A PASSION FOR PROGRESS
‘Town Kid’ Turned Expert Farmer Kent Solberg Focuses on Solutions, Mentoring
By Katie Feterl • SFA Multimedia Intern
Though he grew up in the suburbs, agriculture piqued Kent Solberg’s interest at a young age. As a freshman in a high school that served both urban and farm kids, Solberg spotted an “Introduction to Agriculture” class, and excitedly signed up.
“After the first week in class the instructor took me aside and said, ‘You’re not from the farm, are you?’ Well, the answer was no, and I was promptly kicked out of class … foolish me.”
More like foolish teacher. Three degrees in natural resource management later, Solberg has yet to look back. He even bought his own farm: Since 2003, Solberg and his wife, Linda, have raised dairy and beef cattle, hogs, and chickens on their homestead in Wing River Township, Wadena County.
Solberg has spent his entire career doing what he loves: working with and caring for the land. That passion has taken many forms: farming; restoring native prairies; managing wildlife damage, weeds, and brush; assessing and developing habitat management plans; running his agricultural fence business of 18 years; instructing college courses; and serving as SFA Livestock & Grazing Specialist.
In his other roles as SFA’s Minnesota Dairy Initiative Coordinator and a Deep Roots Instructor, Solberg cultivates and shares knowledge supporting the sustainable practices he’s focused on throughout his career with new and seasoned farmers alike: grass-based livestock systems, pasture and grazing management, soil health, cover crops, and livestock integration. And he certainly isn’t all talk – he and his wife utilize high-density grazing, silvopasture, and multi-species cover cropping for soil health and livestock forage on their own farm.
Solberg has a down-to-earth, solutions-based approach to his work that does not go unnoticed by his colleagues. SFA Board President Jim Chamberlin notes, “He’s very pragmatic and not afraid to say that he doesn’t have the answer to every question or a solution to every problem. He also has taught me to put the focus on the goal of building soil health and not on the tools that are used to achieve it. The tools a producer uses can vary, but the effectiveness of the tool in achieving the goal of soil health should be the main consideration in decision making.”
This approach seems to be working. “A lot of the livestock producers I work with are starting to adopt the principles of soil health, such as cover crops, because they can see an immediate benefit by expanding their forage/grazing opportunities,” said Jeff Duchene of NRCS, who has collaborated with Solberg for many years. Together, they have assisted the Crow Wing River Forage Basin Council in putting on field days and workshops to explore issues relevant to that region. “Kent has really helped with educating local producers …on the principles and utility of soil health for their operations. There definitely seems to be more and more interest among livestock producers, and I fully anticipate this momentum to keep building.”
Solberg’s genuine ability to connect with a variety of farmers and discuss sustainability has arguably made him one of the most trusted and recognizable farm leaders in the Upper Midwest. “In large part due to Kent’s work,” Chamberlin said, “SFA has made inroads into moving the needle of conventional agriculture to a more sustainable model.”
In fact, Solberg’s work is part of a quickly growing conversation in agriculture that is garnering interest from more conventional audiences. Despite his dense farm and travel schedule, Solberg took the time to share his thoughts on the work that has become both his lifestyle and an incredible asset to SFA.
Feterl: Why are sustainable farming practices so important to you?
Solberg: In high school, I began noticing not only the environmental issues associated with commodity agriculture but also the decline of rural communities. The push in the 1970s was “Get big or get out,” and smaller farms started to go away. Communities were literally closing their doors, and it became clear to me that the model was broken. I began to ask, “Is this the only way? Can we feed people and protect or enhance our natural resources? Can there be opportunities for new producers?” I began searching for other models. They had to be financially viable, productive, and protect or preferably enhance the environment. Sustainable, or maybe better described as regenerative, farming can and does accomplish all of the above.
What major steps in sustainable agriculture have you seen in your lifetime?
Managed grazing was (and still is) a biggie from the 90s. The recent focus is on soil health, although it is in danger of being watered down through co-opting of the term. Soil health is the biggest opportunity of the past 40 years to move agriculture in a more environmentally and fiscally sustainable direction – all in one package! Often the fiscal and environmental aspects of agriculture on the surface have appeared in conflict with each other. With a soil health focus, it has been clearly demonstrated that we can have both. The principles of soil health have been around for decades; however, we now have the attention of the ag press, the land grant universities, NRCS, SWCD and Extension all at the same time – a rare event. You can hardly open an ag publication in the past five years and not see at least one article on soil health, cover crops, no-till or grazing. We couldn’t pay the mainstream ag press to include articles on sustainable farming 25 years ago. This is HUGE.
What progress would you like to see? What do you think is possible?
I would like to see a truly comprehensive focus on soil health as the dominant agricultural production model. Getting the majority of producers to adopt the principles of soil health as core to their operation would resolve most of the environmental issues we in agriculture have been struggling with for the past 80 years. While there is room for advancement and fine-tuning, the science is sufficient to move this forward. The single greatest obstacle is not lack of information or that adopting soil health is hindered by finances, but the mindset and attitudes of producers. If we can move the majority to rethink their operation, it is possible to see substantial changes on the landscape. Old habits die hard, but low commodity prices and the fiscal struggles of many producers could be one of the greatest motivations for change. I would also like to see the environmental and conservation community jump on the soil health bandwagon. Some conservation organizations have (Audubon, National Wildlife Federation, Trout Unlimited), but many more have been slow in joining us.
Is there an area of agriculture that you think needs the most attention right now?
As alluded to above, the mindset of producers. Soil health means they need to think more on their own, and many are afraid to do this. They have been handed a “recipe” by agronomists for 30 years and that way of farming is all they know. Many haven’t been around livestock since they were children. Some have only been row crop producers, and now we’re asking them to include small grains, cover crops and livestock. Change is uncomfortable to most of us, so we need to have the resources available to help the early adopters of soil health principles make a successful transition. If producers would adopt the principles of soil health as quickly as they embraced precision agriculture or Roundup Ready technology, we could make huge strides in the next five years.
How do you get other people to care about sustainable practices, too?
As my audience is typically farmers, I begin by focusing on potential farm productivity and profitability based on case studies from across the Midwest to share how soil health can help farmers “stay in the game.” Most farmers want to address productivity and profitability on their operations. We have to meet them where they are at, and me being a practitioner of the things I talk about lends credibility to my message. Soil health can be a means of addressing their productivity, profitability goals and SO much more.
How can soil health and enhanced sustainability provide opportunities for new producers to enter agriculture, as well as help re-populate and sustain rural communities?
Let’s begin with a definition of soil health. Soil health is soil function. Soil function is the ability of the soil to capture and store precipitation, and the ability to cycle nutrients. When any soils are functioning well, few, if any, inputs other than seed and the ability to plant are required to produce a crop. Healthy soils are more resilient to weather extremes, thus lowering risk factors. Combined, these factors reduce the cost of production increasing profit potential. When a farm focuses on soil health they are not just sustaining their situation, they are restoring the ability of their soils to a higher level of productivity at reduced costs. As a number of producers who are leading the way in soil health have stated, as we build soil health and improve profitability, established producers don’t need to farm as many acres. This creates opportunities for new producers to enter agriculture. Additionally, water quality is related to soil health. Water quality is related to quality of life – not only for drinking, but also recreation. When provided a choice, people tend to select where they live based on perceived quality of life – maybe even more so than income potential.
What are you most proud of?
While I am astonished that this “town kid” is a farmer, the thing I am most proud of are the new farm start-ups I have been a part of developing – helping others realize their farm dream. One of the greatest moments of my life was helping a beginning farm family I had been working with for several years bring their cows into their new milking parlor for the first time. They had worked long and hard to reach this point. While bringing cows into a new milking facility the first time never goes smoothly, it was monumental for all of us.