By Jennie Zeitler, i>Staff Writer
Joe Borgerding took over his family’s home farm in western Stearns County in 1976. His dad, Ambrose, who was from Freeport, had bought the 320-acre farm north of Belgrade in 1946. As the 10th child of 12, with eight older sisters, Joe was ready to farm.
“When I got out of high school, Dad told me, ‘Why don’t you just do it your way,’” said Joe.
Joe married Toni Curto in 1979, and their family grew to include five. Four of them are still working on the dairy farm.
Tyler is still at home and helps with chores and drives tractor when not busy with school activities. Danny is the farm’s welder while Tommy is the pasture manager. Both of them manage the herd. Teri works with foster children and helps on the farm. Oldest son Ryan is an oil industry engineer in Texas.
Danny and his wife, Colleen, have two children, for the next generation working the farm.
Joe started out farming conventionally, routinely using chemicals.
“Eventually I had a hard time growing anything; it killed our soil,” he said. “The chemicals no longer percolated — they accumulated.”
Making the whole situation more challenging was the type of soil found on the farm.
“We have very tight, gummy soil,” Joe said. “We’ve done a lot of work with drain tile and that’s helped to turn things around.”
In 1996, Joe started researching biological farming.
“I wasn’t looking for organic,” he said. “I just wanted to bring my soil back to life. We were not able to grow enough feed and knew we needed to do something; the dandelions grew better than the alfalfa.”
He visited a farm near Ottertail owned by Ken Larson. The first thing he noticed was the lack of dandelions and expected to hear about a chemical Larson was using. Instead, he was told to use eggshells.
Larson told him about a book by William Albrecht, describing “practices, not products.”
After reading a number of Albrecht’s books and attending conferences sponsored by Acres U.S.A., Joe designed a system that works on his farm, one that “weatherproofs” the soil.
“It changed our whole focus,” said Joe. “He had it all figured out in the 1940s. He’s all about balance and calcium being the ‘king of all minerals.’ Once we started putting calcium in the soil, we got our angleworms back.”
“The soil structure is all about biology. You can’t go straight from conventional to organic without fixing the biology,” he said. “Improving soil biology reduces the need for pesticides and fungicides, and it is important to all farmers. Long rotations and green manure improves soil structure with more earthworms, better percolation and bigger roots.”
In 2001, the transition to organic began. The farm was certified in 2004, when the Borgerdings’ milk was first put on an Organic Valley truck.
Whereas the farm couldn’t even take an inch of rain years ago, the soil now percolates again; two and a half inches of rain will all soak in overnight. Forage quality and yields have greatly increased.
“Organic Valley makes it possible for consumers who want to support organic farm practices to vote with their grocery dollars,” said Joe. “There are more than 1,600 farm families making a living that benefit from having a good market for their organic milk.”
The Borgerdings have been able to involve a large number of extended family members in their farm operation, which now includes 660 acres.
Joe’s dad drove tractor until he was 84, and his older brother, Dave, drove for many years. Many of Joe’s sisters sent their children to the farm during the summers so they could get a taste of farming.
“Until you actually pick rock you just don’t know,” said Joe.
Toni’s nephew, Brent Curto, has helped the last couple of summers too.
“We are glad to have found a way to provide an opportunity for our sons to farm and to involve as many family members as we have over the years,” Joe said. “It is an honor to represent Stearns County, which has so many great farm families.”
Joe is also a director of the Minnesota Milk Producers Association.
The Borgerdings know that every farm has different soil. “This works for us,” Joe said. “A good source for anyone looking for ways to go organic is Acres U.S.A. I also got a lot of help from Gary Zimmer of Midwestern BioAg in Blue Mounds, Wis.”