Agriculture, Sustainability June 01, 2023
Sprouting New Farmers
Curating a farm community.
Without a healthy farming community, there may not be fleischkuekle from the tiny Center, North Dakota, golf course kitchen to enjoy on the tailgate during harvest. That's not going to happen on Paul Thomas' watch. The Velva, North Dakota, farmer is passionate about stopping— even reversing—the mass farm community exodus he's witnessed.
He recalls his dad watching farm kid after farm kid leave neighboring farms for town jobs. His dad would sadly say to Paul, "There goes another one."
As the older generation retired, their land would be folded into a neighbor's operation and another farm family would vanish.
"When my wife, Karen, and I moved home from Bismark-Mandan to farm, our concern wasn't that we couldn't make it financially, it was that we wouldn't have enough social interaction or recreation opportunities," Thomas says.
It worked out for them, but now their concern lies with the next generation. Paul and Karen are taking bold steps to ready the next generation and keep their community vibrant and desirable for their children and beyond.
Their son, Jon, graduated college in May 2022 and returned to the farm. Besides family, he works alongside Justin Helseth. Helseth was a high school friend that worked for the Thomases through school before joining full-time in 2019.
Helseth grew up on a small farm, but his grandfather sold the equipment and rented the land before he was old enough to take over. Now, he's learning the trade from Thomas and farming some of those family acres again himself.
"I always knew I wanted to farm, but I didn't know if it was going to be an option for me," he says.
Under Thomas' tutelage, he will be well equipped to continue down the path—and truly know if it's the right choice for him.
"Farming is a business, so it's critical to prepare these guys to be business owners," Thomas says. That means providing them with knowledge beyond agronomics.
"You can teach them skills, but they have to have some skin in the game to really learn," he says.
Buying in. At Thomas' encouragement, both young men cash rent small farms. On those acres they make all their own decisions.
They determine risk levels for insurance, market crops, engage in government programs, issue 1099s and pay Thomas full custom rates for the use of his equipment.
"They pay full rates because it doesn't do the next generation any favors to not make them fully aware of all the costs of doing business," Thomas says. They need to establish their tolerance to risk and understand the undertaking of ag production. It's trial by fire, but on a small scale.
"They're building their farming skill set on a few hundred acres so they'll be ready when it's time to manage a few thousand acres," Thomas says. For now, the acres hopefully produce bonus income on top of their farm salaries.
Thomas also is looking beyond his own farm. As a North Dakota state legislator, he's working to create paths for more animal agriculture through zoning laws and lending programs. He hopes this will allow for diversification and more enticement for young farmers to stay in communities.
He's certainly making progress at home, and the boys are all for it.
"When Paul offered me a job it was a no-brainer. It's been a great experience," Helseth says.
"The more the merrier," Jon adds. A great start for future neighbors. ‡
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