Farming From Scratch

A Nebraska producer’s burning passion for agriculture restores his family’s farming legacy.

By Jason Jenkins | Photos By Jason Jenkins

Ryan Brodersen was a typical farm kid growing up in the rolling hills of northeast Nebraska. Like so many, he was enamored by the agricultural lifestyle, romanticizing the long days and hard work like only a child can. “When I was a kid, I played farm and helped all I could,” he says. “If I could get out of school to work on the farm, I was going to do it.

“I just had a passion for it. It was in my blood and what I wanted to do,” Ryan says. “I don’t think there was ever a doubt that I was going to farm.

“Until I was 14 and my family moved.”

While the Brodersen family relocated to Yankton, South Dakota, some 45 miles away, Ryan’s heart never left Randolph, Nebraska. “That first year someone else rented our family land, I remember driving by and seeing it planted and harvested. It was painful to watch,” he recalls. “I made up my mind then that if I could ever make it happen, I was going to farm that land again.”

Brodersen returned to the family land… (scroll/swipe right) …and started farming again from scratch.

Five growing seasons would pass without a Brodersen planting a crop — until a 19-year-old Ryan returned, determined to start from scratch. Now, some two decades later, Ryan and his wife, Angie, have built Brodersen Family Farms into a diverse agricultural business endeavor.

“Today, we raise corn and soybeans, roughly half irrigated and half dryland, and a little alfalfa,” Ryan says. “We also have a cow-calf operation and finish antibiotic-free hogs for a niche market.”

Stoking Agricultural Embers

During those years in Yankton, Ryan didn’t put his farming dreams on hold. Instead, he continued his hands-on agriculture education in the employ of several local producers.

“In high school, I was lucky to work for some farmers who were willing to take a chance and give me responsibilities they probably shouldn’t have given a kid,” he says. “By pushing me along in the right direction, it helped me get the confidence to go out and do it on my own.”

Ryan set his sights on college after graduation. He attended South Dakota University for a year, majoring in agronomy. But then, a new opportunity arose.

“My grandma was going to be changing tenants on our family land,” Ryan called. “She jokingly asked me if I wanted to rent it, and I said ‘yes.’”

With corn trading at $1.60 per bushel and soybeans at $4.50, Ryan returned to Randolph and secured a beginning farmer loan through the USDA Farm Service Agency. He bought a tractor and a six-row White planter and planted his first crop in 2002.

“Really, it was a dumb thing to do, but looking back, it was the right thing to do,” he says. “It wasn’t a lot, just 300 acres, but I remember the pride I felt that first time raising my own crop. It’s hard to replace that feeling even today.

“To come back and get the family farm going again — that was my goal, and I felt like I had achieved it.”

Adding Acreage and Animals

For the next few years, Ryan would continue his college education and farm, both for himself and for other local producers. He’d add acres when he could, but he soon realized that row crops alone weren’t going to cut it.

“We wanted to live off our farm full time,” Ryan says. “There’s just so many ups and downs in farming, but with diversification, you typically will ride through those a little better. Bringing livestock back into the operation in 2006 helped us diversify and build income without adding acres.”

Today, the Brodersens maintain a cow-calf herd with about 90 momma cows. They crossbreed black Angus cows with Charolais bulls, resulting in “smoky” calves that are popular with feedlots due to their typically higher feed efficiencies and daily gains than straight Angus. However, Ryan doesn’t send his calves away.

“We fatten them up and finish them out using all of our own feed, then we take them to market,” he says. “It takes about a year and a half until they’re ready, but by walking that grain off the farm, we’re adding value to it.”

Similarly, Ryan also finishes antibiotic-free hogs for a Niman Ranch, a company that works with a network of family farmers across the country to produce beef, pork and lamb raised outdoors following certain animal-welfare standards.

“A lot of people these days want to know that the food they consume was raised a certain way,” Ryan says. “We buy pigs at 22 pounds and raise them in open hoop barns. We fatten them with our feed and sell them when they reach 285 to 290 pounds. The way we do it is kind of old-school. It takes me back to raising hogs like when I was a kid.”

Raising Future Farmers

As Ryan prepares to enter his 21st growing season, the 39-year-old admits that these days he doesn’t take the same chances that he did as a younger grower.

“I didn’t have anyone telling me to pump the brakes,” he says. “I had everything to gain and nothing to lose. Sometimes, the really good lessons cost you a lot, though.”

The future of Brodersen Family Farms lies with Ryan and Angie’s three children — 12-year-old Tate, 9-year-old Jace and 6-month-old Sutton. The older children share the father’s passion for farming.

“I hope that we can keep it going and take it to the next generation,” Ryan says. “Knowing that my great-grandpa, my grandpa, my dad and I have all farmed this land — that the chain didn’t get broken with me — it’s a good feeling.”