Eighty “shareholders” will pay the Neatons $560 for a full share (or $330 for a half) of sweet peppers, red slicing tomatoes and an assortment of other produce. A grocery store/restaurant in Minneapolis and a suburban school district are among the other customers that will look to this small plot of land for some of their food.
“There aren’t many young people starting up big crop farms,” Nick Neaton said recently in the kitchen of the couple’s farmhouse north of this village of 370 people. “These types of farms are really the only ones for young people to get into.”
Growing up, Nick had helped his father grow traditional crops like corn and soybeans on 1,000 acres of land near Watertown and Winsted. That kind of farm life wasn’t for him — but, after living for several years in Minneapolis, he realized that some kind of life on the land was. He found a kindred spirit in his wife, who had grown up in the woods near Crosslake and also wanted to return to rural life after working in St. Paul and in California.
The Neatons’ aspirations turned into Sweet Beet Farm, which has created some income and a sense of independence for the couple — if not yet a living (both have other jobs). While they plan to buy more land, they are committed to farming on a small and manageable scale.
In an era of creeping industrial farming, the Neatons are among a small group of young Minnesotans who are returning to the land even as demographics show Minnesota’s farms getting larger and its farmers getting older.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the number of Minnesota farms with 1,000 acres or more grew, at just over 1 percent, to 6,262 between 2007 and 2012. During the same period, the number of farms with 1 to 179 acres dropped by 7.3 percent, to 42,905. Meanwhile, the average age of farmers crept upward, from 55.3 years in 2007 to 56.6 years in 2012.
The numbers, drawn from census data, surprised some demographers who had seen trends heading in the other direction.
“There was real optimism heading out of the ’90s and into the 2000s regarding the viability of these (small) farms. It was a time when organics were taking off,” said Ben Winchester, a research fellow for University of Minnesota Extension who has studied the demographics of rural life.
Kent Olson, an economist and dean at University of Minnesota Extension, said the factors driving the growth of industrial farming — such as high land prices and production costs — are likely to continue. Even so, he said, the number of people returning to areas where they grew up to farm, while not a huge number, “is more common than we think.”
Near the banks of Big Stone Lake on the South Dakota border, 150 miles west of the Neatons’ farm, Peter and Anne Schwagerl are preparing for another season of farming on 178 acres. Their crops and livestock — non-genetically modified corn and Natto soybeans, which are used in a traditional Japanese fermented dish, and heritage breed Berkshire hogs — suggest the organic, specialized nature of contemporary family farming.
“If you are going to be a small-scale producer,” Peter Schwagerl said, “the more specialized you have to be.”
Gregg Aamot is a former reporter for the Associated Press and a journalism and English instructor at Ridgewater College and Normandale Community College.