Growing up, Joel Talsma didn’t intend to become a farmer. He served in the Army National Guard, including a tour in Iraq from 2006 to 2007, earned an undergraduate degree in agriculture education, and worked as a grain trader. Joel’s wife, Ellen, grew up as one of six children in cattle farming, and she was determined to never marry a farmer. But after meeting at a local church, Joel and Ellen now raise pigs, cattle, sheep, and soybeans on their small, diversified farm in Minnesota.
“For me, the corporate desk life meant going to the same job each day, staring at the window, wishing I could be outside,” Joel tells Food Tank. “In farming—at least on my farm—I’m never doing the same thing all that long.”
Farming is a business and a lifestyle, Joel says. As they raise a family, the couple is grateful to be living on the farm and spending more time with their three young children. Joel farms with his father, Glen, so three generations now work and play together outdoors.
But this lifestyle isn’t as easy as simply deciding to become a farmer, Joel explains.
Farmers are rarely able to own their hogs in the conventional production model; instead, they typically set up confinement barns and raise hogs provided by large producers. The conventional hog market is also volatile, so farmers’ income is unpredictable. According to Joel, new farmers need leverage or access to resources to get started.
Joel slowly worked his way to full-time farming through a generational transition. He couldn’t have made it without working alongside Glen, he says. Glen also introduced Joel to Niman Ranch, a network of more than 750 small, independent U.S. family farmers and ranchers that uphold high standards of sustainable and humane farming. With Niman, farmers are not only able to own their pigs, but they have a guaranteed market for their product. Importantly, they can do it without investing a lot of capital.
“Farming is a very capital-intensive industry, especially to get started,” Joel explains. “Niman Ranch offers an avenue to grow your farm or begin farming, because you don’t have to bury yourself in debt just to get a cash flow started. You can start utilizing the barns and buildings you already have.”
The Niman Ranch model is an alternative to conventional hog farming. It’s set up to sustain the longevity of the American farmer, Joel says. “Part of Niman’s goal is to see farms stay profitable. By comparison to today’s agriculture arena, they do want to see their farmers succeed and it shows in their practices, their pricing, their engagement with farmers.”
The partnership allowed Joel and Ellen to incorporate hogs into a diversified farming system. In addition to livestock, they grow corn for feed, a variety of cover crops, and small grains for grazing. They focus on maintaining a healthy rotation and reducing fertilizer use through manure management. They’ve also been involved in initiatives like local Conservation Stewardship Programs to seed monarch butterfly mixes that attract pollinators.
“It all fits together,” Joel explains. While the conventional farming model relies on commercial additives and artificial fertilizers to produce crops, he strives to create more of a closed-loop system. He believes that diversity is key, so he’s continually finding new ways to integrate crops and livestock.
As Joel learns more about how soil, bacteria, and microbes interact in a healthy and diverse environment, he realizes that there are many environmentally sustainable practices a farmer can do to promote that symbiosis. But he emphasizes that there’s not one right way of farming.
“No matter the farming method—whether it’s raising pigs for Niman, bees for the local co-op, or thousands of acres of crop—I believe that every farmer wants what’s best for their farm,” Joel says. “And they want what’s best for the consumers, too. Just like with anything, some people disagree about what that looks like.”
Joel emphasized that all farms can be progressing towards a better way of farming. For him, this means maintaining diversity that’s healthier for the crops, animals, and land.
Photo courtesy of Christopher Carson, Unsplash