew is from the Twin Cities suburb of Minnetonka. They both studied fine arts in college, but eventually found themselves drawn to farming. Andrew likes that it involves working outdoors and he’s passionate about the idea of getting fresh, healthy food to people who don’t normally have access to such sustenance. Margo is attracted to the personal, community-centered interactions provided by selling through the CSA model and farmers’ markets. She also likes that it is the kind of profession that challenges her to constantly push the envelope.

“It’s all about our customers, they mean the world to us,” she says. “And always striving to do better is a main reason I’m still farming. I always want to be better.”

After school, they both worked at a series of farm operations, getting firsthand experience with the ins and outs of various production and marketing models. During the winter of 2014-2015, they took LSP’s Farm Beginnings course, which offers training in holistic planning, business management, marketing and goal setting. It is taught by established farmers and other agricultural professionals. Margo says, for them, the timing of the class was critical, because they had plenty of production experience under their belt, but needed help in learning the fundamentals of running a business.

Andrew says the class forced them to write down their goals for farming, as well as life in general, which helped the couple develop a joint path for moving forward. It turned out they shared the goal of launching a produce operation in the region, and figuring out how to make it a self-sustaining source of income while feeding people healthy food and stewarding the land.

One of the things Margo and Andrew decided at that time was that they wanted to stop working for other farmers, and to take concrete steps toward starting their own enterprise. They submitted a “Seeking to Buy or Rent Land” listing to the Seeking Farmers-Seeking Land Clearinghouse, and within a week heard from Juliet. She and Prescott invited them out to the farm, where they got a tour and sat down for an interview over a meal. The discussion centered around what Andrew and Margo’s needs were as far as land and infrastructure, as well as their future plans. The older couple also were interested in how the young farmers viewed stewardship of the land—it was important that Four Winds be farmed in a way that maintained the soil health Bergh and Tomkins had built up over the years. Frankly, it can be hard for a renter to have an incentive to utilize practices that may not produce positive results for the land and soil until years down the road, perhaps long after they’ve moved on. However, in the case of the Hanson-Pierres, they were on the same page as their future landlords.

“We’ve always felt cover crops were important,” Margo says of one soil building practice they use. “I feel like if you’re borrowing something like a car from someone, you should fill up the tank before you give it back to them. So that’s kind of the same thing with soil, I guess.”

The young farmers liked that Four Winds had land flat enough to grow vegetables on and that chemicals had not been used on it for 30 years. That latter point, along with the fact that a 30-foot-wide strip of brush and trees around the farm serves as a natural buffer from pesticide drift, meant that producing vegetables there organically would be possible.

In total, Tomkins and Bergh interviewed five farmers/farm partners before the 2015 growing season, and gave the green light to three of them (one candidate wanted to raise small grains, which wasn’t a good fit for the farm at the time). Besides the Hanson-Pierres, during the first few growing seasons Four Winds land was rented out to the brothers Jacob and Andrew Helling, who have a wholesale vegetable operation called Twin Organics. Philip and Tabitha Momyani, a couple in their 50s who commute to the farm from the Twin Cities suburb of Brooklyn Park, also started renting land there in 2015. A neighboring retired farmer with tillage equipment helped break the sod, and for the next three seasons, the three enterprises raised a total of roughly 20-acres of vegetables.

In the summer of 2017, a fourth agricultural enterprise was invited onto the land, but in this case the beginning farmers were seeking access to something that had been there for years: grass.

Seeding a Seed-Stock Business

Aaron Zimmerman’s entry into the cattle business came literally in the third grade, when his grandfather bought him a heifer. Ever since, he’s been building a herd, and has dreams of having a purebred Simmental operation that supplies other operations with top quality stock and show animals. By the summer of 2017, he and his girlfriend, Leeah Luepke, had two-dozen brood cows they were raising on rented land while they attended college in River Falls, where they were renting an apartment. The herd was doing well, but the couple found themselves having to move the animals from farm-to-farm as they juggled various lease agreements. As they looked toward graduating from UW-River Falls—he in animal science, she in agricultural education—they needed a stable place to raise the cattle in the area. Through the serendipitous linkages that can sometimes develop within a rural community, they connected with Four Winds Farm.

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Prescott Bergh and Juliet Tomkins, shown on their farm with Aaron Zimmerman.

Zimmerman says the farm has a lot to offer his livestock enterprise. For one, there is plenty of pasture to rotate the cattle through while keeping the herd all in one place. In addition, the hoop house that had been set up for swine production turns out to be a great facility for winter calving. Tomkins and Bergh also have facilities for handling cattle, as well as a tractor they rent out to the cattle producers on an hourly basis so they can move hay bales in the winter.

“We had a laundry list of what we needed or preferred,” says Zimmerman. “There was fence to build and re-build, but this place really has worked for us.”

Today, Zimmerman and Luepke are grazing 32 brood cows, plus calves and bulls, on the farm. Aaron says that one other benefit to utilizing the Four Winds land is that Bergh and Tomkins have experience with, for example, timing grazing rotations in a way that fits local conditions.

“They’d say, ‘In our experience, this pasture takes longer to re-grow because it’s sandy,’ stuff like that,” says Zimmerman. “They know the land.”

Although Bergh and Tomkins were grass-finishing beef for direct-sale, a far different market than what he and Luepke are raising for, “cows eating grass is cows eating grass,” Zimmerman quips.

Growing Confidence

Four Winds Farm doesn’t just provide a physical location for beginning farmers to grow, it has also been a seedbed for exchanging ideas. In fact, despite working their own individual enterprises on separate plots, the produce growers developed a kind of network where they were able to share ideas on everything from weed and pest control to tillage practices.

“There were a lot of things we were learning firsthand, like, ‘We’ve planted carrots three times and we don’t get anything. What are we doing wrong?’ ” recalls Andrew Hanson-Pierre, adding that in that case the Helling brothers had the answer. “There was a lot of back and forth. It was a very loose cooperative model.”

Tomkins says it’s been a pleasant surprise how much the close proximity of the farmers has helped them each improve their practices.

“It’s the benefit of working in the same space, it rubs off on each other,” she says.

Four years after opening up their farm to the next generation, Tomkins and Bergh have a pretty good track record. The Hanson-Pierres were able to achieve good enough cash flow that they qualified for that FSA loan that allowed them to purchase the farm near Shafer in 2018. In addition, the Helling brothers learned through LSP’s Seeking Farmer-Seeking Land Clearinghouse that a longtime organic produce operation near Northfield, Minn., was for sale. They purchased it and recently wrapped up their first growing season there. Now that they’ve graduated from UW-River Falls and their herd is growing fast, Zimmerman and Luepke, who are in their early 20s, are hoping to buy their own farm after their lease at Four Winds expires this summer.

Margo and Andrew say they just didn’t increase their cash flow while at Four Winds—their confidence grew as well. They started out in 2015 selling 13 CSA shares in their farm; during the 2018 growing season, they had over 40 share members.

“I feel like the first year we came here and we were like, ‘Well, we’ll see if we can do this,’ ” recalls Margo. And then the second year was like, ‘Last year went well, let’s see if we can do this again.’ And then the third year, after the season was over, I said, ‘Next year, we’ve got to go big or go home.’ So we went big, and we did really well.”

They increased their sales, started putting money into savings, and were able to qualify for the land loan. The Hanson-Pierres have yet to attain their ultimate financial goal—make enough off the farm to not work town jobs (Andrew drives a school bus and Margo works at a school)—but they are headed in the right direction.

New Leases on Life

Bergh and Tomkins are hesitant to call their farm an “incubator,” mostly because, despite the few bits of advice they can offer, they are hands-off when it comes to the daily operation of the various enterprises. Rather, they see themselves as a support system that provides land and some structure for how that land is to be managed.

At the heart of that support structure is a well-thought-out lease agreement, one that’s a blend of other contracts they’ve seen, some legal input provided by Juliet, and a few personal touches that relate directly to how the farm should be shared and the soil taken care of.

Besides clearly laying out how much the rental fee is, the leases—there is one for the vegetable plots and one for the pasture ground—have stipulations related to such things as the use of organic methods (no pesticides are allowed), repairs to fencing and other infrastructure, garbage removal, where vehicles can park, clean-up of vegetable plots at the end of the season, and legal liability. The leases also stipulate the fees for using equipment like a tractor and a walk-behind mower, as well as utilities like water and electricity.

One prominent clause in the leases has to do with communication, which Tomkins thinks is at the foundation of everything else. She and Bergh expect renters to respond “promptly” to telephone calls, texts or e-mails, and to communicate immediately any concerns or questions they have. Without good interpersonal communication, even the best written contract can lose its effectiveness. Good communication is particularly important when, as in the case of Bergh and Tomkins, a landlord is living on the land that’s being rented out for farming.

“Even if you have a contract, the human component of implementing it is what’s important,” says Tomkins. “You have to not be overbearing, not waiting for them to make a mistake, but tuned in enough to not be afraid to step up and say, ‘We agreed upon it this way, we need to have this done.’ ”

The leases are for three years, which the couple thinks is important so all parties involved can plan ahead. Tomkins and Bergh also have the option to adjust the leases on a yearly basis. For example, they have recently strengthened clauses related to legal liability associated with the food the renters sell.

The leases are over three pages long, which at first blush may appear a little overwhelming, but both landowners and renters say they prefer to have everything spelled out clearly. Zimmerman says he has had bad experiences with handshake deals that later resulted in misunderstandings.

“That was the worst thing I could have ever done,” the young cattle producer says of one supposed “rent-free” informal agreement he had, which ended up costing him money later. “You better have it down on paper, and have a signature on it, because things can go wrong.”

But even the most detailed lease can’t cover everything, especially when nature is part of the mix. The first few years Tomkins and Bergh had renters, they realized that on the vegetable plots sometimes cover crops weren’t being put in before winter, which left their soil exposed and vulnerable. It turns out with the longer, milder autumns the region has been experiencing, it’s tempting to keep harvesting vegetables late into the season until it’s too late to seed a cover crop.

The landlords tried requiring that cover crops be planted by a certain date, but the vagaries of climate can throw a curve ball into even the most well-intentioned plans.

“Cover crops are something that’s difficult, especially in vegetable production,” says Juliet. “I have to put myself in their shoes—they’re going to be harvesting their vegetables as late as they can in the season.”

One option she and Prescott have considered is charging extra on the rent to cover the cost of cover cropping. If renters get a cover planted, they get that money back.

Building Community

The Momanyis are returning to Four Winds for a fifth season in 2019, and another small start-up vegetable operation is beginning its second year on the farm. Tomkins and Bergh are not sure how many more, if any, farms their land will serve as a launching pad for. For now, they’re happy with the role they’ve been able to play in at least a few farmers’ dreams.

“We were game to have whatever happen, happen,” says Tomkins of their goals when they first invited farmers onto the land. She adds that even if a renter used the experience to decide that farming wasn’t for them, that would be considered a success—sometimes one needs firsthand experience to learn what is not a right career choice.

“But having people graduate onto their own farms, their own places, that is pretty darn cool,” she concedes.

Part of the benefit of seeing one’s farm as not a terminal endpoint, but as a stepping stone for the next generation, is that it sets a good example for others who are community minded. The Hanson-Pierres, who are in their early 30s, don’t need all 20 acres of that land near Shafer to raise vegetables. So, this past fall, they submitted a listing to LSP’s Seeking Farmers-Seeking Land Clearinghouse, saying they have seven acres of land for rent.

Says Margo, “Hopefully we can rent some acres out to someone else and pay it forward.”

This article originally appeared in the No. 4, 2018, Land Stewardship Letter. For more information on Farm Beginnings, see www.farmbeginnings.org. More information is also available by calling 320-269-2105 in western Minnesota or 507-523-3366 in southeastern Minnesota. For more on Farm Beginnings in other regions, click here.