FINLAYSON, Minn. — It's different for livestock farmer Hannah Bernhardt this summer, when on a 90-plus degree day a bull and a ram bust free from their fencing to run loose in the woods together, she's not alone to chase them.
Medicine Creek Farm is located on 160-acres of hay fields on the outskirts of the town of Finlayson, Minn, about an hour drive south of Duluth. Bernhardt and her husband, Jason Misik, took over the land which was used to grow conventional crops before they arrived.
"It's not like we're just wanting people to buy from us to sell meat and make money," said Bernhardt. "We want people to experience what it is we are doing, and how we're trying to farm alongside nature, and give the animals that are nourishing us a good life that we feel good about."
Bernhardt is the principal farmer of the operation and uses rotational grazing and other "humane animal welfare practices"to raise their animals.
Before COVID-19, Jason worked a job in the Twin Cities and would sometimes be gone for as long as a week. So with help from her 3-year old son, Harvey, Bernhardt got used to doing all the livestock handling on her own.
"I would never say that I could do this by myself," said Bernhardt. "My husband has been key to us having all we have, from building all the infrastructure and helping us get up and running."
The land was raw when they bought it and had no house to live in. Jason built a house for them and a pole shed, along with burying water lines and fixing various machinery. He now works closer to the farm as the director of a youth camp.
Thom Petersen, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, knows Bernhardt well as the two live in the same county.
"Her farm's really cool, just with the diversity that she has there on the bare land," said Petersen.
He got to know Bernhardt when she joined Pine County's Farmers Union chapter, and said she is an "awesome person to have in policy discussions" because of her background.
Time to make a vision reality
With Misik around more now to help with the operation, the two are planning to turn the farm into more than just a livestock operation.
"Part of that is to bring more people to the farm, to experience it," said Bernhardt.
Misik found and rescued an 1880s timber frame barn in southern Minnesota that was going to be torn down and brought it back to the farm. It sat in the couple's pole shed for a couple years.
"As it sat there, we sort of started to think of a bigger vision for what we're doing here," said Bernhardt.
That vision included having a farm store and commercial kitchen that could be used to host pop-up meal events, said Bernhardt, and for the local food community to make value added products at. The couple also always had dreams of hosting a farm stay on the land.
"It would be great to have a place here for people to come and stay," she said. "And not just stay for the afternoon, but for the weekend or week, and get to see all the chores we do and how it works every day."
Their vision also includes having a community space for live music and workshops.
After sitting on that vision and thinking about it for years, Misik being laid off from his job in the Twin Cities kicked it into gear, and the couple is now overseeing construction of the future farm store/rental space on the farm.
"The more we talked to people about it, the more it bolstered us to go for it," said Bernhardt. "It seems like a big vision, but people are longing for that."
It was nice for Bernhardt having Misik around on the day the bull and ram busted free, too, as the animals eventually made their way for the still-wet cement on the work site. Luckily, they were able to be turned away.
Without generational infrastructure and investment, the hurdles now are higher than ever for young farmers to break into and survive in the industry, said Bernhardt.
Hannah and Jason could get a loan from a nonfarming bank to build their house, but once they said they would farm the land, it was considered by the bank to be too big of a risk.
"Just the idea of farming in America is too risky for a regular bank," she said. "So there has to be this whole other banking system that's willing to take the risk on farmers.
Within the last decade, the USDA started issuing loans to "underserved producers," designed to be restitution for its history of racial discrimination.
"It's important to recognize that the USDA has been sued for discrimination, and that's why they've implemented some of these programs," she said. "But I think they are getting better."
Petersen said in his 20-plus year career in agriculture, there's been a persistent uptick in females doing most of the farm labor on top of making most of the decisions for their operations.
"It's not a surprise anymore to see female farmers that are active in farming and organizations and in making decisions," said Petersen.
Bernhardt's grandma, who died last year at 100 years old, told stories about being in the same field as her grandpa on separate tractors.
"Women have always been involved in agriculture, whether it's in the barn or in the tractor, they've always been integral for the farm working," said Bernhardt.
Bernhardt, said only recently did the USDA add a question about how many operators there were on the land. It's led to her and other women farmers to be recognized as principal operators.
"All these conventional farm wives have been doing farm work forever, it's just never been counted," she said. "They've been in the barns, or on the tractors, and just weren't the principal operator."
In Minnesota, Petersen said the number of female farmers increased 24% from 2012 to 2017. He said he's noticed that females are more active than male farmers when it comes to food, and how food gets to consumers.
"There's a lot of opportunity, especially in the local markets, for female farmers," he said.
Bernhardt said from her experience, Local Farm Service Agency offices are definitely getting better at recognizing gaps from race and gender.
"That may be because when you walk into an FSA office, especially in Minnesota, it's almost all women who work there," she said.
Hannah and Jason took a Farm Beginnings class with the Land Stewardship Project years ago. The female instructor, Dori Eder, was a primary farmer but because the land was purchased with her husband, any mail from the USDA was addressed to him.
This type of negligence stuck with Bernhardt, and she took to social media after the same thing happened to her, when a USDA form was mailed to them with Jason's name on the front.
While incorrectly addressed mail could be seen as a computerized or procedural failure, there are other instances in agriculture where Bernhardt said women are still not getting the respect they deserve.
She said at bigger farming conventions and shows, women are more likely to be snubbed by machinery dealers.
"There's discrimination (at farm shows), or they just won't talk to you, or they'll ask for your husband," she said.
Bernhardt said that's even the case for farm listings on Craigslist. She'll show up with Jason and the seller will immediately start talking to him.
"I usually just say 'talk to Hannah, she's the farmer,'" said Misik of how he handles those kind of situations.
Early in his career while working for the Minnesota Farmers Union, Petersen learned a valuable lesson about women in agriculture. He said about 20 years ago, he called the number for a dairy farmer and got the farmer's wife on the phone.
The wife told him that her husband wasn't home, but asked if she could help him with anything. Petersen said he "just wanted to get his opinion" on a piece of dairy legislation.
"She said 'you know what Thom, I have an opinion too," said Petersen. "And so over the years, I learned to always ask the opinion of everybody."