Stellar stewards

RURAL LAMBERTON

Ryan and Tiffany Batalden are not your average farmers, and as a reward for their progressive efforts in agriculture, they were selected as one of 15 White House Future of American Agriculture Champions of Change.

Other Champions of Change, according to the White House’s website, included: beginning farmers and ranchers using innovative practices and techniques to create productive and sustainable farms and ranches that will feed people at home and abroad long into the future; producers, foresters, small-business owners and scientists using Farm Bill programs to drive agricultural productivity and economic competitiveness; and local leaders that are working to build new opportunities for those who want to work on the land, create innovation in the field of agriculture, support diversity in agriculture and connect a new generation to their food, fiber, fuel and agricultural neighbors.

The Bataldens were nominated by the Land Stewardship Project that they became a member of “quite a few years ago,” Ryan Batalden said.

Batalden has worked with the LSP for many years, including sitting on a steering committee focused on beginning farmers and affordable, long-term land access. From those meetings, LSP developed a tool kit of resources for beginning farmers and retiring farmers that are looking for someone to take over their operation.

The Bataldens live and work on a farm site south of Lamberton with their three children, Finn, Lilly and Stella, and a scruffy farm dog named Ole. They have been farming for 11 years, sharing resources with Ryan’s parents and other family members.

“I have three family members that also farm,” Ryan Batalden said. “Some uncles that farm some organic land, and my sister and brother-in-law raise camelina that they press for oil.”

The Bataldens farm 380 acres, “and everything is organic or being transitioned to organic.” They recently bought 30 additional acres, and in order to be certified organic, the land must not have any prohibitive substances placed on it for 36 months.

On their organic farm, they grow corn and soybeans that is usually used for organic livestock feed, tofu-grade soybeans, small grains like wheat, oats, rye and barley, dry field peas and a variety of oil seeds.

“The main one we grow is oil seed radish,” Batalden said. “It’s basically the same as a daikon radish, and we grow it for seed production.”

“It’s becoming a popular cover crop, and we’ve been trying to incorporate more cover crops into our farming, because the benefits are so numerous. It’s great for the soil and the environment,” Batalden added.

Next year, Batalden plans on growing barley and field peas together at the request of a specialty hog farmer and says that some farmers are “trying to feed less corn and soy to their livestock to enhance the flavor and color of the meat.”

The Bataldens also organically raise livestock, including roughly 100 chickens, a small herd of stock cows and a few hogs.

“We direct market some of the beef and raise the hogs for ourselves and some neighbors,” Batalden said.

They also let a local bee keeper place hives on their land who “pays us rent in honey,” Batalden said, “and the pollinators are great for our yard and garden.”

But their newest crop might be their most unusual yet: colorful varieties of popcorn.

“We grow red, white and blue varieties that we blend together and call Patriot Pops,” Batalden said. “The seed hulls are colored, but the corn still pops white.” Their popcorn is available in a handful of co-ops and grocery stores and they are working on growing new colors.

“These are very old heirloom varieties,” Batalden said. He added that the reason we usually only see yellow or white popcorn is because those varieties usually produce a better yield.

“We tried a green variety for a Christmas mix, but we didn’t get a very good yield,” Batalden said. “Now we have a pink one we are working on to promote breast cancer awareness.”

But with the funky colors does the popcorn taste different?

“The white and blue taste like normal popcorn,” Batalden said, “but the red has more crunch and an almost nutty flavor.”

While in D.C., they didn’t get a chance to meet the president, but they did talk with the Secretary and Deputy Secretary of Ag. They were also given a private tour of the presidential family’s vegetable garden and the chance to participate in panel discussions with other Champions of Change.

The Batalden’s and LSP’s focus of bringing more farmers onto the land was a common bond among other nominees who were asked the question: Who will the next generation of farmers and ranchers be? According to a press release from the Deputy Secretary of Ag, the average age of principal farm operators in the U.S. has risen from 51 years old to 58, and the share of farms operated by beginning farmers has been in steady decline for more than three decades.

Batalden said he appreciated the chance to talk with people from the USDA about issues that matter to him and to promote beginning farmers.

“I strongly believe there needs to be a limit on crop insurance payments to larger farms to level the playing field for smaller and beginning farmers,” Batalden said. “It’s a part of the problem with rising land and rent prices.”

LSP started in Minnesota, but “what they’ve done has been copied in other states,” Batalden said. The hope is that those similar organizations will help new farmers across the country.

“I’m not opposed to any certain size of farm, but I am opposed to fewer farmers,” Batalden said. “I want more farmers in our area to send their kids to our schools, shop in our small towns and make our communities more vibrant. We need to get more people out here.”