Bryan Boll and family
How entrepreneurial thinking saved the family farm, won a sustainability award and helped feed the world.
“The fact that I’m involved in an industry that feeds the world is exciting to me,” says Bryan Boll, owner of Boll Farms, a 5,000-acre operation in the northwestern area of the state where he grows corn, soybeans, wheat, sugar beets, dry beans and alfalfa.
Born in Watertown, Minn., Boll was just an infant when the family moved to the Crookston farm in 1974. Though Boll always wanted to farm, the operation couldn’t sustain two people when he came of age. Instead, Boll attended Concordia College in Moorhead, where he studied to be a teacher in physics and mathematics and a coach. “My original plan was to teach for 20 or 30 years, then take over the farm when my father retired,” he says.
But farming proved difficult in the northwestern area of the state during the 1990s, due to drought, scab in the wheat and extremely low prices. “It got to the point where my dad came to me and said he was going to have an auction. He was done. He’d had enough,” says Boll. “I knew that was my opportunity — either I start farming or the opportunity to farm might be gone.”
After much soul searching, in 1998 Boll’s father worked with a banker to secure an operating note and brought his son into the business. For the first two years Boll kept his day job working with computers. His goal has always been for the farm to be self-sufficient and sustainable. “We need to be profitable to be sustainable. We need to make sure we’re around not just 10 years from now but 100 and 200 years from now.”
Toward that end he made a series of successful entrepreneurial moves, adopting accepted practices and improvising when necessary:
1) Cutting Costs and Scaling Up
Boll’s father had already started taking advantage of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which allows farmers to keep their land for 10 to 15 years while the government “rents” it for conservation reasons, such as pheasant habitat or buffer strips along creeks. “We put the marginal land in the CRP program and tried to farm just the best land,” explains Boll. “With the prices the way they were, the farm could not sustain itself. I scaled the operation back to the point where I could manage it.” That included reducing the farm’s equipment line.
Boll also started expanding the crop output by acquiring land. He started with 800 acres in 1998, and this year it is up to 5,800 acres, more than a seven-fold increase.
2) Diversify with Trucking Operation
Boll solved a worker problem and an expense problem in one fell swoop. He really only needed extra farm helpers every spring and fall, but it’s hard to find reliable and loyal workers on a seasonal basis. He also owned trucks that were underused. “I needed trucks for the farm, and we use them for two weeks or a month and they sit,” he explains. “Also, I was looking for a way to keep those men busy year-round. His solution was to launch a year-round trucking operation to haul local commodities, such as cattle feed. “The trucking operation allowed me to hire better people, which in turn greatly helped the farm.”
3) Diversify with Cattle
About 10 years ago, Boll acquired cattle to take advantage of land that wasn’t conducive to crops. He had prior exposure to raising cattle from his youth when his father ran the farm. “It was a natural fit because of the acres that I had that were not in production, the cattle facilities that we already had, and I had a mechanic who also had experience in cattle. It was a win-win.” While Boll sells most of his crops through local elevators, his beef goes through local auctions.
4) Strategic Tilling
One of the techniques that has helped him produce more by using less fuel and fewer natural resources is through a no-till, or minimal tillage, approach. The equipment needed for such a technique is expensive, but a voluntary conservation program through the federal government called Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) offers grants and low-interest loans to farmers who are using systems that better the environment. His improvement is dramatic:
- 1998: 0% minimum- or no-till
- 2015: 75% minimum- or no-till.
5) Strategic Grazing
A cattle grassland program also proved beneficial to the farm’s growth. By dividing the pasture into different paddocks to facilitate rotational grazing, Boll was able to increase the carrying capacity of his pastures by one-and-a-half times what he could do with traditional grazing. “I was amazed at how much more productive it allowed me to be with my cattle,” he says. Fencing out portions of streams and creeks to make controlled walkways for the cattle also resulted in reduced erosion and sediment beds.
6) Hi-Tech Ag
Technology is also a key strategy for modern day farming success. Developments like auto-steer (which directs tractors to follow the exact same path, year after year) helps reduce fertilizer use by up to 30% while still increasing yields. Yield-mapping and monitoring helps Boll identify the highest- and lowest-producing points of the field. Infrared technology variable-rates fertilizer, and GPS allows farmers to install drain tile and ditching without having to hire a surveyor. “Technology is opening the door for us to be better managers of our soil and our fertility,” Boll says.
7) Networking and Knowledge
Boll stays in the know by reading up on what other farmers are doing and thinking, both specific techniques and the big picture. Sustainability these days requires constant vigilance and adjustment to climate conditions. “I think most farmers are conscientious as far as our climate change issues and phosphorous deposits in lakes and rivers and the fact that we can’t afford to lose topsoil,” Boll says. “We’re trying to be proactive to take care of those issues on the farm at the local level. Coordinating with other farmers that are doing similar things is a real benefit.”
All these improvements caught the attention of Bayer CropScience, who awarded Boll the 2014 Young Farmer Sustainability Award. For the past five years, Bayer CropScience has presented the award to agricultural producers under age 40 who approach farming in unique, economically stable and sustainable ways.
“He’s a fascinating guy,” says Jeffrey Donald, senior external communications manager at Bayer CropScience. “He stood out to us because of his commitment to growing his farm to be sustainable, the way he manages the land to keep it healthy, manages his water use, and manages the economics of his operation to ensure it is a long-lasting, viable operation.”
Winning the award opened Boll’s eyes to the challenges and problems other farmers face, as well as the need for more participation in the legislative part of farming. “It’s easy to get focused on what we’re doing right here on the farm and get that myopic vision,” he says. “The award opened my eyes to the rules and regulations the government is trying to put into place to regulate agriculture and made me realize I need to be more involved — not just on my farm, but community-wide to educate about what’s going on at the farming level. The community needs to support what we’re doing on the farms and understand it so that we can get good, sound legislation passed that doesn’t hinder but helps the progress that we’re making.”
Boll runs the farm with his father and six other full-time employees. In the future, Boll hopes at least one of his six children will be able to take over the farm without relying on off-farm income to be successful. “At some point, I want to be able to just farm. That’s my ultimate goal — that the systems I’m trying to implement can make the farm stand on its own.”
Boll encourages other young people to consider careers in agribusiness and farming. “The farming population in the United States is aging. For young people that are interested in the field of farming, there are opportunities out there. It’s a very exciting and vital field.” That said, it’s definitely not a cushy 9-to-5 gig. “It’s a way of life,” he says. “It’s not just a job.”