According to geopolitical boundaries, the 250 acre Zweber Farm lies in Scott County, though Dakota County to the east is but a stone’s throw away. The Dakota County Fair, an institution that figures large in the Zweber family’s roster of yearly events, is where this generation of Zwebers have shown their cattle and taken home many blue ribbons. It’s where the 4th generation of Zwebers, Tim and Emily, met.
The farm has been in the family for just over 100 years. Tim’s parents, Jon and Lisa Zweber took over the operation from Jon’s father in 1984. A couple of years ago, Tim and his wife Emily joined a long standing tradition by becoming partners in Zweber Farms. Tim’s younger siblings, Sarah, Steven and Samantha still help out on the farm, and one day, Tim and Emily’s children might decide to do the same. Meanwhile, Tim and Emily’s three children ages 7, 5 and 2 like to do the chores with their Papa, and already know all about chopping corn and making haylage.
Like most family farms, the Zwebers are beset by many difficulties. Smart farmers that they are, they have learned to create positives out of negatives. Sited in the Big Woods Area, much of their acreage is characterized by rolling hillsides that taper into tight valleys. Growing crops and running tractors on this steep, sensitive land would expose it to erosion that depletes topsoil at an alarming rate. Instead, they’ve learned to use the land to its best advantage, which means managing most of it for pasture. They rotationally graze their animals on the pastures, and crop the more accessible fields for winter forage.
Not the least of the challenges to the farm is the encroachment of development. Located just 30 miles south of the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Scott County is the fastest growing county in Minnesota, and neighboring Dakota County is the third most populous county in the state. The Zwebers have acquired a lot of neighbors. But they have used the population density of their location to their best advantage with a direct marketing business. They sell the poultry, pork and beef they raise to one nearby restaurant, plus loyal local customers who come right to the farm for pick up. The milk from their herd of 100 Holstein and Brown Swiss cows, is sold exclusively to Organic Valley, the farmer-owned cooperative of which the Zwebers are members.
The decision to join the Organic Valley cooperative was made pretty much jointly with the decision to formally certify the farm as organic. Parents Jon and Lisa had talked about transitioning for a long time. It didn’t make sense to live on the edge at conventional dairy prices when most of their farming practices qualified as organic anyway. When Tim made his decision to stay on the farm, they realized that the only way to bring him in as a partner and make it economically viable was to certify their operation organic. The formal shift would bring them a measure of financial stability and enable Tim to continue farming with his parents. Joining Organic Valley was not a tough decision, Lisa says. “We liked their emphasis on pasturing, and the fact that the farmers own the cooperative.”
Tim grew up thinking organic farming was the normal way to do things. At the University of Minnesota where he got his degree in animal science, he found himself in a frat house with 50 guys also studying agriculture, and most of their experience of farming was conventional. At first, Tim says, there was some ribbing, “But I pretty much convinced everybody that I wasn’t insane. Eventually, most people were more interested in what I was doing and how I was doing it than in making fun of what I did. Making it clear that it’s a good business decision is a great way to help people understand what we’re doing.”
All four Zweber Farms partners say that one of the greatest advantages to going organic is that they have more family time now. To clear enough money to bring Tim in on a conventional operation, they would have had to nearly double their production, which they had neither the acreage nor the inclination to do. “I don’t mind managing people and things,” Tim says, “but there’s a point at which you’re either running a farm or just running a business. I would rather have my life run by 50 cows than 5,000.”
100 cows is still enough to keep a family pretty busy, but the Zwebers spend a lot of their spare time doing activities with their kids. “We go to parks or the zoo, or to the library, and then to bigger events like Dairy Expo and conferences, and state and county fairs.” The Zwebers also like to share their time, and their farming heritage, with as many people as possible. To that end they host many a grade school class on the farm. They also do farm tours for adults, like one sponsored by the Wedge Co-op in Minneapolis. “We like giving tours, having people out so we can ‘show off’ what we do.”
Emily also serves as director of the Minnesota Agriculture in the Classroom Foundation, taking the mission of educating people about farming even farther afield. The federally mandated, privately and publicly funded program produces educational materials for K-12 classes that enable teachers to introduce kids to agriculture. Emily and Tim are pen pals with a class of grade schoolers, and also maintain a blog on the farm’s website (zweberfarms.com). So we can thank the Zwebers for sharing their farm knowledge with urban and suburban folks, along with their delicious, organic, local milk!