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The Next Wave of Farmers
By Art Hughes
October 9, 2000
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There was a time when a retiring farmer could count on his children to take over the business and carry on the family tradition. But farming is an unattractive career choice in Minnesota compared to many more urban occupations. A program sponsored by the Land Stewardship Project is making small strides bringing new farmers to the state.
Farming 101
One way is by learning how to use low cost methods and treat farming as a skill that requires top-notch management and an attention to the needs of the land and its people. By learning how to set goals and choose tools and methods of production based on those goals, rather than vice-versa.
Land Stewardship Project

For more information:
SE Minnesota: Karen Stettler:

W. Minnesota: Audrey Arner:


DAIRY FARMER DAN FRENCH clearly loves what he does. On a breezy autumn day, he turns a nozzle to fill a stock tank with water, and spends a few silent moments just watching the thirsty Holsteins dip their noses in for a drink.

French left a job at IBM 17 years ago to take up farming on his wife's parents' land. In that time he's seen a lot of his farming neighbors give up.

"People in their 50s, are just getting out," he says. "(They're) saying, 'I don't want to work this hard the rest of my life. My kids aren't coming back, there's no opportunity for anybody else.' They're selling their herds, they're renting out their land for good money."

French is among a handful of farmers who approached the Land Stewardship Project in Lewiston about five years ago. They were looking for a way to help prospective farmers get a start in a business where the trend is toward bigger and more complex operations.

The result is Farm Beginnings, which combines farm-business classes with an extended mentorship. John Kaiser, 31, has worked in the dairy industry for half his life, but hasn't been able to purchase his own land or build a herd. Now, going into his second season on Dan French's farm, he has 25 of his own animals. When he leaves after three years, he'll have even more; well on his way to his own business.

"Our original goal was to get enough of a herd that a bank would be interested in us, maybe 60 cows on a rented farm. I may have an opportunity here to purchase a small only 40-acre farm with buildings that's been in pasture for many years," Kaiser says.

One of the keys to the Farm Beginnings program is focusing on small farms that use niche marketing for a specialized product. French, for instance, has about 130 cows; his nearest neighbor has 10-times that many. Rather than sell to large milk distributors, though, French and Kaiser market what they maintain is a healthier, better tasting, chemical-free product direct to consumers.

Land Stewardship coordinator Karen Stettler says Farm Beginnings helps fulfill a dream for those with a passion for farming.

"Folks who are interested in being on the land. Folks who really want to look at the quality of life for themselves and their children. And using the land in a good way. Folks who are interested in family farming," Stettler says.

Stettler says the program attracts experienced farm hands as well as newcomers to the business. Jerry and Trish Unger may represent the next wave of Minnesota farmers. Jerry Unger found himself unfulfilled and depressed after 20 years as an accountant at a large Seattle law firm. The couple has just finished the first year growing vegetables on 40 acres near Mazeppa and selling them at farmers markets.

"Out here I get up about the same time. I don't have to deal with standing waiting for the bus on both ends. I can go out there and listen to the birds and I can watch things grow and other things grow and try understand their relationships," Jerry Unger says.

Trish Unger, who works part time in Rochester, says it's unlikely they'll ever make even half the income from their previous life. Their first year netted under $2,000.

"We have to give it a try," Trish Unger says. "Fortunately we had enough financial resources to support us for a few years to see if we can do it. And I do think it's the best idea we ever had. I feel like I finally have a mission."

About 30 farmers have gone through Farm Beginnings so far. And this year the program is expanding to Montevideo. Organizers are hopeful that they're building a solid network to assure a future for Minnesota family farms.

Art Hughes covers southeast Minnesota for Minnesota Public Radio. You can reach via e-mail at