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Ask a farmer: Mitchell Hora of 'Field Work' answers your questions

A farmer, entrepreneur and podcast host, Hora pulled back the curtain on life on the farm.

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Mitchell Hora
Mitchell Hora
MPR

Farm Fest is in full swing, an exciting time for those in the agriculture business, but also a great opportunity to share with consumers what it’s like to work on a farm and live a farmer’s life. Mitchell Hora co-host of the “Field Work” podcast, answered a few questions we got from farm-curious readers.

How can conservation assist farmers in improving the economics of agriculture? — Al

Getting the economics to work in conservation management, soil health and sustainability is key, Hora said.

“If the farm is not economically resilient, none of these things matter,” he said. “We have to be able to create return on investment for farmers.”

Hora is excited to utilize data to make better decisions when it comes to ensuring short term return on investments while working on the long term gains that soil health can provide.

Collaboration with customer-facing companies is important to that strategy, too. Collaborating with them on sustainability projects helps connect farmers with consumers and consumer brands so that everybody improves and has a part in the work toward sustainability, he said.

Working 24/7 with little profit margin how do you access for yourself medical when/if needed? — Patrick

“I feel that a lot of farmers put themselves last and everyone else first,” Hora said.

Farmers do have to be cautious and pay attention to their needs, but also look out for other farmers.

“Farmers are really tough people,” he said, and because of the busy nature of their work can go a long time without visiting a doctor.

And it isn’t just physical health, paying attention to your mental health is also “a really big deal.”

“So I think it’s also important to not be afraid to ask for help. Even though as farmers it’s tough to reach out for help,” Hora said. “But realize that we are just humans.”

I care about your quality of life, making a profit, stewardship of our land and water. What can a city person do to help support you? — Stephanie

The biggest thing is being educated and involved in the conversation, Hora said.

That means researching the farm where your food comes from, as well as the consumer-facing companies that distribute the food. 

“There are a lot of good projects going on and companies that are deploying resources and deploying part of your food dollar back directly back toward improving the farm and implementing more sustainable practices,” he said.

Taking part in conversations about food is important, too. Exchange opinions in person and online so that the consumer voice is being heard.

“We all have the same overall goals of providing healthy food in a healthy manner, so we can work together to make sure everyone’s voice is being heard,” he said.

Farming economics seems bleak outside of large farm operations — is consolidation the future as current farmers retire? How do new farmers enter the market, particularly if they do not inherit land? — Mike

Even if it seems bleak, it’s important to remember that many large farms are operating on thin margins, too, and there are many small farms that are doing quite well, Hora said.

In Hora’s case, he was able to purchase some land with the help of the Beginning Farmer Program which assists in getting low interest loans for new farmers. “It’s still a loan, I’m still going to be paying for it for a long time,” he said.

His parents are also farmers so working with them was helpful in getting started.

“But as a young beginning farmer I’ve had to take off-farm income also,” he said. 

He had to start small and build up — he also had to do his homework. Hora stressed that farmers looking to enter the market need to have a plan in place, be immersed in farming data and be willing to experiment.

“There’s all kinds of new ideas,” he said. “On my little farm I’m farming 60 inch rows, trials, I’m doing different things in order to farm as economically feasible as I can even though I only have a really small farm also.”

What are some new technologies or trends that actually do matter for farmers and farming in Minnesota? — Sook Jin

Easy access to data is huge.

“Collecting data that shows progress and is also able to help you to make progress,” he said, pointing to the importance of tracking carbon, water quality, water quantity and neutrality capacity — those are key when measuring sustainability.

New technology is emerging around real-time analytics and imaging via drone — and most of it is scalable so there won’t be a huge price barrier for smaller farmers.

Another big tech trend? Using the internet to buy and sell.

“I no longer only have products available to me that I can buy at my local retailer,” he said. “I now have the ability to get basically any product that I want online, and I can sell to a lot of different types of buyers online also.”

Farmers can use these tools in an effort to be more of a “price-maker instead of a price-taker.”

My daughter is dating a young fellow (23) that states his dream is to become a farmer. Is this realistic? Should I be concerned that if this would become a long term relationship he may not be able to provide for her? — Anonymous

There’s no getting around it, it’s going to be a lot of work. But there’s a lot of opportunity there, too, Hora said, and it’s rewarding in other ways.

“I think a lot of farmers don’t get into farming for the money,” he said. “They get into it for the lifestyle, for caring for the land, for caring for the animals, for caring for nature — it’s not always about the money.”

But there are tools available to help aspiring farmers to be successful. Doing a lot of research ahead of time, going to farming conferences, being careful with money and thinking outside the box can all help you get off to a strong start, he said.

How do you maintain work/life harmony? When you are not farming, what does your "free time" look and feel like? -- Wayne Glass

As a farmer and a businessman, Hora spend a lot of his time in meetings with other farmers and working with other companies in addition to farming. He’s trying to work hard while he has “the ability and the time to do it as a young person.”

But he still finds time to spend time with his wife, friends and family. There’s a pond right on their farm so it isn’t a long trip to go fishing. He’s also “at the age where I go to a lot of weddings.”

Having goals and being realistic about the tasks ahead of you is important when it comes to finding that balance. Sometimes it requires sacrificing some free time now in order to have a more comfortable life in the future, he said.

Working with and learning from other farmers can be fun, too!

“It’s an amazing world that we live in so it’s important to take time and enjoy it,” he said.

Have a question? Tell us what else you want to know about farming here