In southeastern Minnesota, Lizy Bryant is apprenticing with her aunt, a long-time farmer and cheesemaker, to take over stewardship of the land and the business, as part of her plan for the next iteration of the farm to be an agricultural retreat for Black Minnesotans.
Lizy Bryant, Singing Hills Dairy, Nerstrand, Minnesota
Singing Hills Goat Dairy is at a moment of transition. Lynne Reeck has stewarded the land for 26 years and operated the goat cheese business since 2008. This year, Reeck’s niece, Lizy Bryant, is apprenticing with her in preparation to take over the business and stewardship of the land. Bryant intends to create an agricultural and artistic retreat space for Black Minnesotans at the farm, both to expand Black land access and knowledge and to provide a majority-Black refuge in an overwhelmingly white state. She is running a GoFundMe campaign so that a broad community can help her to take over the land without debt.
Lizy Bryant spoke with us about her relationship with the land, supporting Black farmers, and the challenges and opportunities of generational farm transfer. We have condensed and edited her words for length and clarity.
Photo credits Yasmin Yassin (except goat close up, Lynne Reeck).
Growing up Black in rural Minnesota
I grew up in small-town Minnesota, spending time on my grandma’s farm near St. Cloud. I worked informally there, and a detassling job in high school was the first time I filled out a W4. I’ve realized what a privilege it is to have grown up in proximity to farming. So many Black folks and other people of color who are drawn to farming don’t even have the level of access to explore it that I did. Part of what I want to create is one more accessible path for these folks.
It was really difficult for me growing up in small-town Minnesota as a Black person, as a woman, as a queer person. I left as soon as I could, and spent eight of the last ten years on the East Coast. I gravitated towards Black-majority spaces, because I wanted to blend in unremarkably and embody my culture without being surveilled.
I came back last July, for a job and family, and for some unnamed force that was pulling at me. In January, I started pursuing the idea of a safe space where Black people can practice agriculture or cultivate their livelihoods. Seven percent of Minnesotans are Black, but they comprise just .03 percent of the state’s farmers, while 84 percent are white but make up more than 99 percent of farmers. When George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis in May, it brought a greater urgency to the project – and in supporting mutual aid networks as part of the uprising, I met other people pursuing similar ideas. It’s part of a larger impulse happening now.
My aunt has been on the land for almost three decades and founded Singing Hills Dairy 12 years ago. She’s a one-woman show. At one time, she had a herd of 70 goats; she was milking 30, and making and selling cheese. She and my other aunt sell at farmers markets on the weekends. Lynne is going to be 66. The farm and business are an amazing feat of her brilliance and endurance – and the life is hard on her.
She thought 2019 was going to be the last year. She needs to get out. But there’s a pressure because like for many small farmers, there’s not a cushion of wealth. A lot is owed and tied up in the bank. So Lynne is continuing to work and hold onto the space so we can facilitate this transfer, as well as training me in all she’s learned about the land, cheesemaking, and animal husbandry.
It’s a challenge and it’s an exciting moment. There’s an incredible energy among Black emerging farmers and farmers of color, while at the same time, there is opportunity opening up as baby-boomer farmers are about to retire, many with children who don’t want to take over the farm. The bridge is equitable land access. This is the moment to harness all these calls for reparations, for equitable redistribution, for addressing how our food systems are weak and flimsy – all these issues that have been so exposed this year.
When my aunt came to the land, it had been used for intensive rowcrop production and the soil was depleted. She responded by leaving it undisturbed and letting it regenerate. She experimented with renting part of her pasture to beef cattle, but found that they were too heavy. She chose goats because – besides loving goats, with their curiosity and curiosity about humans – they have a gentle tread on the land, and that works well here. She raised hogs too, feeding them whey, and selling pastured pork at the farmers market.
Lynne has studied systems like filtration ponds for graywater from the cheesemaking. We’ve been talking about plants that we could put in where a creek enters the property, to enhance filtration of that water. We hope now to establish some of these ideas that she has thought about but has never had the capacity or resources to implement.
In the longer term, I want to plant more trees. Cherries, apples, and hazelnuts have all grown successfully here, and I’d like to grow a real orchard, for the soil and increased biodiversity, as well as for food security and economic potential.
Overall, I’m forming a relationship with these 25 acres. Like when we have genuine connections with people, we don’t want to harm them and we want them to be well – I feel like it’s the same concept with the land. I want to move forward with farming practices following in my aunt’s footsteps, and in the tradition of the people who were here for 10,000 years not disrupting the land in the ways that we have in the last 200 years.
How to leverage privilege
As a Black person who is not independently wealthy, it feels important to leverage the privilege that I do have, which is a privilege that comes from displacement. The reason why I have proximity to farming – why my grandma had a farm, why my aunty grew up on a farm – goes back to Indigenous people being displaced so the land could be given to white settlers. So I’m striving to leverage that privilege in a way that seeks justice, both for Black people and Black farmers who have been historically barred from land access or who have been displaced – and also for the Indigenous people who were displaced from this very land that we’re on.
Those histories are interconnected, and they founded the history of extraction in the US. The history of slavery and the history of Indigenous displacement and genocide are the bed on which our capitalist extractive system is made. I try to hold this with everything I do, from how I’m going to produce a wheel of cheese to figuring out what it looks like in action to create a place for Black people to be surrounded by nature in a rural environment and agricultural space in this state, to just exist without fear and without threat of violence.
Mark Peterson, Bent Gate Farms, Stanton, Iowa
Mark Peterson has been involved with agriculture all his adult life in one form or another. He and his wife Melanie farm about 500 acres of their own and rented land, growing conventional corn, soybeans, wheat, oats, and rye, and a rotation of single- and multi-species cover crops, along with what Mark calls “non-income producing livestock”: a dog, cats, and horses. Peterson is a past board president of Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI) and is in his final year as a board member.
We asked Mark about his cover crop rotation and how it insulates against unpredictability, and about where he finds hope these days. We have condensed and edited his words for length and clarity.
Getting into cover crops
The family we purchased our farm from in 2003 was extraordinarily generous with us and the farm was in great shape. I wanted to make sure that whenever we were done with it, we left it in even better shape. I considered organic; I went to a meeting on organic with presenters who were Practical Farmer members. While we didn’t go that direction, they were infectious enough that I joined PFI on the spot. It was PFI and PFI Strategic Initiatives Director Sarah Carlson who were instrumental in getting me going on cover crops.
I’m in small grains to break up a corn/soybean “rotation” – if you even want to call it that. The small grains add a third crop that’s harvested in July, and then we plant a multi-species cover crop, which needs a longer growing period than you’ll have following corn or soybeans in Iowa. The small grains are the gateway to get us to the multi-species cover crop, which is the ultimate goal.
In less than 10 years doing this, we have seen an increase in organic matter in excess of one full percentage point, which is huge. That’s a free 20 pounds of nitrogen and an extra inch of water-holding capacity. That’s a benefit in two ways: when we have one of these almost-annual “hundred-year floods,” the ground will absorb an extra inch, and then this summer when it got really dry, that’s an extra inch of water you’re holding onto.
The impact of keeping ground covered
One piece of land hadn’t been treated very well prior to us farming it. Our soil agronomist said it was the lowest fertility level that he’d seen in any piece of ground, with a corn suitability rating (CSR) in the 40s (much Iowa farm ground has a CSR in the 90s). We fumbled around with it for a few years and then decided to get drastic.
It was the first piece that we put out with small grains, followed by a multi-species cover crop. I intended to no-till a crop into the cover crop the next spring, but it grew so well that I was nervous about doing that. So we made the decision to bring a neighbor’s cattle in and process the cover crop into these nice cow pies. They did an awesome job of it. Now we graze all of our multi-species cover crop; I think it’s key to get the biology of the manure.
We did no-till corn into it the next spring, followed by no-till soybeans, and corn again the following year. And that second year corn crop was slightly over 200bu/acre! On this very low-CSR ground. I was gobsmacked, to say the least. It was unbelievable.
Committing to a new way of farming
It does take some commitment. The multi-species cover crop rotation is not a year that you’re going to make a lot of money – but I don’t know that you do with corn and soybeans anyway.
It is some work to mess around with small grains, and that’s what you have to do; it’s either that or fallow up to the multi-species cover crop. I’m able to market my small grains: we’ve got a market for wheat 50 miles away; I can market my oats right out of the field to cattle producers; and we sell the rye as cover crop seed.
And then you have to deal with the cattle, which means fence. We formed an alliance with a cattle producer neighbor, and he doesn’t mind stringing fence. There’s a little income there because he pays a little rent on the grazing rights.
Resilience in uncertain times
There’s so many different kinds of uncertainty right now, none of which we can control. With all these big rain events, anything I can do to insulate myself from too much or too little water, too much or too little heat… The extra organic matter helps with that, plus with the cover crops, the surface between your planted rows will be at a lower temperature than with bare black ground.
And then we’ve got wildly variable prices. We put a lot of rye on in the fall, and we’re planning on no-tilling our soybeans into it without terminating the rye right away. I see the potential to take out a pass of chemicals and still raise a good crop. The cereal rye has a natural effect to cut down on weed pressure. It’s not anything magical; if you’ve got a good enough stand out there, the rye’s been growing all winter and it’s got a head start on the weeds. The soybeans kind of like it. So anything a person can do to cut down on costs, whether adding fertility or being able to cut down on weed control, you can make yourself more financially resilient too.
Where do I find hope? In 2020?!
Well, I find hope in these newer “old” methods: we’re going back to how it used to be before herbicides or synthetic fertilizers came into play. Cover crops and small grains were used as fertility enhancements and natural weed control. As we’re going back to those methods, we are becoming more resilient. All of this is consumer-driven, so the hope is that people are becoming more aware – to a point – of where their food is coming from and that they can play a role in asking for things to be more environmentally-friendly.
I see hope in the younger generation. There’s a movement of younger folks in PFI who are going back to the land. They don’t need the shiniest equipment, they pick and choose what they want to keep updated. Using older, smaller equipment, and farming what I call deep rather than wide – getting more off an acre rather than having to farm half the county. They’re more labor-oriented and less mechanically-oriented. That’s very hopeful. I hope it continues to expand.
In the face of climate and pandemic uncertainty, Molly Breslin of Breslin Farms in Ottawa, Illinois, is planting sunflowers, considering trading small grains for intensive cover cropping, and finding hope in the national canning jar shortage.
Molly Breslin, Breslin Farms, Ottawa, Illinois
Molly Breslin has 80 acres in production on a 100-acre farm in Ottawa, Illinois. The farm was started by Molly and her father, John, and is in its 11th year, on land that has been in Molly’s family for generations. John was a retired lawyer when they began, but in recent years he has taught himself immigration law and come out of retirement to work on immigration cases. Molly is now sole proprietor of the certified organic farm. She grows yellow and heirloom corn; soybeans; dry beans; sunflowers; small grains including wheat, rye, and oats; and cover crops.
We asked Molly to reflect on farming in this uncertain time: practicing resilience and finding hope. We have condensed and edited her words for length and clarity.
On the farm, I think of resilience in terms of our ability to adapt as the climate changes. 2019 was the worst year ever, I felt like I was drowning. My 83-year-old neighbor said it was the worst year he’d ever seen too. It was cold and wet during planting and cold and wet during harvest. My cousin kept his combine in my shed until he finished harvest; I planned to do my fall clean-up once he got it out – but he didn’t finish until February 15. So I never cleaned up equipment and put it away, things broke over the winter… That’s what kind of year it was. So I’ve been thinking about ways to make this land more resilient.
One example of how this looks on the ground is that I started growing sunflowers. They don’t make as much money as corn, but they can be planted in the same position in a rotation and they can be planted much later to still make a crop. They’re native, and equipment doesn’t require much modification to deal with them. Last year, I planted 1.5 acres because it was such a bad year and I had a piece of ground where I couldn’t put in anything else. This year, I got a contract for sunflower oil and grew out 30 acres. Sunflowers can be used in an emergency as an alternate crop, or just to diversify cropping possibilities. And we’ll see – when we started growing corn in 2012, organic feed corn was between $12-14/bu. Now it’s $6.75/bu. So we’re not yet in a situation where sunflowers would be more profitable than corn, but we might get there, especially if weather variability means we’re planting later and the crop is already compromised.
Reconsidering farming goals
After 10 years on the farm, I’ve been thinking a lot about my reasons for farming: is it to steward the land for the future or to maintain the farm as a business with yield and profit as the main aim? I’ve been balancing both over the last decade. I have a second job now, which gives me more flexibility to think about different options. For instance, I’m considering taking a quarter to a third of my ground out of production annually and cover cropping it, as an investment in long-term soil building and tillage reduction.
I used to do a lot of direct marketing, including of small grains, which otherwise are notoriously less profitable. I lost those direct markets with the pandemic. If I don’t want to keep pursuing that avenue, I could take small grains out of the cash crop rotation and replace that year with intensive cover crops. I could be improving my ground much more effectively – topsoil renewal, water infiltration, carbon sequestration – if I were focusing on cover cropping, rather than balancing cover crops and making an immediate profit. I’m exploring this idea, it’s moved my thinking toward the long view of the viability of my farm.
Systemic economic resilience
On a larger scale, the pandemic and resulting economic situation have really illuminated that systemic, government-led organization of and support for things like child care, health care, and education is absolutely essential to making farming possible. If we want more people – and especially more women – in farming, which is essentially a risky gamble of an industry, we need to address some of the huge barriers to entry and ensure farmer stability.
Someone recently called and offered me another 100-acre farm. I had sit down and think about it: I have a four-year-old, no childcare due to the pandemic, and a side job. I would like to, but I’m just not sure I can take on any more. We shouldn’t have to take out enormous personal loans to start a business. Wealth gaps created and exacerbated by decades of structural discrimination mean that many people can’t get in at all. Addressing these systemic issues is essential for people doing all kinds of work. Without that, as a nation, we are less resilient in the face of any kind of crisis.
When last season was so bad, there was a lot of cover cropping on prevent-plant acreage. I found that really hopeful. Now that these people have grown a cover crop, maybe they’ll see the benefit and do it again.
I find hope in the common ground I’ve seen out here on climate change. Farmers might not all agree that it’s human-caused, but it’s so obvious that it’s happening and that we need to adapt. I’ve had conversations with conventional farmers about how we’re going to change what we’re doing. I’m seeing farmers interested in more possibilities besides just switching their variety of corn.
The pandemic-based fear of food insecurity has created a canning jar shortage – that gives me hope. People are taking their food supply seriously and taking matters into their own hands on a major scale.
And every year, the spring gives me hope.