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Posts Tagged ‘prairie’

prairie20hannah

Photo: Melanie Stetson Freeman/ Christian Science Monitor
Young farmers are returning to the prairie as skilled agriculturalists and entrepreneurs —  injecting a much-needed dynamism into that world.

I can’t resist another story about young people who get interested in farming. They’re not only helping to feed us all, they’re setting an example for how people can carve new paths into an uncertain future. Do they get discouraged like the rest of us? My sense is that they don’t have time for that.

Laurent Belsie of the Christian Science Monitor talks to young farmers in Nebraska.

“Outside Unadilla, Hannah Esch walks into her cooler and pulls out packages of rib-eye, brisket, and hamburger. Over the past nine months her new company, Oak Barn Beef, sold out of meat four times and brought in $52,000 in sales. Over the next year, she expects to double those sales numbers. That will [be] when she finishes her last year of college.

“Some 150 miles northwest, the Brugger twins, Matt and Joe, show off how they’re diversifying from traditional agriculture. They directly market the beef from the cows they raise and they grow hops for local microbreweries. But the most visible sign of their commitment to the rural Plains is the two-story farmhouse they’re renovating on the family homestead. …

“It’s the place their great-grandfather bought when he moved here from Switzerland. It’s where their grandfather was born and where they played as children when the house was later rented by people who kept sheep. …

“There’s a new generation of rural entrepreneur returning to the Great Plains. … It’s not clear how big the movement is and whether it can reverse the population decline that’s gone on for a century in the rural Plains. But if energy combined with business and social media savvy can overcome demographic decline, then perhaps these youthful entrepreneurs – the first generation born after the farm crisis of the 1980s – have an opportunity to do it.

‘There is a spirit in these young people that is different than anything I’ve ever experienced,’ says Tom Field, director of the eight-year-old Engler Agribusiness Entrepreneurship Program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

“Of the 120 or more of its alumni, ‘90% of them say their goal is to return – or they choose to live in – a small or rural community. These are students who have had international experiences, had internships on both coasts, but they choose to live and work and play in places where they have a deep affinity with the culture, the people, and the landscape.’ …

“When the Brugger twins first started thinking about a return to the rural Plains, their initial idea was to do something in business development. Then they met with Dr. Field of the Engler program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He urged them to be role models, instead.

“ ‘He was the first one to say, … “The best thing you can do for your community is find what you love to do. Start a business around it and hire people to come back … and show other young people that you can do what you love in a rural community,” ‘ Matt recalls. …

“Now, the recent college graduates run their own company, Upstream Farms. They have 50 cows. They market the beef directly, mostly to the training table program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, which serves high-quality foods to student athletes. They raise hops for nearby craft breweries, and because the university takes only the best cuts of beef, the twins sell the rest of their meat as hamburger to the boutique beer firms. …

“ ‘We like to say that we’re twin brothers farming the Midwest, putting new ideas on old dirt and connecting our customers back to land.’ …

“When the twins proposed building a distillery, their parents responded, ‘That’s really risky, guys,’ Matt recalls. ‘They go, “You guys don’t know what it’s like to live in really, really hard times.” And they’re right. We’re privileged not to have [known] that. And so we do take more risks.’ …

“Stability is fragile on the prairie. Despite the good times, Gothenburg has lost more than 3% of its population since 2010, which puts it back to where it was in 1980, before the farm crisis. In rural Nebraska, however, that counts as a roaring success. …

“The decline in population not only crimps the number of people rural businesses can sell their wares to, but also reduces their labor pool. .. Between 2000 and 2010, the typical rural county in the state (one with no town of 2,500 or more) lost nearly half its population of 20- to 24-year-olds, according to the Center for Public Affairs Research at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. That is partially offset by a 16% net in-migration of 30- to 34-year-olds, presumably people who have worked elsewhere and are now wanting to return to the Great Plains.

“But it’s not enough to reverse the overall trend of Nebraskans settling in urban and suburban areas. In 2010, the two counties containing Omaha and Lincoln as well as the county between them represented just over half of Nebraska’s entire population; by 2050, they’re projected to account for two-thirds. The state’s rural counties are expected to lose population over that time….

“Even if the new generation of entrepreneurs succeeds in their attempts to work the soil, the question is whether they can really help revive the rural Midwest.

“ ‘In my area, I’m gonna guess more [people will move in], just because we are so close to Lincoln and Omaha that people can still live this lifestyle but have the great jobs,’ says Ms. Esch, bouncing along a rolling gravel road in her pickup. ‘How do you go live in the city after this?’

“But the rural parts of Nebraska and other states that aren’t close to a metropolitan area might be another matter. …

“ ‘I think the [communities] that continue to innovate and make it a great place for people to live will have more people,’ she says. ‘But the ones that don’t are going out of business.’ ”

More at the Christian Science Monitor, here.

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061420prairie

Photo: Melanie Stetson Freeman/Christian Science Monitor
In Obert, Nebraska, agriculturists and environmentalists are joining forces to make a more sustainable future for all. In the background are croplands that have been converted from grasslands. In the foreground a rancher’s cow is enjoying inexpensive feed while grasslands get protected.

One reason I like the Christian Science Monitor, besides its great international coverage, is that it’s really good at finding win-win stories in which opposing sides of an issue find common ground.

Laurent Belsie reports, “Slowly, a prairie restoration movement is gaining momentum here in the Great Plains. After decades of plowing up native grasslands to plant crops, some ranchers are moving in the other direction. Helped by environmentalists in a sometimes uneasy alliance, they are restoring prairie pasture, which not only improves water retention and sequesters carbon in the soil, but can also improve their profits by creating better feed, allowing them to brand and sell their beef directly to consumers, or through ecotourism.

“ ‘I’m guardedly optimistic that we will see continued growth in that [revival] as the tourist business grows,’ says Rick Edwards, director of the Center for Great Plains Studies at the University of Nebraska. …

“This new breed of ranchers faces formidable odds. Conversion of the Plains ​– one of the world’s largest remaining grasslands ​– to cropland continues. As of 2017, nearly a third of the northern Great Plains, a swath of land running from central Nebraska to southern Saskatchewan and Alberta, had been converted. In that year alone, more than half a million acres were plowed under. The silver lining: The rate of conversion slowed considerably compared with 2016 in every state except here in South Dakota. It’s not clear why. Also there was a pickup in cropland that had gone back to grass, although it’s not certain that will be a permanent switch.

“Ranching to preserve the grasslands requires new modes of thinking.

“ ‘We’re getting to understand how important healthy grasslands are,’ says Leo Barthelmess, a rancher outside Malta, Montana, and president of the Ranchers Stewardship Alliance. For him, a high priority is making sure that his cattle do not overgraze an area, which means frequently moving the cows. When his father started ranching in the area in 1964, he moved cattle 10 times a year. Now, Mr. Barthelmes moves them 100 times a year, so ‘the grass has the opportunity to regrow.’

“The aha moment for Sarah Sortum, whose family diversified from strictly a ranching operation to an ecotourism business, came when she went searching for nesting areas of the greater prairie chicken on the family ranch. On the northern end, she heard their call and other birdsongs all over; on the southern end, ‘I didn’t hear anything,’ she recalls. ‘I didn’t hear chickens; I didn’t hear grouse; I didn’t hear all the other little birds I was supposed to be hearing.’ …

“An invasive red cedar, far more prevalent on the southern side of the ranch, was providing perches for birds that preyed on the ground-nesting prairie chicken and grouse. For years, getting rid of the trees had been a low priority for the family. Now that the birds were bringing tourists to the farm, removing the nonnative trees became a top priority.

“ ‘Before our tourism … we just managed for grass, because that’s how we make money’ ​– feeding grass to cattle, says Ms. Sortum. ‘Now … the biggest difference from just managing for grass is managing for that diversity, because we realize that everything has value now.’ …

“What changed [South Dakota rancher Jim] Faulstich was the farm crisis of the 1980s. ‘I was either done or I was going to change,’ he says. A typical cow-calf operator, he began looking into holistic management and realized the importance of preserving the health of the prairie. His son-in-law, with whom he ranches, is carrying on the tradition and has already converted some fields from cropland to prairie.

“It’s this kind of mental shift that has environmentalists excited.” Read more details here.

This is where my husband would launch into some version of the song “The Farmer and the Cowman Should Be Friends.” “The Cowman and the Environmentalist”? Hmm. Gotta fit the rhythm.

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