Taking Care: Craig Holm and his Minnesota Farm

This Minnesota farmer diversified and found ways to save on inputs and improve yields, all the while striving to look after his neighbors.

By Richard Banks | Photos By Craig Lassig

Craig Holm

Craig Holm

“Everybody’s out watching,” says Craig Holm. “They watch what we do and they see how we do things.”

Don’t get the wrong idea. Holm isn’t wearing a tinfoil hat. His are not words borne of paranoia. Instead, they’re a sort of reflection of the Golden Rule, or on a more earthly, practical level, an awareness that his neighbors appreciate good deeds and a job well done.

Sometimes, those who’ve been watching might even show that gratitude by quietly offering the opportunity to take over their farming operation.

That’s how it went with Holm, a New Ulm, Minn., farmer. A neighbor who was looking to retire asked Holm if he’d take over his 600 acres.

“That was kind of a special moment,” says Holm, “to have enough respect of us for us just to take it over.” It says a lot, too, about the neighbor, who asked to remain anonymous for this story, that he wanted to put his land in good hands and not necessarily in those of the highest bidder.

With that 600-acre addition, Holm now farms mostly corn and beans on about 2,500 acres, some of which was farmed by his parents until his father’s death in 2009. In addition to volunteering for local community causes, he also runs a custom application business—last year spraying about 10,000 acres—and finishes about 9,000 hogs each year on contract.

Holm with Brian Fitzpatrick, a friend who works on the farm on a part-time basis.

Holm with Brian Fitzpatrick, a friend who works on the farm on a part-time basis.

Holm, 45, says he’s diversified in part because he saw opportunities, but also because he figured commodity prices would eventually soften. “It’s just the cycle,” he says, a lesson, along with many others, he learned from his father as well as his mother, Sally, who still works with him on a semi-retired basis.

Those lessons have served as a foundation, Holm says, upon which he’s added new technologies and practices. For instance, he injects into the soil some 1 million gallons of hog manure from his finishing operation. “If you’re smelling manure, you’re losing nitrogen,” says Holm. “You want to get it covered as fast as you can so you hold the nitrogen in.”

As a result, he says he gets about 15 to 20 bushels more of corn per acre than if he’d used conventional fertilizer. Injecting it into about 300 acres—that’s all his manure will cover in a given year—it’s also less expensive, he says.

Holm has also re-introduced an older method of planting beans—with a grain drill. Although he was a little hesitant at first—“There probably haven’t been many of them sold new up in this neighborhood in years,” he says—the bet paid off.

With his Sunflower® 9531 40-foot drill, Holm planted the beans at about 10 inches apart. He explains that many weeds in his area have become resistant to glyphosate. As a result, he says, “These 30-inch space beans [were] letting a bunch of weeds come through that we can’t control.”

Now, with the beans planted closer together, he says, “we get the canopy on, so these weeds can’t push through, they don’t come up … and 99% of the fields are picture-perfect clean. So, it was definitely the right move,” Holm continues, noting that he got some 5 bushels more per acre this past harvest as compared to recent years not using the grain drill.

To help soften the blow of lower commodity prices and the possibility of more expensive inputs, Holm has begun to use autosteer and has purchased new equipment, with both efforts helping decrease fuel costs as well as operator fatigue. He also helped form a small buyer’s group with neighboring farmers. “We’re trying to get more people together so we get bigger quantities … so everyone can get a good price for their fertilizer. I kind of head that up and get the pricing done.”

Yet, a slowdown in the farm economy may not be all bad, since it could actually provide the possibility for growth. “With some of these prices where they are,” explains Holm, “I can see some people retiring that probably wouldn’t have when the marketing was very good.” As a result of those potential retirements, additional farmland could be put in play.

Researchers Jennifer Ifft and Todd Kuethe agree, but with a few clarifications. “As farm incomes are expected to decline and in some cases experience negative returns,” explains Kuethe, “many farmers may decide that now is a nice time to retire.”

If that happens, “there could be a very nice ‘window’ for farmers who are at retirement age to consider selling farmland,” adds Ifft. Kuethe and Ifft, along with Allison Borchers, recently authored a study on factors that influence the price of agricultural land in the U.S.

She may be officially retired, but Holm’s mom, Sally, is still a regular fixture within her son’s operation. She handles tasks, such as making runs for parts and providing lunch for her son and crew.

She may be officially retired, but Holm’s mom, Sally, is still a regular fixture within her son’s operation. She handles tasks, such as making runs for parts and providing lunch for her son and crew.

As for newly available land for rent, Ifft says, “The decision to rent or sell farmland would largely depend on a retiring operator’s financial goals. Renting farmland can provide a steady stream of income over several years, which some retiring operators may prefer.”

The researchers caution, however, that there are many factors—such as estate-related matters and developmental pressures—influencing the decision to sell, as well as land price. For instance, says Kuethe, farmers, on average, “have an ownership stake of less than half of the acres they operate. Of the acres that they do own and operate, most would favor retaining ownership and renting to another operation or passing it on to their heirs.”

Holm, however, isn’t in a hurry to expand. “I’ve got plenty to do,” he says with a smile. He plans to watch input and commodity prices, and keep his eyes and ears open for available land to rent. “These softer commodity prices could lead to a lot more opportunities,” he says, “meaning, maybe [me] picking up more acreage, whether for sale or more likely rent.

“I can see it growing,” Holm says about his farm, “but I don’t want to get it too big. I still want to be able to run it all myself or manage it myself. I still would want to see my farm I guess where it’s more hands-on … and be sure to try and do it right, whatever it may be we’re doing.”

As for when it’s his time to take his hands off the farm’s reins, he’d like to pay it forward. “When I retire from farming, hopefully I’ll be able to do the same thing that happened to me—just kind of pick someone and turn it over to them and kind of set them up.”

He says one day he’ll be the one watching and looking, and when he does, he says, “I’d like to find that farmer who takes care of the land and his neighbors.”