By Jason Walker • SFA Communications Director
Bryan and Jessie Simon came to the 2012 SFA Annual Conference hoping to learn a little, do some networking and make connections that would help them find some land to farm.
What happened exceeded their wildest expectations.
Bryan and Jessie attended a session on Farm Transitions moderated by SFA Livestock and Grazing Coordinator Kent Solberg, who mentioned that he works to help beginning farmers find land. Zeroing in on Kent after the workshop, the Simons described their dream farm: ecologists by education, Bryan and his partner, Ryan Heinen, sought a native oak savanna where they could raise mainly grass-fed beef, pastured poultry and vegetables while returning the land to its natural prairie state.
Rewind a couple hours to when another SFA Annual Conference attendee, Sylvia Luetmer, approached Kent. Seems she had wanted to purchase some investment land and wanted to hook up with some beginning farmers who could rent it.
So Kent linked the Simons with Sylvia, and a year later Lakeside Prairie Farm is grazing cattle, growing oats, raising pastured poultry and eggs, and growing vegetables to sell at farmers markets with plans for a CSA next year. Bryan, Jessie and their newborn son, Charlie, live on the farm while Ryan commutes from nearby Barrett; they’re working to restore their land with prescribed burns and the removal of surplus trees and invasive species like buckthorn. Their land is also nearly surrounded by two lakes, so the farmers are working to restore the lakeshores to their native states.
“I don’t think we can return it to its historic condition because too many things have changed, the climate is changing, too many human impacts,” Bryan said during a recent farm tour. “But we want to have as many species as possible – diversity in our crops and in our native plants.”
Both Bryan and Ryan come from an background in conservation; they’ve each worked for The Nature Conservancy as well as other jobs with the National Park Service (Bryan) and Koochiching County Soil and Water Conservation District and Minnesota Board of Soil and Water Resources (Ryan). Now, they’re soaking up farming knowledge through their on-farm experience, farmer networking within SFA, voracious reading and attending conferences. Bryan also serves on the SFA Central Chapter board.
“Wendell Berry has a quote that I like to use to describe why we became farmers, ‘Why should a conservationist have a positive interest in… farming? There are lots of reasons, but the plainest is: Conservationists eat.’” Bryan said. “While we would like to see much of our current food system torn down, we would rather be builders of its replacement.
“We are out here to produce food without compromise. We are growing food that is healthy, flavorful, and nutrient-dense; food that doesn’t deplete our soil, doesn’t pollute our water and air, or alter the climate. And we’re growing our food in a way supports a rich diversity of wildlife and a vibrant rural community. We aren’t hoping to feed the world – we’re seeking to feed our neighbors.”
The Simons and Heinen are renting their land but after five years they will be given the option to buy from Sylvia Luetmer and her husband, Joe, whose goal is to use the proceeds from the rent and eventual sale to buy more land and, with a similar agreement, help more farmers gain access to it.
Both Bryan and Ryan said that the partnership with the Luetmers gave them a higher ceiling for their farm to grow. Without the Luetmer partnership, the farmers would likely have been able to afford only 40 acres or so and would have had to put time and energy into building a business that couldn’t necessarily sustain two families, even at its peak.
“We would eventually grow out of that farm and then have to find a new farm or else acquire land around it, which is kind of hard to do,” Bryan said. “This farm, we could stay here the rest of our lives and be happy. We’re able to put our sweat equity into this farm and know that we’re not going to just abandon it down the road.”
Ryan agreed that the flexibility of their partnership with the Luetmers allowed them to ease into farming and absorb most any of the issues that threaten any farmer – new or experienced.
“If we had bought a 40-acre farm there’d be more pressure to make profit to make our payments,” Ryan said. “With renting, we have the ability to hopefully make enough but if something fails it’s not the end of our farm.”
The story of Lakeside Prairie Farm is serendipitous, to be sure, but it also helped that the farmers had realistic expectations as well as versatile parameters for the land they sought. Jessie works for the Ashby school district, so a reasonable commute was a determining factor. But that still left hundreds of square miles of fertile central Minnesota as a focal point.
Also, the Simons and Heinen sought land that was in need of restoration. According to SFA’s Solberg, beginning farmers must be realistic in their land requirements when considering a farm business plan. The Lakeside Prairie farmers’ background in conservation meant their idea of “quality” land was land that had potential, not land that already was fully plowable or grazeable.
When Sylvia Luetmer hooked up with Bryan, Jessie and Ryan, she didn’t yet own land. In fact, she and Joe cooperated with their farmers to find a parcel that was workable for Lakeside Prairie given its goals and parameters. They closed on the property in fall 2012, and farm work began almost immediately.
“I think they closed on the farm at 10 a.m. and we were here at noon,” Ryan said. “We wanted prairie and some oak savanna, ideally, with a little bit of wetlands. We got all that and then there was a lake included, too. Two lakes, actually. Their goal is to make this work for us. You couldn’t ask for a better couple to work with.”
Solberg said the well-timed meeting at the Annual Conference was an example of how SFA’s bedrock focus of farmer networking can truly pay off. If anything, Solberg said, SFA wants to create more networking events so more stories like that of Lakeside Prairie Farm can emerge.
“The value of getting together as a group at least once a year and being able to interact and network with folks is something we are intentionally trying to do more,” he said. “We’re asking, ‘How can we get more of these to happen? How do we make it so Lakeside Prairie’s story is not a special story but a common occurrence?’ We’re still wrestling with what’s the best venue to do that.
“But like the old adage says, ‘Word of mouth is the best advertising.’ And that’s what this came down to, people who were just talking and saying, ‘hey, I know some people you need to meet.’ The SFA conference was the right venue to make the connections happen.”