Dan and Erica, and Luke and Liz Elsenpeter
Wright County, Minnesota
Brothers Dan and Luke Elsenpeter are the fifth generation to work their Minnesota land. Between their two young families, the sixth generation is coming on like gangbusters.
Alongside their dad and uncle, the farm was operated conventionally until 2006 when they completed their transition to organic. Like most decisions, they decided to transition after a series of events pointed them relentlessly to organic.
Their dad died of cancer in 2003.
Their mom kept mentioning organic.
Their crop insurance rep even suggested it.
“Our crop insurance rep showed us an 80-acre parcel he was renting that had been used for grazing by an organic farmer,” Luke says. “He started growing crops on it. The soil was so good, he couldn’t believe the yield he was getting.”
“Dan was all for it,” Luke says, “but I was skeptical. I was young at the time, 24, and thinking of my pride and how it would go over in the area. But once I did more research on it, I said the heck with the pride thing. I looked at our operation and thought, What are we doing? Our cows weren’t breeding back, and our ground would hardly produce. Times were tight, and we either had to sell the cows, or one of us would have had to get a job off the farm to support it. What’s the point of farming if you have to do another job just to farm?”
“We decided to turn it around. We quit spraying chemicals and let Mother Nature take her course. We needed to start working with her instead of against her. I don’t think I’d ever seen an earthworm on the place until we went organic. Now there are plenty. When we first got into it we thought the better pay price was the most important thing to us. But then you wrap your mind around it and realize it’s about the overall health of it.”
The transition years weren’t exactly a breeze for the two young families.
“There was a heck of a drought during that time, and we had serious doubts. But now we’re in our sixth year, and I don’t think I’d ever go back. The longer you’re in it, the easier it gets,” Luke says. “Dan and Erica have four boys, and Liz and I have a little girl, and we’re supporting them all off of 90 cows.”
Two of Dan and Luke’s sisters had married dairy farmers. Luke says, “The night I went over there to tell one of my sisters we were going to make the switch, they said we were nuts. Now they’re organic. We bounce ideas off each other and talk about what works and doesn’t work. It’s great to share ideas with somebody.”
Today their acreage consists of over 100 acres of pasture, and 400 of tillable land.
“Before we went organic, we made a couple of small pastures just to get the cows out of the barn and moving around in the summer. We saw health benefits even from that little bit of pasturing. Now we’ve fenced the majority of the cropland right around the barn and converted it to pasture for grazing. We put the cows out as soon as weather allows. Our pastures are a mix of tall fescue, rye grass and other grasses, as well as clover, alfalfa and timothy. It’s tough to get a perfect mix in every bit of pasture because the soil conditions vary all over the farm.”
You can’t help wondering what it’s like to run a business with a sibling.
“When we first started out working together on our own, we didn’t communicate very well. We’d just kinda go our own ways and butt heads once in a while. What turned that pattern around was Erica and Liz. Dan got married in 2004 before we transitioned to organic. And then I got married a couple of years later to Erica’s cousin, Liz.
“Erica and Liz have been a huge plus in keeping all our relationships strong. We’re very fortunate. Communication is open and strong. We talk about pretty much everything we do and everything fits on the same page. About twice a month all four of us will get together and go through our finances and talk about what we want to do, and that really helps. That was Erica and Liz’s idea, of course!”