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When Sarah Sortum came back to join her family’s Nebraska ranch in 2006, her brother had already started a side operation for hunting and horseback riding on the land. But it was not at all clear how the operation could support her and her husband. Fresh thinking opened the way.
Ms. Sortum was able to expand the operations into ecotourism and additional leisure activities, alongside raising cattle. She organized a prairie chicken festival that has become a staple every spring, when the male birds do their mating dance.
Her example symbolizes a wider evolution on farms and ranches across the United States. A surge in entrepreneurialism includes large conventional farms looking toward technologies like self-driving tractors to become more efficient. It also includes other operations – usually smaller ones – diversifying into new products and services, such as branded beef and ecotourism.
Ms. Sortum says it’s “really hard” to face all the questions. “What's the best for the land? What's the best for me now? What's the best 50 years from now?” she asks. But grappling with those issues is what’s seeing her through.
With the skill of a safari driver, Sarah Sortum eases her modified Jeep over a rut and bumps to the top of a ridge. Directly in front of her is what looks like a breached sand dune, more at home on an ocean coast than here in the rolling green pastures of central Nebraska. The left half of the knob still has its prairie grass on top, but the right half is completely missing.
“This is a blowout,” says Ms. Sortum. “Wind will just get hold of the sand and blow it out.”
Blowouts were a nuisance when her family was only raising cattle on this 2,000-plus acre spread outside Burwell. Now that the ranch has diversified into ecotourism, they’re suddenly valuable – a feature to show off to tourists and also a place for lizards and kangaroo rats to burrow, making the local wildlife even more diverse, tourist-friendly, and sustainable.
Facing the most difficult downturn in nearly four decades, farmers and ranchers across the United States are experimenting with a burst of new ideas and technologies. The surge in entrepreneurialism stands in sharp contrast to the 1980s, when many operators hunkered down by slashing costs and sending spouses to work in town. And it’s occurring along two tracks. The dominant trend is that large conventional farms, on the cusp of adopting artificial intelligence, self-driving tractors, and other technologies, are getting ever bigger and more efficient. The less visible trend is that other operations – usually smaller ones – are diversifying into new products and services, such as branded beef and ecotourism, to offset low commodity prices.
“$3.50 [per bushel] corn is the mother of invention,” says John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union in Lincoln. The diversification “is all over the board.”
The trend includes people who are relatively new to farming or who returned to it after a time away. Ms. Sortum and her husband, for example, launched the foray into ecotourism after coming back to the ranch in 2006.
It is also being led by farmers who broke the mold during the last downturn and tried something new. In 1985, Leo Barthelmess introduced some sheep into his cattle ranching operation outside Malta, Montana. Now, he and his wife, son, and brother run 1,100 ewes and 700 cows on some 25,000 acres, half of which is owned by the family and half by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. When cattle prices are low, the ranch hopes to make a profit off mutton and the sheep’s wool.
“Diversity is nearly always good,” says Mr. Barthelmess.
Farmers have a long history of adapting to new conditions and technologies. But pioneering them in conservative farm country can be tough.
“Once we started farming, we put in two acres of strawberries, asparagus, raspberries, and an apple orchard,” says Denise O’Brien, who farms with her husband in Atlantic, Iowa. “Professors in horticulture said, ‘You can’t do it.’ We did it anyway.” Nearly four decades later, she’s turned the farm into a community-supported agriculture operation, which sells memberships and supplies its members with certified organic fruits, vegetables, herbs, and flowers. The farm also raises antibiotic- and hormone-free turkeys and chickens.
Ms. O’Brien hasn’t stopped innovating. Over the past five years, she’s incorporated hoop houses, unheated greenhouses that allow her to begin her growing season in March and extend it into December. That longer growing season, in turn, allows her to sell her products year-round.
Another reason farmers resist diversification is that it often requires so much labor or capital that it’s difficult to scale up to commercial size. For example, Michael Kovach of Sharpsville, Pennsylvania, raises among other things chickens both for eggs and meat. But “how that scales, that’s the difficulty,” he says. His farm doesn’t have the capital to build a large building, like commercial operations do, where they raise thousands of chickens by confining them. That’s the exact opposite of the natural, mostly outdoor poultry that he and his customers want.
When Ms. Sortum came back to the ranch here in Nebraska in 2006, her brother had already started a side operation for hunting and horseback riding on the land. But it was not at all clear how the operation could support her and her husband, Mark. He got a job as a substitute teacher and a gig at the local golf course. Having worked at a high-end resort ranch in Colorado, Ms. Sortum was able to expand the ranch’s operations into ecotourism and leisure, such as “tanking.” (It’s a Nebraska tradition: Think large kiddie pool made of steel or plastic with enough built-in seating for a family to float rudderless down a river.)
Ms. Sortum also learned about the prairie plants as well as native birds and their calls. She organized a prairie chicken festival that has become a staple every spring, when the male birds do their mating dance. The ecotourism operation now has a full-time manager and cabins on-site where people can stay overnight (one of them is a restored one-room schoolhouse that her mother attended as a child). Ironically, the hunting trips, which started the diversification, have dwindled to almost nothing, because the guiding requires such long hours.
“We could probably streamline our operations” more, says Ms. Sortum, but she and her brother want to keep several options open for their children if they decide to come back to the ranch. That’s a turnaround from her generation.
“My brother and I didn’t feel we had that option” to return, she says. After the farm crisis of the 1980s, the implicit message from parents was: Go get an education and don’t come back, because there’s no future here.
Now, the message is: Come back if you want, but make sure you can add value to the operation. That can lead to some intergenerational dynamics.
In pickups parked side by side but facing opposite directions, Norman Brugger and his twin sons strategize the remaining chores for the day. The sons have spent the morning showing off their small diversified operation while their father has been trying out an automated planter.
“I absolutely like it,” he says. “I can plant more acres.”
That has been agriculture’s story for the past century. Companies like John Deere and International Harvester mechanized plowing and harvesting so a single farmer could tend more acres with far less labor, which led to ever-bigger farms. And the trend continues. Since 1997, the number of operations with $500,000 or more in annual sales has doubled, according to the latest agricultural census by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The only other kind of farm that’s grown – up 14% – is the smallest operations, which sell $2,500 or less annually.
Now, small startups and big companies, including Airbus, Amazon, and gaming graphics firm Nvidia, are pushing into agriculture technology, which is likely to lead to another jump in big farms. In April, IBM announced it would marry its artificial intelligence, big data, and blockchain know-how with the agronomy expertise of a leading crop-nutrition company in Norway. Deere is using face-recognition software to train insecticide sprayers to recognize and treat specific weeds without hurting the crop.
Because the USDA defines farms so broadly, it’s hard to detect any rise in the diversifying entrepreneurs. Part of the challenge is that when they diversify into nonfarm businesses, like ecotourism, the statistics won’t capture it. Another challenge is that so many farmers are retiring and selling off their land that they’re possibly masking the rise of the younger entrepreneurs, says Jim MacDonald, a specialist in farm structure at the USDA.
For many of those wanting to make food production more natural and environmentally sound, the continued rise of big ag is a blow. Others within the diversification movement say the world needs both types of agriculture. Diversification provides a needed outlet for commercial farmers who can’t afford to rent or buy more land. And the niche markets that farm entrepreneurs rely on would quickly lose their price premiums if even a small number of commercial farmers switched over to fill those markets.
And then there are the compromises – what Ms. Sortum calls her “sacrifice acres” – that environmentally minded farmers and ranchers make because they need to make money off their land. For example, her family feeds grain to cattle in the winter on a concentrated piece of former cropland, a big ag practice that has environmental ramifications.
“It’s really hard,” she says. The land “is your home, it’s your baby, it’s your kid, it’s your spirit. It’s all of that. So you have to make a living off of it and make those decisions: What’s the best for the land? What’s the best for me now? What’s the best 50 years from now? It’s really hard to make those decisions sometimes because you have to make a living. Otherwise you aren’t going to be there.”
Clarence Leong contributed to this report.
This series focuses on solutions to challenges faced by beginning farmers. The other installments include Part 1: What if aspiring farmers have no money for a farm? and Part 2: How a Maine network is helping new farmers stay in the business.