The Planted Row: There is more than one way to farm

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Farm Forum

While my father was visiting me over the holidays, we took a drive around town and ended up, as we usually do, driving slowly through equipment dealer lots. We marveled at the size, complexity, and price tag of tractors, combines and planters.

For the type of farming that is so common here on the Northern Plains, these huge machines are necessary to farm a lot of ground. Budgets and time are tight. With the larger, newer equipment, less people and less hours are required to farm the same land.

The speed advantage should not be underestimated. A wide planter that can accommodate a high rate of speed may be the difference between a good stand and a prevented planting insurance application. A huge combine with a wide header can make the difference between a crop in the bin and a crop in the snow.

For a couple of farm boys from the hills of northern Mississippi equipment for sale around here is pretty impressive. There’s little doubt the Dakotas are riding the wave of the future in agriculture technology.

But the larger equipment brings its own set of problems. I know a farmer here in South Dakota who lost a day’s work because his planter wouldn’t connect with a satellite, and he had to wait until a technician could come out and fix it. If someone had told me even 10 years ago that a farmer would waste a day of planting because he couldn’t communicate with something in outer space, I would have laughed. Not anymore.

And then there’s the price tag. While the first thought my father and I experienced when viewing the new equipment might have been awe at man’s technological achievement, the second was, “How does a young person afford to start farming today?”

The answer is there is more than one kind of farming.

A recent NPR story (available at http://n.pr/14lZUJL) tells of a young couple who bought a house, barn and 38 acres of land (all for $200,000) in Maine, mostly in woods, and turned it into a vegetable farm. They recently hired their first full-time employee. Can you imagine being able to support an employee with only 38 acres of land, and only a few of it in crops? They’re not planting corn and soybeans. Maine, like South Dakota, has a short growing season, and they’re using high tunnels and growing cold-tolerant crops.

This couple found a way to start farming without inheriting a farm, without buying a huge tract of land, and without taking on unreasonable amounts of debt. They are young people who found their way back to the land, and that’s alright by me.

In the NPR story, the director of the University of Maine Cooperative Extension says that farmers under the age of 35 have increased by 40 percent in Maine while nationally they have only increased by 1.5 percent. Farmland is cheaper in Maine than it is in the Midwest, and these statistics suggest that when the cost of entry into a life of farming becomes more affordable, young people will return to agriculture.

Sure, they farm organically and market their crops to people willing to pay a higher price for their food. Sure, they tend to use smaller and older equipment. Sure, their type of farming is labor intensive. No, we probably can’t feed the world’s growing population using those methods.

It’s small scale. It’s local. It’s a way for young people to enter agriculture. At the end of the day, if someone is willing to get their hands dirty and make a living from the land, I’m a fan.

If you’d like to learn more about this kind of farming, I suggest you attend the Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society Winter Conference in Aberdeen on Jan. 22-24. You can learn more at http://bit.ly/1IiBgGy.