Beginning farmer profile

Published on Wednesday, 30 November -0001 00:00
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Course helps area couple make farm fantasy into farm reality

Erin Yanish is a self-described "ideas person." But she knows that, especially when taking on an endeavor as challenging as farming, even the best ideas aren't enough.

"I love to come up with great ideas and I sometimes think pixie dust is all you need to accomplish them," Erin, 29, said with a laugh while taking a break recently on the land she and her husband Joe, 26, farm north of Litchfield. "Unfortunately, they don't take that for the mortgage payment."

So in the fall of 2008, the couple enrolled in the Land Stewardship Project's Farm Beginnings course to learn how to turn those fantasies into reality. Twice a month from October to March, the Yanishes traveled to Paynesville to participate in sessions on low-cost, sustainable methods of farming. They learned goal-setting, financial-planning, business-plan creation, alternative marketing and innovative production techniques. The classes were taught by established farmers and other ag professionals representing a range of enterprises: from grass-based livestock production and organic cropping to vegetables and specialty products. The participants also attended on-farm events where they saw firsthand the use of innovative management techniques.

This fall the 2009-2010 Farm Beginnings classes will be held in Spicer, marking the first time the course has been offered in that community. Classes will also be held in River Falls, Wis.

Many of the 2008-2009 class participants were young like Joe and Erin, but there were also mid-career people looking for a change. Some had extensive farming backgrounds; others had none at all.

"My first reaction was, 'Why would I need to take Farm Beginnings?' " recalled Erin, who grew up on a farm in the Litchfield area. "But it helped me to focus and take things from the ideas stage to the planning stage."

Joe said the class linked them to a network of established farmers who provide advice and support on everything from business planning to pasture improvement.

"We can see how their operations are running," he said. "We can learn from their good fortune and mistakes."

Today, the couple's main source of income is Joe's thriving farrier business and a horse-drawn trolley business hired out for celebrations and events. But Joe said Farm Beginnings gave them the confidence to pursue their ultimate goal of converting a 185-acre crop farm formerly owned by Erin's late grandfather, Wilfred Schultz, into an operation that can produce food for local markets. The Yanishes live with their 3-year-old son Gabriel in the original farmhouse. Erin's parents, Wayne and Yvonne Johnson, live on the other side of the property, which was named Silver Leaf Farms
Joe and Erin are establishing a large garden with the hopes of someday direct-marketing vegetables to consumers. But perhaps the most significant change coming to the farm is the 150 acres of grazing paddocks the couple has planned. In recent decades the land had been devoted to intensive row-crop production, and it took its toll in the form of erosion and low organic matter. Joe and Erin are dedicated to bringing life to the land using perennial forages like grass and hay. They have a herd of nine bred Piedmontese cattle that they plan on using as a basis for a grass-fed beef enterprise. This breed, which originated in the Italian Alps, is known for its lean meat. On a recent morning Joe and Erin showed off a former cornfield that had been planted to oats, the first step toward conversion to a rotationally grazed pasture. Next to the stand of oats was an alfalfa field.

"Right here is where there used to be bad erosion," Erin said, pointing to a ditchless slope that ran from the oats down through the alfalfa.

Within a year they hope to have product they can sell to customers interested in grass-fed, lean beef. Developing a consistent market for their products is an important part of the Yanish business plan. Before moving to the farm three years ago, they lived in the Twin Cities. That gave the couple a sense of what many consumers were looking for: a healthy, local product.

It's not uncommon for Farm Beginnings graduates to pursue enterprises related to the growing local foods market, said Nick Olson, who coordinates the program out of Montevideo. Since it was launched a dozen years ago, 380 people have graduated from the Minnesota-region Farm Beginnings program, and 60 percent of them are farming, according to class data.

"Many of those graduates are excited about the new opportunities available in the local foods market," said Olson.

The Yanishes are on their way to joining those ranks of Farm Beginnings graduates who produce food for area consumers. And once that happens, they'd like to help a new group of farmers get established by serving as mentors.

"They're going to be in the same situation we were in, and if we can lend a helping hand, that would be absolutely wonderful," said Joe.

To register for the 2009-2010 Farm Beginnings class in Spicer, call the Land Stewardship Project at (320) 269-2105 or visit