Growing up, Joel Talsma had no intention of becoming a farmer. He served in the Army National Guard, including touring Iraq from 2006 to 2007, earned an undergraduate degree in agricultural education, and worked as a grain trader. Joel’s wife, Ellen, grew up as one of six children in the cattle ranch, and she was determined never to marry a farmer. But after meeting at a local church, Joel and Ellen now raise pigs, cattle, sheep and soybeans on their small, diverse farm in Minnesota.
âFor me, corporate office life meant going to the same job every day, looking out the window, wishing I could be outside,â Joel told Food Tank. âIn agriculture, at least on my farm, I never do the same thing all this time.
Farming is a business and a way of life, says Joel. As they raise a family, the couple are grateful to live on the farm and spend more time with their three young children. Joel operates a farm with his father, Glen, so three generations now work and play outdoors together.
But this lifestyle isn’t as easy as simply deciding to become a farmer, Joel explains.
Farmers are rarely able to own their pigs in the conventional production model; instead, they usually set up containment barns and raise pigs supplied by large producers. The conventional pork 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 made his way to full-time farming through a generational transition. He couldn’t have done it without working alongside Glen, he says. Glen also introduced Joel to Niman Ranch, a network of more than 750 independent American smallholder farmers and family ranchers who uphold high standards of sustainable and humane agriculture. With Niman, farmers not only can own their pigs, but they also have a guaranteed market for their product. Importantly, they can do it without investing a lot of capital.
âAgriculture is a very capital intensive industry, especially to start with,â explains Joel. âNiman Ranch offers an opportunity to grow your farm or start farming because you don’t have to go into debt just to start generating cash. You can start using the barns and buildings you already own.
The Niman Ranch model is an alternative to conventional pig farming. It’s put in place to support the longevity of the American farmer, says Joel. âPart of Niman’s goal is to keep the farms profitable. Compared to the agricultural arena today, they want to see their farmers succeed and it shows in their practices, their prices, their engagement with farmers.
The partnership allowed Joel and Ellen to integrate pigs into a diverse rearing system. In addition to livestock, they grow corn for animal 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 have also been involved in initiatives such as local conservation stewardship programs to seed mixtures of monarch butterflies that attract pollinators.
âIt all fits together,â explains Joel. While the conventional agricultural model relies on commercial additives and artificial fertilizers to produce crops, it strives to create more of a closed-loop system. He believes diversity is key, so he continually finds 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 adopt to promote this symbiosis. But he stresses that there is no one right way to cultivate.
“Regardless of the farming method, whether it’s raising pigs for Niman, bees for the local co-op, or thousands of acres of crop, I think every farmer wants what there is. better for his farm, âsays Joel. âAnd they also want what’s best for consumers. As with everything, some people disagree on what this looks like.
Joel pointed out that all farms can move towards a better way to farm. For him, this means maintaining a healthier diversity for crops, animals and the land.
Photo courtesy of Christopher Carson, Unsplash