The accidental farmer: Minnesota man embraces ‘idyllic lifestyle’
HOFFMAN, Minn. — After Andrew Barsness graduated from high school in 2009, he wasn't sure where his life was going.
"I was going to college in Morris, but I didn't really know what I wanted to do," said the now 27-year-old who grew up in Detroit Lakes.
In 2010, his grandparents, Harry and Ellen Westberg, who lived on a farm north of Hoffman, passed away. Harry grew up on that farm and was a crop farmer his whole life.
"He was 87 when he died and he was still farming," said Barsness.
After his grandparents died, the future of the farm was unknown. Barsness' mom, Cheryl, was a teacher and his dad, Dave, worked for the Department of Natural Resources.
Barsness said he never thought about becoming a farmer until he was urged to try it. Farming, he said, was just never on his radar, despite the fact that he would often spend time at his grandparents farm.
"I decided to try farming 60 acres of soybeans," he said. "My mom (who retired from teaching) had been around the farm and knew how my grandpa ran the farm so we started farming together. She taught me how to drive the tractor, fix things and everything else. It would have been hard to start this without her."
After he decided that the farming business was what he wanted to do, Barsness moved from the Morris campus of the University of Minnesota to the St. Paul campus and then to the Crookston campus. He graduated with a degree in agriculture systems management with a focus on farm and ranch management, he said.
Barsness now lives in his grandparents home, which is more than 100 years old, just outside of Hoffman. He said there is a total of 270 tillable acres on the family farm, but that for now, he rents 160 acres from his mom and aunt Karen, who own the land.
Barsness now doesn't see any other way of life. He enjoys all aspects of farming — from being his own boss and the entrepreneurship aspect of it to working with the tools and machines, being outdoors and watching his plants grow.
"It's really the idyllic lifestyle," he said. "Even though I never considered the aspect of being a farmer, it seems perfect."
With a few years of farming under his belt now, Barsness has moved onto a new venture of sorts — organic farming, which he said is much more challenging than conventional farming.
"You have fewer tools in your toolbox so to speak," he said. "You can't use herbicides or pesticides and your seeds have to be non-GMO."
Barsness said he has nothing against conventional farming, he just tends to prefer a more natural approach.
"I think that all farmers should focus on sustainability, minimizing negative environmental impacts and producing a quality product," said Barsness. "Becoming certified organic demonstrates and rewards dedication to those ideals, and helps ensure that they are a primary focus."
He said from a financial standpoint, a small grain farm like his needs to produce additional product volume or a more valuable product in order to succeed. He has chosen to focus on sustainability, diversification and adding value instead of expanding rapidly.
"Organic grain sells at a significant premium over conventional grain and is much more profitable for my operation," Barsness said.
Eventually, Barsness plans to take over the entire farm, which he hopes to have all organic. He wants to continue to focus on sustainability and further down the road, he wants to start farming specialty crops, such as organic hops, possibly for local breweries. He feels as breweries continue to pop up all over the state, there is a demand for hops.
Barsness also plans to continue his involvement with the Central Minnesota Young Farmers Coalition, whose parent organization is the National Young Farmers Coalition. The local coalition, according to Barsness, exists for members to socialize, network and advocate for young farmers.
The group meets regularly at various locations, said Barsness, and discusses a variety of ag-related issues such as land access, cost of land or even farm policies.
Land access is a huge issue for many young farmers who are just starting out, he said. The cost to start up a farm is prohibitive for anyone, let alone young farmers who may not have any farm connections, said Barsness.
"There is a lot of competition for land and sometimes it's hard to find available land," he said. "Land access is a huge issue. I was fortunate to have access to land that I can rent."
Despite barriers in the farming industry, Barsness shared some advice for those who are just beginning.
"If you are determined and dedicated, then pursue it. There are ways to make it work," he said. "There are programs out there and they can help with the financial aspect. We need more young farmers for food security in the future and to sustain our rural communities."