In era of fewer farms, Minnesota stands out

Farm census shows big farms growing, tiny ones multiplying and the middle getting squeezed.

As most of the major Farm Belt states lose farms by the thousands, Minnesota is bucking the trend.

In five years the state has gained 2,200 small to micro size farms and added nearly 100 in the mega category -- 2,000 acres or bigger. That has offset the loss of more than 2,100 mid-sized farms, those in the hundreds of acres, the federal government reported Wednesday.

As a group, the state's farmers enjoyed a big increase in income between 2002 and 2007, according to figures gathered last year for a massive nationwide agricultural census. But costs rose dramatically -- up to 90 percent in some categories, particularly for fuel and fertilizer, as energy costs jumped overall.

Still, the hike in income was significant, said Minnesota Agriculture Commissioner Gene Hugoson: from $8.6 billion to $13.2 billion, with the same trend expected to continue through 2008. "Agriculture is still a big part of this state's economy," Hugoson said.

Minnesota is no longer the fastest-growing state in terms of number of farms, as it was in the last five-year period, when it added thousands. This time it was just up slightly. But it still stands out against its Farm Belt cousins: States like Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska and Indiana are still losing thousands more farms in each new census.

The rise of the smaller in Minnesota and many other places, offsetting the losses in mid-sized ones, raises questions about what's really going on. Is it a sign of a new brand of farming -- smaller-scale, more organic, often serving or being created by Minnesota's multitudes of immigrants from around the world? Or is it a sign of wealth, of Range Rover hobby farms with stables in back?

Charli Mills of Valley Natural Foods in Burnsville, which expanded last summer from a hole-in-the-wall place to 10,500 square feet, said it must have something to do with a growing desire for more food choices, and growing numbers of young people digging into the soil to serve them.

'A great food area'

"The Twin Cities is a great food area," she said. "Nowhere else in the country are there are as many natural food co-ops as here. According to my directory, Oregon has 10, Washington State has 12, Texas has two -- and we have 30. There is not enough supply to meet the demand, and that's got to account for the growth in small farms."

Although just a sliver of the market, organic product sales did hit nearly $40 million in 2007, produced by 636 farmers in Minnesota -- a new category in the latest ag census, which is conducted every five years.

Ben Doherty and Erin Johnson, farming a handful of acres near Northfield since 2006 and producing 300 varieties of fruit, vegetables, flowers and herbs, report that they already have a waiting list of 80 families who hope to get a chance to drive to their farm and pick up freshly harvested beans, snow peas and lemon balm. They have bought and are restoring a historic, sprawl-threatened barn from just outside Mankato.

Conversations with a number of smaller farmers, including recent start-ups, suggest a strong link with refugees and other immigrants whose tastes are not always those of the conventional supermarket.

"We had a Greek customer that was making a traditional Greek dinner," said Lori Pint, of rural Scott County, who raises lamb with her husband, Norm. Sitting at the kitchen table and paging through her order book, she ticked off the nationalities of folks she has met in a business she started just a few years ago: "A friend from India who buys lamb twice a year from us ... Russian ... Russian... Russian ... Argentina! Every year they have a traditional Argentinian barbeque. The Ukraine ... India ... Kurd ..."

In another sign of changing demographics as well as changing taste in cheese and milk, inventories of goats have quadrupled in Minnesota over the past 10 years, from fewer than 10,000 to nearly 37,000, a rate of increase far higher than the nation's. The number of commercial goat farms in the Upper Midwest, one expert estimates, has shot from five or six to 600 over the past three decades.

But the number of horses on farms has also soared by more than 20,000 to nearly 100,000 in 10 years, in what would seem to be a sign of rising wealth. In fact, if you type "hobbyfarms.net" into a Web browser, what comes up is a pair of real estate agents in Burnsville who market large-acreage estates.

Grow or get squeezed out

Even as that form of rural acreage spreads, so does the squeeze on the oldest form of farming, the mid-sized spread.

Outside a farmhouse on Biscayne Avenue in Farmington is a sign of the times: a small placard that advertises fresh farm eggs. It's not only milk that's being sold at this longtime dairy farm, but now beef, eggs and apples to supplement the milk income. John Brand owns the mid-sized dairy farm, and he's faced with the prospect of getting bigger or getting out of farming.

Brand's son, Aaron, wants to begin selling his white and brown eggs, as well as apples, at one of the growing number of farmers' markets that have blossomed throughout the state. Sales of the family's Holstein beef have soared in recent years.

To build a new barn and buy more land in a fast-developing area is costly, he said. He could use another couple of dozen cows to help support Aaron, should he marry and begin a family.

Despite higher operating costs and the question of whether his land is worth more for development than for farming, John Brand said he wants to remain a farmer. His own parents never had a big operation, but they sacrificed so three of their sons could get into farming. There aren't many lines of work where three generations can work side by side, each with their own jobs, Brand said.

"It definitely is a lifestyle," he said. "It's seven days a week, but it's something that gets in your blood. Raising a crop, and getting out there and sitting in a combine, and seeing the crop come in. There are a lot of benefits to farming. You get to raise your kids out there on the farm. We've been blessed, very blessed."

David Peterson • 952-882-9023 Joy Powell • 952-882-9017

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