Farm Transitions: That Farm on Highway 40

A Pioneering Organic Operation, a Trial Run, & the Next Generation

Black, ominous clouds were approaching fast, and Luke Peterson was in a bit of a panic as he stood next to his tractor parked in an 80-acre soybean field, scanning the sky. Hooked up to that tractor was a rotary hoe, and before this particular day in early summer, the young western Minnesota farmer had never used one of these implements. But he didn’t have time for a lesson — his organic soybeans were at a key stage of growth and were already overdue for some critical weed control.

But oh, that ugly looking storm front sweeping across the flat prairie — it was already passing over the town of Madison just a few miles to the west. Peterson needed to hurry, but what little hoeing he had done already that day had inflicted more damage than he was comfortable with. This was his first year of trying to raise chemical-free soybeans, and now it looked like he was destroying the crop before it even got a good start.

So, he whipped out his cell phone and made a call to the neighborhood organic cropping sage.

“I’ve got beans laying on my fenders. I’ve got beans hitting the back of the window. I’m killing my crop!” Peterson said in desperation.

“Yeah, how bad is it?” the voice on the other end calmly responded.

“It’s bad,” said Peterson.

“Well, put a little more pressure down, you need a few more beans on the fender if you’re going to do any good,” advised the older farmer.

“So I cruised over 80 acres thinking I’m destroying the whole crop my first year into it,” recalled Peterson recently. But it turns out the advice was spot-on — the soybeans could take more abuse than it appeared. “It’s situations like that where it just doesn’t seem like the right thing to do when you’ve never done it. Then it’s like, ‘Ah, I see.’ ”

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During the past few years, he’s had numerous “Ah, I see” conversations with that lifeline farmer, Carmen Fernholz. The veteran organic producer has provided tips on everything from weed control and soil management to yes, just how fast to run a rotary hoe across a soybean field as you’re being chased by storm clouds. Peterson says he’s benefited greatly from this relationship. But it’s also been reciprocal; Fernholz and his wife Sally now have someone who will continue their farm’s impressive legacy of regenerative agriculture. This spring, Peterson, who is 30, took over day-to-day management of A Frame Farm’s 350 acres as the Fernholzes, who are both 75, step back and retire.

Exiting active farming is never easy, but it’s particularly hard when so much sweat has been poured into doing things decidedly out of the mainstream. Add on to that the extra burden of actually being widely known for these innovative practices, which is the case with the Fernholzes. Fortunately, as they transitioned into retirement, the veteran regenerative practitioners found a way to produce one more important crop: a new organic farmer in the neighborhood.

A Solid ‘Yes’

When Luke Peterson first got interested in farming organically, he knew exactly who to approach: that outgoing former teacher and wrestling coach who lived in the A-frame house on State Highway 40 just outside of Madison.

“I knew he was the organic farmer in the area,” recalls Peterson.

Over the past four decades, Carmen and Sally Fernholz have built A Frame Farm into one of the most respected organic cropping operations in the Midwest. They’ve had plenty of misfires, but also a fair amount of success, to the point that when the University of Minnesota wants a reliable place to test out a new crop like the perennial wheatgrass Kernza, A Frame Farm is the first place they call. Carmen has spoken at innumerable conferences, hosted popular field days, and helped set up who-knows-how-many test plots. The Fernholzes have also been recognized by the organic farming community for their contributions to the movement — in 2005 Carmen and Sally were given the Organic Farmer of the Year award by MOSES. They’ve come a long way from that day in 1971 when they put a down payment on 80 acres of land east of Madison and tried to ignore neighborhood comments about weed-choked fields.

Peterson grew up just five miles from the Fernholzes, but didn’t have much interest in farming until he and his wife Ali moved to Fargo so she could get her nursing degree at North Dakota State University. During the three years they were there, Luke worked for an area farmer fulltime. When they returned to the Madison area, he was with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, where he saw firsthand the negative environmental impacts chemical-intensive row crop agriculture was having.

In 2012, Peterson started renting farmland for crop production, and at one point was farming 350 acres conventionally. He became increasingly interested in organics, and even approached some of his landlords about transitioning their acres to chemical-free.

“I got many solid ‘no’s,’ ” recalls Luke. But when he approached Carmen about getting into organics, the older farmer was enthusiastic.

“He just said, ‘Yeah, why wouldn’t you do that?’ ” Peterson recalls.

Such encouragement is great, but means little without practical follow-through skills. Peterson had experience growing his garden organically, but found even that to be a lot of work. He remembers standing on a hill overlooking 80 acres of his family’s land that he wanted to farm organically and thinking, “That’s a big garden. That’s a lot.”

Transitioning to organic doesn’t just require dropping chemicals — it’s a whole new way of managing a field. For example, the first year he tried raising organic soybeans, Peterson planted it with straight, 90-degree corners in the end rows, which makes sense when you can use chemical weed control. But cultivators can’t turn on a dime. He spent the summer hand-hoeing around five acres worth of corner rows.

Fortunately, Fernholz is a big believer in the idea that a lot of “tuition” has to be paid before an organic system is perfected on an individual farm. At one point, the young farmer sat at the kitchen table with Carmen and over a few hours threw question-after-question at him related to weed control, fertility management, prices paid for organic crops, equipment needs, and the amount of labor involved.

“And I think one of the most important things we talked about was that you make all of your own decisions, and you have to decide whether it works for you,” recalls Carmen. “I can tell you what works for me. I can tell you what the shortfalls are. I can tell you what the good things are. There’s going to be tuition that you’re going to pay in terms of weed management, fertility management. I just told him everything: the good, the bad, and the ugly.”

Despite paying a lot of “tuition,” the first couple of years of organic transition went surprisingly well for Peterson, which he credits his relationship with Fernholz to. And in 2015, his marketing received a boost when he connected with the Food Building, a Minneapolis collaborative operation that, through Baker’s Field Flour & Bread, processes specialty, locally-raised small grains. Peterson now raises emmer wheat, oats, flax, and corn for Baker’s Field. This has allowed him to expand his rotation — a key element of success in organic production — while farming relatively few acres.

In 2016, Peterson decided he wanted to up his game as far as getting mentored in organic production. He approached Fernholz about working alongside him that growing season to get even more hands-on instruction. He didn’t want to be paid anything, he just wanted to learn and to test out what Fernholz had been telling him.

Fernholz agreed, and it went well. The older farmer noticed that Peterson had the desire to learn, as well as a lot of patience and tenacity. At one point the young farmer spent hour-after-excruciating-hour cultivating a 30-acre field of soybeans where the plants were only three or four inches high. Top speed—one mile an hour.

“That’s when he really got the understanding of how really focused you have to be in organic,” Fernholz recalls.

It turns out that about that time Carmen and Sally had been thinking seriously about the future of their farming career. They have four adult children who have lives that have taken them away from the farm. But being organic pioneers comes with a bit of a burden — they didn’t want decades of building healthy soil to be reversed by renting it out to a conventional producer.

“The position I found myself in is here I’ve been doing this for 40 years, and there’s no way that I could let this farm go back to conventional operation,” says Fernholz. “If for no other reason than my integrity would be worthless.”

So why not cultivate a farmer in the neighborhood who could continue that organic legacy? At the end of that summer, Carmen made an offer to Luke: How about working for two years on A Frame Farm as an intern, and if that goes well, then taking over full management via a lease?

Luke said he’d think about it, and during the 2017 growing season, they farmed separately. Peterson says it soon became clear this was an opportunity too good to pass up.

“I’d go to a conference, and some big swingers at the conference would be like, ‘You work with Carmen?’ ‘Yeah,’ I’d say. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard, ‘You’re really lucky.’ ”

In 2018 and 2019, Peterson worked alongside Fernholz. He wasn’t paid, but in exchange had access to the older farmer’s equipment for use on his own rented acres. Peterson said the two-year timeline was important for him so that he could see a couple of growing seasons work through a full cycle. Those trial growing seasons were important to Carmen as well. “I needed those two years, because it’s a mental adjustment, for sure, to retire from farming,” he says.

Staying in the Family

The Fernholzes made it clear to Luke that he would probably never have the opportunity to buy A Frame Farm. Seven years ago, Carmen and Sally started a family limited partnership. Through that, they have been gradually gifting the farm to each of their four children, and in 2018, the process was concluded. The Fernholz children now own the farm, and Carmen serves as the general partner, which means he can make decisions such as who to rent it out to.

Fernholz knows how important it is to be able to plan ahead in organic production, so the rental arrangement will be renegotiated every year for the third year out, meaning both will have time to adjust for things that might need changing. Peterson says not having the option of buying the Fernholz land doesn’t bother him.

“I’d like to, of course, buy a piece of land one day, just so I can really think long term,” he says. “But if you look at what farmland goes for right now, I don’t know if that would really be an option anyway.”

Even though Carmen can determine who to rent to, he technically doesn’t own the farm anymore. That’s why before the two-year trial began, all four of the Fernholz children had a chance to get together at Christmas and meet Luke, Ali, and their young children (they had two at the time; now they have three).

“So we sat around this table for two, three, four hours talking. And they got to know Luke and Ali and their children and Luke and Ali go to know my kids,” says Carmen. “I think what really made it a good situation was we’re on the same page as they are—appreciating the soil, appreciating the natural resources, the environment, all those things. So when my four children listened they really felt like we had made a good connection here.”

New Ideas

Those two growing seasons have been productive ones — crop wise and ideas wise. Spend any time with Carmen and Luke, and it’s clear they enjoy working together and figuring out new ways to do things. Carmen is also aware that so much of the way he farms is based on gut instinct, and that’s not always translatable. For example, over four decades Carmen had developed a way of cultivating weeds that was more art than science.

In order to “professionalize” it a bit, the two farmers spent a lot of time those two summers developing an auto-guidance system for the cultivator utilizing high-tech cameras and monitors. At one point, while Luke ran the cultivator, Carmen was walking behind, noting how close they could get to the plants.

“We’d stop and tweak, stop and tweak. I kept kidding that we’ve got to get down to an inch on either side of that soybean plant,” recalls Carmen.

“We were joking, but by the end of the season, we were down to an inch,” says Peterson. “Neither one of us was ever satisfied. Now we have a tool that is a huge breakthrough, because we had that flexibility, and we both put our time and effort into it. It’s going to save a lot of work.”

The two trial seasons also gave Peterson an opportunity to determine what implements he will need to farm the Fernholz land as well as other acres he rents. At the end of the trial, they established a value for each of Carmen’s implements, and set up a payment plan for the pieces Luke will buy.

Having access to good equipment is key to Peterson because it will save him labor, giving him more time to devote to his next enterprise goal — making livestock part of his organic operation. Counting the Fernholz acres, Luke is now farming over 430 acres of organic land. He’s convinced that he needs animals on the land to help with fertility, as well as to add value to certain crops like alfalfa hay. Fernholz agrees. He says his one regret during his long farming career is he never found a way to add livestock to the operation. That’s why he financed the purchase of five beef steers in 2019. Once Luke sells them, he will pay Carmen back. The Fernholzes say they are in a good position financially, and are willing to help bankroll Peterson’s development of a cow-calf beef herd over the next several years.

In 2019, both farmers received USDA Environmental Quality Incentives Program cost-share money to set up rotational grazing systems. Carmen is particularly excited about trying to graze the perennial Kernza he’s been growing.

“It’s really huge for me, because I grew up with cows and calves when I was a kid, and I always said that was the piece that was missing in my whole system,” he says.

Rooted in the Intangibles

On a fall day, Carmen and Luke walk across a driveway on A Frame Farm to check out a thriving stand of corn, ready for harvest. Luke uses his hands to shell a few kernels off a cob — the bright, yellow grain pops in the sunlight, rich in carotene. These acres have not had chemicals applied to them in 40 years. Earthworm middens dot the field’s surface at the base of the corn plants, and an aggregate test done a few months prior showed the soil was extremely resilient. Carmen talks about how in the spring of 2019 they were able to get into this field to plant earlier than their conventional neighbors, despite an extraordinarily wet season. One drawback to the organic system is that it relies on mechanical disturbance of the soil to control weeds, which can lead to erosion and the disruption of the soil’s biology. Soil tests show that decades of organic management on the Fernholz farm have built the soil’s biology to the point where it’s resistant to erosion. Still, Carmen and Luke agree that reducing tillage as much as possible is an important goal.

One way to do that is to suppress weeds with cover cropping. Carmen recently invested in a used high-boy sprayer and Luke’s been modifying it so it can interseed covers into standing row crops.

It’s clear that both generations share a love of farming and reverence for the soil, providing a connection that goes beyond knowing how to set up a cultivator or plan a rotation. When Fernholz and Peterson worked together that first summer in 2016, the older farmer noticed not only that Luke was patient, good with equipment, and hardworking. There was also another, less tangible trait — a love of the soil and the responsibility that comes with that.

“The first day when I bought this farm, I went out and walked the whole 80, just feeling it, getting to see what it was like,” says Fernholz. “That first summer with Luke I talked to him about what every inch of soil on the farm means to me.”

Luke is animated when he talks about that recent soil aggregate test and the ability of livestock to build biology.

“There’s something in the air. I’m not sure why, but there’s a small, growing group of people my age that are really seeing the need for a different way to do farming,” he says. “A lot of it has to do with Carmen.”

Land Stewardship Letter editor Brian DeVore is the author of Wildly Successful Farming: Sustainability and the New Agricultural Land Ethic.

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