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These rookie Minnesota farmers are picking a fight with Big Ag

Eric Sannerud and Ben Boo of Mighty Axe Hops in Foley

Eric Sannerud and Ben Boo of Mighty Axe Hops in Foley Emily Utne

Mighty Axe Hops farm sits on sandy loam in Foley, about a half-hour east of St. Cloud.

By August’s new moon, twisting bines of bushy green hops have engulfed 80 acres of two-story trellises. The cones are dry and springy, thick with the aroma of mellow earth. From a distance, these plants stand out like an alien cloud amid a sea of corn and soy.

The hop market has old roots in the Midwest. Prohibition wiped it out. When beer production picked up again, the sunny West Coast became the new hop basket of America.

Twenty-seven-year-old Eric Sannerud’s Mighty Axe is the largest hop farm from Michigan to Idaho. Whereas the typical mega grower in Oregon or Washington sells its harvest to a processer—who then sells it to a broker, who sells it to a marketer—Sannerud hawks straight to brewers in the Twin Cities. His handiwork has shown up at Fair State, Bad Weather, Sociable Cider Werks, and Lake Monster—the “farm” in the farm-to-table equation.

Sannerud grew up in Edina, where not many kids convert to the countryside. His altruistic vision is to reform global food systems, interrupt Minnesota’s mammoth monocultures, and heal chemically dependent soils.

It’s why he grows nine varieties of hops. And in lieu of a spraying system, he irrigates his rows using a drip line that feeds each plant just as much water and fertilizer as it needs, reducing the chance of chemicals being washed into waterways.

Heritage hog farmer Dayna Burtness of Nettle Valley Farm in Spring Grove

Heritage hog farmer Dayna Burtness of Nettle Valley Farm in Spring Grove Susan Du

Sannerud thinks often about breathing life back into farm communities. Over the past half-century, farms grew to gargantuan scale, while the number of people working them dwindled. Countless small farmers were squeezed out, concentrating wealth in the hands of Big Ag, which doesn’t much care whether there’s anyone to deliver the mail, shop at the grocery store, or put kids through local schools.

Somewhere along the way, rural and urban dwellers alike forgot that Minnesota’s unique brand of populist progressivism requires a mutual alliance, Sannerud says. The countryside feels left behind. He’d like to watch that kinship spark again. “It would be insane and beautiful.”

Sannerud’s big-picture imagination is typical of young farmers across the state. Seduced by trading the contrivances of city life for honest, tangible labor, they’ve rejected corporate jobs and metropolitan convenience to work the land for the first time in generations. Often, they practice radically sustainable techniques. No one is spared toil and strain. Inevitably, reality hones their wildest dreams into a test of self-reliance and betterment.

During Sannerud’s first year on Mighty Axe, an early summer hailstorm devastated his entire crop. Nonetheless, he started over. It took three more years to turn a profit, but the dream survived.

“In a world where we’re dramatically losing farmers and not backfilling at all, imagine if we could just turn that around.”

II. The nature of the beast

When the first pioneers broke Minnesota prairie, they raised many varieties of crops by tapping into the land’s natural fertility. When heavy tillage burned it out, they’d restore that native abundance by raising grass-grazing livestock, whose manure would feed the grains, which would in turn feed the animals in a tight nutrient cycle.

It wasn’t until World War II that the same technology used to build munitions allowed for mass production of farm machinery and chemical fertilizer, says Brian DeVore of the Land Stewardship Project, which runs the internationally renowned Farm Beginnings program. Suddenly, farmers no longer had to rely on livestock and crop rotation to build fertility. They could buy it.

At the same time, there was a charge of the big grain traders, including Minnesota’s Cargill, to export products for maximum profits rather than raise crops for local markets.

Government policy turned to subsidizing corn and soybeans to the exclusion of all else. The federal crop insurance program, a giant safety net for commodity crops that aren’t resilient enough to survive extreme weather and disease, benefits the largest corporate farms.

Overproduction pummeled prices. This allowed U.S. crops to compete internationally while devaluing farm work in a global race to the bottom. To make a living growing corn and soybeans, American farmers need at least 1,000 acres. Small farms were bought up. Houses, grain elevators, and barns were razed to consolidate fields. These days, much of the countryside is overseen by management companies, which do the bidding of absentee landlords.

“There are some counties in Minnesota where 95 percent of the land is covered in either corn or beans, and nothing else,” DeVore says. “The transformation of the prairie ecosystem here in the Midwest is one of the biggest we’ve ever seen in history.”

The small- and medium-scale farmers left are increasingly older. The average age of Minnesota farmers is now 55. Those under 35 make up just 6 percent. It’s the same story nationwide.

“Unfortunately in rural communities, there is an attitude among older, retiring farmers that maybe the days of the diversified, small- to medium-sized farm are over, that they’re the last of an era,” DeVore says. “…And that’s a really hard attitude to fight.”

III. Living roots in a sick earth

Aimee Haag and Andy Temple of Rebel Soil

Aimee Haag and Andy Temple of Rebel Soil

Matthew Fitzgerald is 27, a Carleton College graduate who studied religion and political science. An attraction to thorny issues called him to Seattle, where he became a community organizer for immigration reform. The lure of corporate finance jobs with Thrivent and Cargill brought him back to Minneapolis.

Those experiences gave him an appreciation for the glitter of city lights and the inner workings of big business. Still, he’d daydream about building his own enterprise, something at the intersection of environmentalism, community activism, and the great outdoors.

His parents became farmers in midlife, growing organic corn, wheat, alfalfa, kidney beans, and black beans in Glencoe. He ached to return to the country.

Fitzgerald wasn’t sure how he’d strike out on his own. Land cost up to $7,000 an acre in west central Minnesota. If he managed to buy any, chances were that he’d have to build his own house, his own grain bin. A decade-old combine cost $700,000.

It would be impossible for a beginning farmer to compete in conventional grains, so Fitzgerald would also have to go organic.

Conventional farmers could haul their harvest to town and dump it into co-op grain bins near railroad lines. Trains and trucks would carry it seamlessly to ports, where barges would ship it all over the world. Organic farmers must make their own deliveries to far-flung farmers markets, food co-ops, and restaurants.

Despite the daunting barriers to entry, Fitzgerald took out a federal mortgage on a 35-acre slope of land near Hutchinson, about two hours west of the Twin Cities. It was the winter of 2016. The land was as slimy as an ice rink. Melted snow sloshed atop, unwilling to sink through the soil, which had endured years of aggressively tilled corn upon corn.

Organic grain farmer Matthew Fitzgerald of Hutchinson

Organic grain farmer Matthew Fitzgerald of Hutchinson

Corn is ravenous for nitrogen, but it’s inefficient at taking it up. About 30 percent of fertilizer applied to cornfields runs off, eventually draining into the Mississippi River, where it travels to the Gulf of Mexico, contributing to a 9,000 square-mile dead zone.

Minnesota is a pivotal part of the problem because it has a short growing season—at most five months. The rest of the time, the land sits bare and brown, exposed to erosion, as chemicals bleed off.

Fitzgerald set out to rehabilitate his land. He planted alfalfa, a winter-hardy plant used for cattle forage. Its expansive root system creates pathways in the soil to encourage the return of earthworms, which improve the earth’s ability to hold on to water.

It’s an antidote to conventional farming, where fertilizer-addicted soils are producing less, requiring ever more chemicals to maintain harvest levels, leaving farm country lakes too hazardous for swimming.

Healing the land is a long process. Transitioning conventionally farmed soil to certified organic takes three years. Before he gets there, Fitzgerald must grow beans without herbicides and pesticides, without the benefit of selling at premium organic prices.

Fitzgerald lobbies hard on behalf of the Central Minnesota Young Farmer’s Coalition, which helped pass a bill last year that provides state tax credits to retiring farmers who transfer land to the hands of the next generation. His success depends on land access for all.

He counts among his friends many young farmers scattered throughout the state. They, too, gravitate toward specialty crops, making ends meet busing tables and tending bar off-season. They turn to YouTube to patch broken equipment.

Twenty-eight-year-old Andrew Barsness took a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to inherit his grandparents’ farm. A generation removed from agriculture, he nevertheless taught himself the family business using notes his grandfather had written before he died.

Barsness cultivates grains on about 200 acres in Hoffman, where his is the only organic operation. Though no one mocks him to his face, they’re not likely to give him the benefit of confidence.

“I think that people naturally doubt the abilities of young people and newcomers and people doing things different, challenging the status quo. I’ve attracted my fair share of critics.”

Yet his immediate neighbors have been indispensable mentors. So he grinds quietly, waking up early and going to bed late, looking forward to the day he breaks even and can support a small family. But as he lives and breathes in his small corner of the earth, he finds supreme tranquility, beauty, and freedom.

“It’s an opportunity to preserve and improve the land that I’m responsible for and leave it in a better condition than I found it for future generations,” Barsness says. “It’s a meaningful way to contribute to society, and I’m proud to be following in the footsteps of my ancestors.”

III. Happy meat

Kandiyohi County in southwestern Minnesota is one of America’s largest turkey centers, raising more than 5 million turkeys annually for Jennie-O and Willmar Poultry Company, which process sandwich meat for the world.

In a landscape full of large-scale turkey barns, 32-year-old Siri Gossman is raising four varieties of free-range heritage turkeys on a slice of restored native prairie called Floating Islands Farm. It’s located outside New London, a village on a glacial hill with a northwoods feel in the midst of cornfields.

Gossman grew up here, but her family never farmed, and a restless spirit soon carried her to the East Coast, where she attended art school. The economy collapsed as she graduated in 2008, so she traveled the country, apprenticing as a jam maker in Boston, and growing vegetables for a food shelf in Detroit. She spent her winters in Antarctica, washing dishes for the United States’ South Pole research base.

The money she saved went into buying turkeys. So she returns to New London each spring, striking a balance between the two halves of her life—the one born for wanderlust, the other a business of her own. By her measure of fulfillment, there’s no other way to live.

“Being outside working with animals is the point in my day where I feel like I have the most peace of mind, and where I feel like I’m doing the most good.”

On U.S. 52 just outside of Rochester, a herd of dairy cows grazes near a mound of plastic-covered hay bales reading, “Without farming you would be hungry, naked, and sober!” It’s dictated in enormous black scrawl, as though anything less would miss its mark.

Further to the southeast lies Nettle Valley Farm in Spring Grove, where Dayna Burtness and Nick Nguyen raise heritage Kentucky Wattle pigs. Burtness grew up in Coon Rapids and helped launch the student farm at St. Olaf College; Nguyen is a Minneapolis-raised computer engineer.

Fifty years ago, Spring Grove was home to an abundance of small hog farmers. Then overproduction of corn and soy drove down the price of livestock feed, and the factory farm was born. According to Food and Water Watch, a farm policy group, unchecked mergers and acquisitions and poor environmental regulation permitted enormous feedlots to proliferate despite their susceptibility to pandemics and the mass production of hazardous waste.

Burtness’ farm is as unlikely as it gets. She raises pigs on organic barley, peas, apple cider vinegar, vitamins, and minerals. In the summer they scarf grass and ragweed. In the fall they dine on apples, nuts, and forest forage. When they reach 300 pounds, she drives them to a family slaughterhouse.

Customers go straight to the butcher to pick up their orders of dark red pork. Nettle Valley has a waitlist that extends to next season. This year Burtness will have about 40 pigs going to market.

By contrast, the largest birthing feedlot in nearby Fillmore County has 1,500 hogs. And in April, Iowa swine company Catalpa proposed building a 5,000-head facility.

News of the project brought ripples of fear throughout the region. A factory on that scale would generate more than 7 million gallons of liquid manure annually. Unlike oxygenated livestock manure that makes for quality fertilizer, the volatile pig slurry that factories produce gets hosed into giant waste pits beneath grates where overcrowded, overmedicated hogs spend their entire lives. Once or twice a year, the liquid manure gets injected into fields.

That poses a severe risk, because southeastern Minnesota’s “karst” topography has extremely porous bedrock. Should a sinkhole open underneath Catalpa, or its manure pits accidentally spill, all that toxic slurry could drain into aquifers and poison area wells within a matter of hours.

So the neighbors started making calls. Within two hours they’d drummed up 50 people to gather in a church basement. About 800 public comments—the majority in opposition—have been submitted to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. An assorted coalition of rural residents, Amish, and conventional and organic farmers of all sizes bused to St. Paul to meet with Gov. Mark Dayton.

Yet their adversaries in Big Pork wield far greater power. The MPCA has yet to order a full environmental study.

Burtness never imagined that buying a farm would place her across a trench from a company like Catalpa. All she wanted was to raise pigs, hang out with other farm families, and go to church meatball suppers.

The silver lining is she’s part of a community that came together to defend itself, something she never saw in suburban life. Contrary to her parents’ fears of isolation, she’s never felt closer to her friends.

“It’s phenomenal,” she says. “It’s the best thing I’ve ever been involved with. I’m in love with all my neighbors. They’re smart, dedicated, they research this stuff and they know how to come together.

“Rural people are badasses.”

IV. The porous rural-urban divide

Ashanti Williams and Dusty Hinz live in a tiny house in Canton, in southeastern Minnesota Amish country.

It’s completely off the grid, so they use composting toilets, cook on propane burners outdoors, and bathe under the open sky with a battery-powered shower. Without refrigeration, they eat extremely fresh. They carry water from a well on Badgersett Farm, where they work cultivating chestnut and hazelnut trees, and rearing a flock of Icelandic sheep. Badgersett’s owner, Philip Rutter, a meticulous agroforestry scientist, allows them to live on his land for free.

Hinz is a Richfield native, a former co-producer of KFAI’s politics and culture radio show Catalyst. He eventually left to urban farm in New Jersey, where he founded the nonprofit organization Experimental Farm Network, which collects genetically diverse heritage seeds and connects growers who want to hybridize them.

Williams grew up in the Bronx, working on a half-acre park that had been transformed from a vacant lot into the vibrant Taqwa Community Farm, where she raised chickens.

When she met Hinz on a dating app, he told her right away that he intended to return to Minnesota, where he and his siblings had inherited 35 acres of empty field near Willmar. He planned to develop it into a farm someday. At the time, Williams had been working at Trader Joe’s for five years straight. She’d tried to form a union, but it didn’t work out. The job became unbearable.

Williams quickly realized that more than their mutual interest in growing things, the Minnesota boy represented a chance for her to get hands-on farming experience at her own pace without having to purchase land first, then figure out how to work it.

Her mother cannot fathom life without running water, and begs her to return to New York. But her grandfather couldn’t be prouder to hear about the skills she’s learned to survive any situation, even if civilization’s unsustainable systems should collapse tomorrow.

Their ultimate dream is to build their own farm, something that perfects what they’ve learned at Badgersett. They’d have grazing animals that would provide weed control and nutritious droppings, and trees that would sequester carbon dioxide.

They’d like to blaze a diverse urban-to-rural migration path. Plenty of East Coast friends have the ethic and the gall to farm, but need the land to do so.

“Compared to being in a job I don’t feel passionate about, being here has been amazing,” Williams says. “Living off the grid sounds harsh, but it’s also awesome to take a shower outside and look at the views. Just being on the farm, having no one else around, and being one with nature has been really good for my mental health.”

The seemingly impermeable urban-rural divide is an irresistible narrative.

The tale of opioids and poverty, population drain, and the suffering of birthright Americans is so salient that small towns buy into it too, says Ben Winchester, a researcher with the University of Minnesota Extension’s Center for Community Vitality.

In truth, the U.S. rural population has climbed 11 percent since the 1970s. Migration patterns show that although young people do drift toward the city, newcomers have been pouring into rural Minnesota’s food processing regional centers, reinvigorating and strengthening its economy for some 50 years.

“You just don’t see it in a single small town. You have to put a neighborhood together in a sense, and then you’ll find the characteristics of a metro, with finance people, tech people, you name it.”

The real struggle lives in the open country, where land has been consolidated by large corporations, Winchester says. Some counties have zoning that prohibits small farms because buyers must purchase a minimum of 40 acres.

“What’s that going to cost? Almost half a million in some places, and that’s not even a homestead, your capital for starting a small farm,” he says. “You can’t start small. Really, you’ve got to be fairly large to even begin.”

For many young farmers doing the unofficial work of poking holes in the mythology of intractable differences, change begins with gentle introductions.

Aimee Haag and Andy Temple run Rebel Soil Farm in Litchfield, a postage-stamp lot of 4 acres in western Minnesota, where they grow an array of organic vegetables like edible flowers, microgreens, baby roots, and tomatoes that don’t look like tomatoes, squash that doesn’t look like squash. Once a week they deliver to Birchwood Cafe, the Seward Creamery Cafe, and Tenant restaurant in Minneapolis. They’ve been at it for seven years.

At the biweekly farmers market in Hutchinson, Haag and Temple sell their premium produce alongside retiring conventional farmers who are mostly just looking to trade their excess vegetables for cash. No one has any problem with competition from the new kids in the stall next door, since their prices are twice what everyone else charges.

“The reason we’re out here is that we get to have that face-to-face, direct connection with whomever is going to eat our stuff,” Haag says. “People have realized that, over the years, they can come and ask questions if they want to learn about something new and different, fun and crazy. That’s kind of our role here.”

After their first year, neighbors began to take a shine to them, and have been happy to mentor ever since.

“They want people like us to be set up for success.”

For decades, the Hutchinson farmers market was located in the parking lot of a VFW. The city council elected to build a permanent canopy at the old railroad depot downtown.

One early idea was to introduce food stamps—SNAP and EBT—which Republicans in Congress have proposed cutting by as much as $25 billion over 10 years.

Farmers weren’t keen on taking food stamps at first, Haag says. Longtime vendors didn’t want to go through the trouble of waiting weeks to be paid. So the farmers market brought in a SNAP and EBT attendant. Farmers soon realized that customers who came bearing food stamps weren’t what they expected.

On Saturday mornings the Depot Marketplace is a portrait of fertility and hope. Seniors from the fixed-income housing complex amble through. Kids swinging tote bags slip underfoot. They’re enrolled in a program called POP—the Power of Produce club—which gives them $2 in wooden tokens to buy vegetables.

Hunger Solutions, a food access advocacy group, matches every $10 in food stamps that are spent at the farmers market instead of the grocery store, and farmers who accept these benefits get discounted rent on their stall.

“Just by having EBT here, the farmers make a little more money,” Haag says. “Since then we’ve had better retention of vendors, customers. People get excited about having this nice, new thing. There’s space to expand, add more stalls for food trucks, cooking demonstrations. It brings tons of new families to the market.”

V. The good struggle

It’s not been an easy year on the farm. For decades American farmers enjoyed a trade surplus with China, which spends more money on soy and hogs than it makes exporting food to the U.S. But with President Donald Trump’s trade war, farmers are taking fire. Skyrocketing steel prices have bloated the cost of machinery and building materials, delaying startups. Farmers have lost $13 billion in foreign contracts.

Last month Trump announced he’d send $12 billion in emergency aid their way. But farmers, who hold their independence close to heart, don’t want to be on the government dole.

In Glencoe, where Matthew Fitzgerald’s parents grow organic grains, extreme weather has kept margins thin. An unusually rainy summer washed away a chunk of their crop, though not as badly as some corn operations in southern Minnesota.

When voracious army worms invaded, the Fitzgeralds had 24 hours to devise a plan. They ended up finding an organic spray, but as organic farmers, they had no machine to spread it. They called on their neighbors, conventional farmers who dropped everything to help, even though the Fitzgeralds are lone DFLers in the heart of a county where 65 percent voted for Trump in 2016.

“That’s where agriculture is such a unique and powerful arena, because it’s politics, it’s conservation, it’s community, food, and entrepreneurship,” Fitzgerald says. “We farm very differently from our neighbors, but we have a strong respect for what they do, and I think they would respect what we do.”