The big role of small farms

MCINTOSH, Minn. -- For two decades, Strom of Hill River Farm was a ranch without cattle. But Mark Strom, a fifth-generation rancher, brought them back.

Mark Strom feeds yearlings on his ranch near McIntosh, Minn. The part-time rancher is expanding his small herd. Images taken May 6, 2014, near McIntosh, Minn., by John Brose, special to Agweek.

MCINTOSH, Minn. - For two decades, Strom of Hill River Farm was a ranch without cattle. But Mark Strom, a fifth-generation rancher, brought them back.

“Animals, livestock - whether it’s a dog or cat - I pretty much have a passion for it,” he says.

Strom operates Strom of Hill River Farm on a wooded hill overlooking the Hill River north of McIntosh, Minn. He and his wife, Danette, have a small but growing herd of beef cattle that began in 2007.

Mark Strom, 42, also is production shop manager for Team Industries, which builds recreational drive line components in Bagley, Minn. He’s worked there for 21 years and now oversees upwards of 75 employees. The off-farm income allows him to farm, he says.

“My goal is to have the farm pay its way by working it,” Strom says.


Strom reflects the national trend of more small farms, often operated by people with off-farm incomes, according to data from the 2012 Census of Agriculture, released earlier this spring.

“We’re seeing more of that. More big farms, more small farms, fewer farms in the middle. And more farmers with off-farm jobs,” says Jim Stordahl, McIntosh-based ag production systems educator with University of Minnesota Extension, who knows the Strom family.

In most cases, people with off-farm jobs who get into farming “aren’t doing it just for the income. They’re doing it for the lifestyle. They like being part of agriculture,” Stordahl says.

If you spend any time with Strom, you’ll see how much he enjoys being a rancher.


Since 1890

Wayne Strom, Mark’s father, once operated the farm, which has been in the family since 1890. Wayne got out of cattle in the late 1980s. In the 1990s, when times were tough economically, Wayne got out of farming altogether to concentrate on other jobs, including running his own trucking company.

Mark Strom finished high school in 1990 and went to study machine tool manufacturing at a technical college in Alexandria, Minn. He worked for a while in the Twin Cities, but returned to McIntosh in 1993.


“Dad didn’t think me coming back was such a good idea,” Mark Strom recalls. “But it’s worked out pretty well.”

He joined Team Industries in 1993 and has done a lot of things there. His current position, one he clearly takes seriously, “is a very good job for the area,” he says.

His employer knows about his ranching and is good about giving him the flexibility he needs, he says.

Being a farmer and rancher, on the side, always appealed to him. He saw opportunity to do that in 2006 and 2007, when Strom family land began coming off the Conservation Reserve Program in which it had been enrolled.

So in late 2006, Strom bought bred cows and brought them to the farm. He also tried crop farming, but found it wasn’t feasible, given his off-farm job. So he’s been concentrating on his cow-calf operation, which uses Red Angus bulls for breeding.


Cattle country

Rolling hills and often-sandy soil north of McIntosh generally are better suited for cattle than crops, Wayne Strom says.


“This is cattle country here. It always has been,” he says.

Mark Strom says his father helps regularly on the farm. He also praises the contributions of his wife.

“I couldn’t do it without her,” he says.

Danette says farm life “is so peaceful. I just love it.”

The opportunity to work with other family members, including ones of a different generation, is a big reason some people with off-farm jobs get into agriculture, Stordahl says.

Mark and Danette have moved to the farmstead. Wayne, 64, and Vicki, 62, who had been on the farm, now live in town.

Mark Strom says he and his wife sometimes hire labor, too, often from nearby Amish communities, for fencing and working with cattle.



Expanding the herd

Strom has been expanding his herd and hasn’t sold heifers for three years. Forty-eight cows, 13 of them heifers, will calve this spring. When Agweek visited in early May, 38 cows had given birth, with no losses and three sets of twins.

Ultimately, he’d like to have 60 to 75 cows calving each spring.

“It’s not a numbers game. I’m just trying to suit the farm to what works,” he says.

Unusually dry conditions the past two years have complicated expansion. Like much of the Upper Midwest, the McIntosh area suffered from drought in 2012. Unlike much of the region, the McIntosh area also came up short of moisture in 2013.

“I’d say 2013 was tougher than the year before,” Strom says. “In 2013, I only grazed cows for nine weeks. Other than that, I fed 'em the whole time. I started feeding hay in the middle of August.”

The Stroms put up their own hay and get beet pulp from sugar beet processing plants in Crookston, Minn., and East Grand Forks, Minn. They’re also working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to graze cattle on nearby FWS land, with the goal of restoring the land to its original prairie condition, Mark and Wayne say.



Next guy down the line

Mark Strom says he’s made a substantial investment in cattle handling equipment. Work by Temple Grandin, America’s most prominent cattle handling scientist, inspired the corral the Stroms installed.

“I try to do a good job for the next guy down the line (the person who buys the Strom cattle),” Strom says.

The Stroms usually sell their steers in January.

Strom says he’s been careful not to overextend himself financially.

“It’s a lot easier if you’re not up to your neck in debt, if you’re only up to your waist,” he says with a smile.

Strom is reluctant to give advice to others who might be interested in farming or ranching, in addition to having another job.

But he stresses the importance of avoiding too much debt and the need to ask questions of knowledgeable people.


He’s glad he brought back cattle to Strom of Hill River Farm, even after two moisture-short summers.

“I like cattle. I like the country. These dry years were tough, but this is what I want to be doing,” he says.


ANETA, N.D. - You might find Peter Welte in a field near Aneta, N.D. He’ll be wearing jeans and sitting on a tractor.

Or you might find him in the Grand Forks (N.D.) County Courthouse. He’ll be wearing a suit and tie.

But whether he’s in the field or courthouse, he’ll be enjoying what he does.

“I really like them both,” Welte says of his dual career. “I don’t feel like I go to work a day in my life.”

Welte is a fourth-generation producer who farms his family’s land. The family farmstead, where he grew up and his parents still live, is 13 miles northwest of Northwood, N.D., and has an Aneta address. He describes the family farm as “something more than a hobby farm, but something less than a big farm.”

He’s also Grand Forks County state’s attorney, a position known in some states as “county attorney.” Welte acts as a prosecutor and provides legal guidance to county commissioners and other officials.

Welte, 48, says being both a farmer and state’s attorney is unusual but not unique. As far as he knows, other people who have held both roles have served small, rural counties in which the state’s attorney position is part time. In contrast, Grand Forks County includes Grand Forks, North Dakota’s third-largest city.

Welte says his dual career is possible because of his staff, which consists of 11 assistant state’s attorneys and 14 support personnel.

“They’re like my second family. We all support each other,” he says.

He says he’s never heard any complaints, from his staff or others, about his dual career.

“I think about it all the time,” he says. “But to my knowledge, it’s never been an issue.”

He says he always puts in the time needed to be state’s attorney, and is out of the office mostly for spring planting and fall harvest.

“We don’t take family vacations,” he says. “My time on the farm is vacation time, too.”

Voters in Grand Forks County apparently agree Welte is doing the job. He was elected in 2002, reelected in 2006 and 2010 and is running unopposed this fall.


Legal career

Welte graduated with a degree in agricultural economics from North Dakota State University in Fargo. At the time, his parents were in their 50s and not ready to retire. And as Peter Welte notes, “The late 1980s weren’t a great time to get into farming.”

So he took a job with the National Agricultural Statistics Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in New England. “It was a great gig,” he says.

After working with NASS for several years, he returned home to North Dakota in 1992. He worked in Fargo for a TV station and as a blackjack dealer before deciding to attend law school at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks.

“Books had always come kind of easy to me,” he says. The thinking was, income from a law practice would supplement his farm income after he began farming on his own, which he did in 1995.

After finishing law school, he practiced law at offices in Northwood, Larimore and Grand Forks, all of which are in Grand Forks County. Welte and his family live in Larimore today.

In 1997, he began doing legal defense work for indigents in Grand Forks County. About the same time, he was appointed part-time state’s attorney in Steele County, a small, rural county in eastern North Dakota. Steele and Grand Forks counties are in different judicial districts, allowing him to be both a prosecutor and defense attorney at the same time.

“It was crazy, but it was turbo-charging of what went on in court,” he says of the two roles. “What I found was, I really liked the prosecution.”

Besides his prosecution and defense work, he also continued to farm and practice law on his own.

In 1998, he took a full-time job as a Grand Forks County prosecutor. A few years later, the Grand Forks County state’s attorney retired and Welte ended up running for the post.

“I knew that if I wanted to farm, that it would be a little easier for me if I were the boss rather than working for someone else who might not understand, ‘Hey, it’s April, May,  and I need a week off to put a crop in,’” he says.

“So I took a swing at it, caught lightning in a bottle and got elected,” he says.


Farm career

Welte raises wheat and soybeans, a common rotation in the area he farms.

He used to raise other crops, too, but decided to focus on just wheat and beans. It allows him to till wheat fields after they’re harvested and before the soybean harvest begins.

“There are few things more wonderful than being out on the tractor in fall, when it’s dark,” he says. “Just you and the radio and the dirt. It’s just awesome.”

Welte says he probably would raise dry edible beans, too, but growing the crop doesn’t seem to fit, for him, with the U.S. farm bill.

“Candidly, it’s easier to read the law than the farm bill,” he says.

Farmers generally use the winter to catch up on farm bill provisions, marketing and other aspects of agriculture. Welte’s off-farm job, of course, leaves him less time to do that. But he says the North Dakota State University Extension Service and neighboring farmers help give him the information he needs.

Welte farms 1,170 acres, a relatively small amount by North Dakota standards.

The average size of all farms in the state in 2012 was 1,268 acres, according to the 2012 U.S. Census of Agriculture. But the average includes the growing number of so-called hobby farms, or ones of fewer than 50 acres. In 2012 North Dakota had 3,400 such farms, up from 2,655 in 2007. Without those very small farms, the average size of North Dakota farms would be much larger.

Welte says “with another 500 acres, I could probably just farm (generate enough income from farming.) Or if I had some cattle, I could probably just farm.”

He describes his farm as having “good land. Not great, but productive.”

He talks with Agweek in his parents’ home on the family farmstead. His parents, Bud and Fanny, sit in during part of the conversation.

Bud, 82, still helps out on the farm. He says he leaves all the farm decisions to his son.

Peter says he still gets valuable farm insights from his father.

Fanny, 77, says she and her husband enjoy living in the country. A bowl of newly picked crocuses, a spring wildflower that grows in parts of rural North Dakota, sits on a kitchen sill.

She says farming is “such a contrast” from what her son does as state’s attorney.

Peter “just seems so happy when he’s farming,” Bud says.


The future

“My dream right now is to continue to farm here and to work in the state’s attorney office,” Peter Welte says.

He also says, “Maybe, statewide, there would be an office that would be of interest to me. Whether it would be ag commissioner or attorney general, you never know. I don’t have the desire to live in Bismarck (North Dakota’s capital) right now, but never say never.”

For now, he says, “If my health permits, I’d like to do this until I die. Keep the farm going. I’d also like to keep being state’s attorney for as long as the citizens, the voters, will have me.”

Welte shrugs, smiles and says, “If the voters decide to retire me, I can come back here and farm and hang up a shingle (practice law on his own) again. But whatever happens, I love being a farmer.”

CARPIO, N.D. - Marvin Baker tells a story about a peach tree in his backyard in Carpio, N.D.

“I got into an argument with a person at a (South Dakota) nursery that sold peach trees.  They told me, ‘You can’t grow peaches in North Dakota.’ It (the argument) went on for probably an hour. Finally, I took a $50 bill from my wallet and slapped it on the counter and said, ‘Just sell me the peach tree.’ So they sold it to me and it’s been growing for five years now.”

That’s the kind of persistence and unconventional thinking that Baker puts into practice with North Star Farms, a certified organic farm that he and his wife, Ilene, operate in Carpio, a town of 150 people, 27 miles northwest of Minot, northwest North Dakota’s largest city.

Marvin Baker, a 55-year-old veteran journalist, also is editor of the Kenmare (N.D.) News. Kenmare is a town of 1,100, about 23 miles northwest of Carpio.

Baker says experience has taught him to balance his two careers.

“Over time, through trial and error, I’ve become more efficient. I’ve learned what I need to do when I need to do it,” he says.

The organic business raises a wide variety of fruit, vegetables, flowers, herbs, onions and tomatoes, among other products. North Star Farms is especially proud of its garlic.

The business also is experimenting with cotton. Baker tried growing cotton in 2008, too, and “it failed miserably,” he says. Since then, however, the business has added a greenhouse “and I think it (cotton) will be successful.”

North Star Farms doesn’t have a market for the potential cotton crop. Rather, “People have told me through the years that you can’t grow cotton in North Dakota. I want to see if plants will grow to maturity,” Baker says.

North Star Farms once grew tobacco, too, but quit the crop in 2008. Baker used naturally occurring nicotine in the plants to keep away insects. Residue from tobacco plants is natural but isn’t considered organic.

“So, I had to stop growing (it) or put my certification in jeopardy,” Baker says.


CSA, farmers market

The Bakers sell their produce through community-supported agriculture (CSA) and a farmers market in Minot. In a CSA, families or individuals buy a “share” of a garden and receive regular shipments of produce from it.

This will be the third straight year that North Star Farms will supply 63 families with certified organic produce grown on three acres.

“I could probably squeeze 70 out of it, but I’m getting too old to work that hard,” Baker says.

About 85 percent of sales are in Minot, with the rest at the Minot Air Force Base. Most customers are elderly and health conscious or young and receptive to organic food, Baker says.

Baker grew up in Hazelton, N.D., and worked on farms and at the local grain elevator when he was young. His career in journalism has included service at a number of weekly and daily newspapers across North Dakota and with the North Dakota National Guard, from which he’s now retired.

“I love journalism. I’ve been doing it a long time. It comes easy now,” he says.

Baker, who says he thought of having a farm business most of his adult life, bought property in Carpio because the cost of living there is considerably lower than in Minot. The Bakers began their operation in 2004 to help supply family and friends with fresh, naturally grown produce. They expanded in 2005 and again in 2007.

This will be the fourth year North Star has operated its passive solar greenhouse, which uses sunlight to heat the interior. The business also uses a high tunnel that allows North Star Farms to extend its growing season. High tunnels are low-cost, plastic-covered buildings in which crops begin growing sooner in the spring and continue growing longer in the fall.

North Star Farms, 40 miles south of the Canadian border, typically can raise crops outside from the middle of May to the middle of September. It can grow crops inside from the end of March until the end of November.

The Entrepreneurial Center for Horticulture at Dakota College in Bottineau gave North Star Farms a $20,000 grant in 2009 to build the greenhouse.


Help wanted  

North Star Farms’ sales are strong and growing, but finding employees to help meet that demand is challenging, Baker says.

“Our customer base continues to grow. I wish we could hire more employees,” he says.

North Star Farms competes for workers with western North Dakota’s high-paying oil patch. Though the business has had additional workers in the past, Baker currently is its only employee. He hopes to hire help shortly, however. Ilene Baker, an accountant, has an off-farm job but remains involved in North Star Farms’ finances.

Marvin Baker says he enjoys “every aspect of the operation.”

“My only regret is, I don’t have more land. If I did, I could raise more produce. The demand is incredible,” he says.

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