On a recent afternoon, Chris Mosel made his way over a creek and through a stand of basswood, oak and maple on his 138-acre Stearns County farm in central Minnesota. As he approached the edge of the woodlot, he stepped over electric fencing that separated the trees from a pasture. This patchwork quilt landscape makes for a nice place to hike, but moving cropping equipment from field to field would be another matter.
“It is kind of an awkward farm,” Mosel said with a laugh. “This is a big part of what I spend my time on, stringing fences on overgrown pastures. People who are serious about corn and soybean farming don’t want this.”
Make no mistake, Mosel, 34, is serious about farming. It’s just that the kind he wants to do — organic, grass-based milk and beef production — doesn’t require hundreds of acres of well-drained, tabletop-flat fields, the kind he grew up around in Sibley County, 100 miles south of here. And that’s a good thing, since Mosel concedes that when he bid on this farm four years ago, there was little competition from other farmers, who were undoubtedly looking for wide-open fields.
Farmland affordability comes at a price. Trying to launch an operation far from his family’s farm means going without the benefits — handy sharing of machinery and labor, for example — of being closer to home. But in a sense, the young farmer’s budding enterprise is still benefiting from the resources a typical family farm transition can provide. The sustainable ideas of the older generation can be passed on over the miles.
Chris’s father, Darrel Mosel, began farming in Sibley County in 1981, and today, he and his wife, Diane, raise crops and livestock on about 900 acres. This flat, fertile land makes it prime for row-cropping, and the Mosel operation stands out because of the presence of a dairy herd, pasture, small grains and hay. Darrel feels that dairying, with its regular milk checks and reliance on multiple feed sources, offers a good opportunity to make it as a diverse, family farm on a moderate scale. He also believes that farming should be done in a way that protects natural resources. Livestock provide an economic reason to have cover on the land and roots in the ground all year long.
Darrel, 62, is beginning to wind down his farming career. The timing could be good, with Chris wanting to make his farm enterprise a full-time venture. Darrel realizes that his son’s interest in agriculture is unusual, considering that many of his contemporaries are seeing their children leave the land.
“I sat down at one time with the county plat map, and I realized that every farmer within a five-mile radius of me is someone my age, and almost none of them have kids who are going to take over,” Darrel said.
After high school, Chris got a resource economics and international relations degree from Cornell University in New York. However, the dream of farming drew him back to Minnesota. In 2011, he began farming part time on land owned by his maternal grandparents in Stearns County, which has a hilly landscape broken up by waterways and timber. This rugged layout can make farmland in that county more affordable than what’s found further south.
Four years ago, Chris found the 138-acre parcel near his grandparents’ place, and it had just what he needed — a mix of pasture and crop fields, along with a milking parlor and silos. No livestock had been on the farm in two decades and the fencing and other facilities needed work, but the price was right.
He is purchasing the farm on a contract for deed, a process that delays when he will take complete ownership. But the arrangement allows him to work the farm and sell crops he produces there while grazing a few cattle. Even more importantly, he can build up the infrastructure needed to make this operation a working dairy again. What Mosel is most excited about is a new fencing system that makes it possible for a cow herd to get much of its nutrition by rotationally grazing the pastures.
Father and son talk about the ideal situation: Just as Darrel is wrapping up a three-decades-plus dairying career, Chris will be launching his. That new operation may be miles away in a different landscape using non-conventional methods, but it will be based on a common belief — integrating livestock, crops and pasture on a moderate scale can pay off economically and environmentally. Chris feels he has a competitive advantage over farmers whose business model is based on thousands of acres of prime land.
“If you’re serious about grazing, you can farm around wooded areas and water,” he said. “Now it’s about just taking the leap and making sure it’s profitable.”