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Why farm? Area farmers offer plenty of reasons

Lori Johnson feeds dairy cows before milking while grandson Bently, 4, pitches in. Farmers say an occupational perk is the ability to work alongside family and pass on their work ethic to a new generation. (Karen Tolkkinen / Echo Press)1 / 2
Debra and Brent Johnson, who raise corn and soybeans near Evansville, say developing biofuel markets for their crops keep them positive, and they are also proud of Minnesota for leading in that area. (Contributed) 2 / 2

Times are tough for farmers.

No question.

Amid four years of miserable crop and milk prices, plus a trade war with China, some are sweating their chances of getting an operating loan this spring. If they don't get one, they may be headed to bankruptcy.

Others are having to dip into their savings or borrow on their equity to keep going, hoping that prices will rise in time for them to recover that money.

The tension can, and has, sparked family squabbles and even thoughts of getting out.

So why do farmers persist? We interviewed a half dozen farmers in the Douglas County area to find out what keeps them going and what, if any, bright spots exist.

Biofuels

Debra Johnson, who grows corn and soybeans in Evansville, said a recent biofuels conference in California boosted her spirits. California plans to end fossil fuel use by 2045, which could soon open up new fuel markets for soybeans.

At the conference, Minnesota was singled out as the first state to mandate a biodiesel blend, and as the only state to mandate that diesel contain 20 percent biodiesel in the summer and 5 percent in the winter, she said. The conference also featured a Minnesota speaker who helps cities switch their vehicles to biodiesel.

"It's pretty cool that we are a leader in this," she said.

Johnson also likes the idea of her soybeans helping to provide cleaner air.

"This makes us proud as farmers that our soybeans have more use and we are reducing greenhouse gas by reducing carbon emission," she said. "Biodiesel helps the environment and with proper care and management practices it is a great, sustainable option."

Purpose and meaning

Roger Dittberner milked cows for 40 years, raising his family on his small farm. Now he raises beef cattle, hay and other crops near Parkers Prairie.

He derives pleasure from working the land. He enjoys cutting and baling hay and tending to his cattle. At 72, he said, "I got a reason to get out of bed in the morning."

Having a purpose is key to a healthy life, longevity experts say. And farms are nothing if not filled with purpose.

"You put some seed in the ground and see it grow and in the fall you get to go out and harvest what you planted," Dittberner said.

Switching to beef cattle has freed up Dittberner and his wife to head to the Twin Cities more often to see their grandchildren in their concert performances. Unlike dairy cows, beef cattle don't need to be milked and can be left alone as long as they have hay and their water supply doesn't freeze.

"I'm not tied down the way I was when I had dairy," he said.

No time clock

Bert and Lori Johnson of Osakis started their dairy from scratch 30 years ago and raised their kids there. Like other dairies, they have faced their share of trouble recently. A farmer who had sold land to developers near the Twin Cities relocated his farm to a big piece of land they had been renting. They also lost some cows to illness.

Still, Lori Johnson said, "It's nice not to have to punch a time clock every day."

They milk their Holsteins twice a day, and on their 65-cow dairy they can get to know the cows much better than do those on massive corporate dairies, she said.

"It's a peaceful time to yourself," she said. "It's nice and peaceful, you don't have to deal with people, and you keep the cows fed and happy and healthy."

Her husband Bert likes being his own boss, she said.

Work ethic

Glen Klimek raised eight kids on his dairy farm near Alexandria. While he's about to hand the farm off to his son, Frank, he said one of the greatest rewards in the business came from working with his family. It's one of the few occupations where parents can work side by side with their children, instilling a strong work ethic in them.

Anytime his kids want to work off the farm, they didn't have much trouble.

One guy who hired one of his sons told him, "Any farm kid we'll hire on the spot because they're not afraid of work."

Klimek said he was proud to hear that.

The benefits of farming are many, he said.

"It's watching everything grow and being out there and nobody telling you what you have to do," he said. "I wish there was more income to it."

Farm bill

Glen Klimek's son, Frank Klimek, is married with four children and is is poised to take over the family dairy farm on April 1.

"It's going to be tough with the markets the way they are now. But there's some new programs that are coming out in the new farm bill that will help dairy," he said. "They're supposed to be a lot better, is what they're saying, than in the past."

The federal government hasn't yet released details of those programs, but dairy industry observers are pleased with many of the broader measures passed by Congress.

Dairies scorned the previous farm program as ineffectual in helping them weather the sliding prices of recent years. The new program provides steep discounts on insurance premiums, especially for smaller dairies, and other incentives.

"Congress has done about as much as possible for dairy farmers, given budget constraints and Beltway politics," said Hoard's Dairyman, a national dairy industry publication. "The combination of lower premium costs, added flexibility in production history, and higher margin protection levels should result in a far more effective safety net program."

Klimek said he's looking forward to taking over.

"It's been in the family and I enjoy doing it," he said. "I guess it's not all about the money for me. I enjoy working with cows and it's a great way to raise a family. ... Working with the animals and showing my kids that it takes a lot to produce a quality product."

Local markets

Leroy Thorstad farms close to 2,000 acres near Hoffman and sees a lot of bright spots.

Not only have GPS technology and precision equipment helped him determine exactly how much seed to plant and where, but he's got a growing local market for the beef he raises.

"We've got a quiet revolution going on here," he said. "It's surprising how many people say, 'I'd like to know where my food comes from."

He's able to raise beef to the specifications of his customers, whether they wish beef to be raised on non-GMO feed or for it to be all grass-fed. As a result, he finds that he is holding back more feeder calves every year to raise and finish himself.

Even though the money isn't so great right now, he said, he looks forward to getting out of bed each morning and starting his day because he enjoys what he does.

Plus, his son and his daughter and her husband want to join in on the family farm.

"To me this is exciting, seeing them want to be involved," he said. "It is a good life. ... We get to see these grandchildren grow in a rural setting; it makes for strong people."

Going organic

John Boeddeker of Brandon drives a truck during the day and farms at nights and on weekends raising certified organic barley, corn, soybeans and field peas, among other crops.

"Overall the prices have been really pretty good on organic," he said. "For me, where the challenges come in is the weed control and getting the yield, but I've made a lot of strides in that respect in fertilizer and learning better practices."

Overall, his yields have been rising, and the internet has made it easier to find customers.

The 2019 Farm Bill has increased financial assistance to organic farmers and will provide more assistance to those who want to switch from conventionally-grown crops, which use commercially available sprays and fertilizer, to organically-grown crops, which do not use chemical fertilizers or sprays. It has also provided more inspection for inspections of imported organic crops, which have lowered prices U.S. farmers receive for their crops.

Boeddeker said he welcomes more inspections, which increase public confidence in organic products.

Another bright spot? The community of organic growers.

"They're all willing to help you and share their knowledge," he said. "We want to see each other all succeed if possible."

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