Berg Family, Redwood County
Farmers Union’s roots are in its local chapters, based in townships and small cities. These helped our members become very close to one another, building relationships and carrying out cooperative principles.
The number of farmers has decreased over time, unfortunately, and now counties are the grassroots level of most Farmers Union chapters. That doesn’t mean that the legacy of locals has been forgotten, though. Richard Berg of Redwood County was a member of the Wanda Local when it was active, as well as president of Redwood County Farmers Union. He’s brought his family into the fold – his wife Mary, son Bob, daughter-in-law Tracie and grandsons Theo, 16, and Reese, 13.
“I don’t remember (what got me to join Farmers Union),” Richard said. “Everyone in our area was a member of the Wanda Local. There were a lot of little farms.”
The Berg Farm still stands today where it has since 1887 in Clements. Their corn, soybean and hog operation has been challenged by bad weather and low prices. But it hasn’t stopped them from working hard every day and being dedicated to MFU.
Richard told us he’s been farming for 69 years now altogether. That’s more than half the time the Bergs have owned the land.
“He lost his father when he was nine and his brother was 12,” Mary said. “They didn’t farm for a few years.”
It couldn’t keep them down for good. Richard began farming his own 240 acres when he was in high school.
“We started out with a two-row planter,” he said.
“They didn’t even have cabs on the tractors when they started,” Mary added with a chuckle.
With 55 years of marriage, Mary and Richard have seen the farm through. At one time they raised cattle, oats, wheat and flax, and have expanded to 1,500 acres today, still farming alongside Bob and Tracie.
Like many farmers today, Bob and Tracie have taken off-farm jobs.
“I’ve got to feed mouths and make house payments,” Bob said. “It has to come out of my day job because farming can’t pay for it.”
The year 2018 brought a blow to the Berg farm, with storms drowning 200 of their soybean acres. That’s 200 fewer acres to be paid for.
“We didn’t get crop insurance payments for it because the fields yielded above Actual Production History,” Bob said. “And we didn’t get any of the (Market Facilitation Program payments) either. It was a double whammy.
“But we got through it. We always do.”
It’s tough news for Theo, who said he wants to farm the land eventually, too. He does quite a bit of work already, a blessing for the older generations.
“The winters come so fast, we barely get done harvesting,” Bob said. “If it weren’t for Theo, there’s a lot of stuff we wouldn’t have gotten done. It’s gonna be that way this year, too, I think.”
How to endure
The Bergs were chronicled in the 2018 series of videos that debuted at the Farmers Union Coffee Shop at the Minnesota State Fair, highlighting various MFU members. Bob opened up about the drowned acres and admitted that it was tough on him and his family.
“But you’ve got to have hope,” he added.
In today’s farm economy, hope is easier said than done. However, there are a few areas farmers can control, including whom they work with.
“You’ve got to work with a good lender, that’s probably most important,” Bob said.
Being involved with MFU is another way the Bergs endure. They know they can trust our organization to be a voice for family farmers at the Legislature. In particular, the need for the next generation of farmers concerns them.
“They want to farm, but it’s really hard,” Mary said. “It takes money.”
“The problem is, if you’re not working close with the landlord to rent you land at a reasonable price, somebody will always outbid you,” Bob added. “I don’t care where you’re at, somebody will pay more than what you’re going to pay and there’s a breaking point for a young farmer to get involved in farming.”
That’s why MFU advocates for programs such as the Beginning Farmer Tax Credit, which incentivizes retiring farmers to sell or rent their land to beginning farmers. Richard lauded it as a step in the right direction. But we’ve got much more work to do.
“It helps that we have Thom (Petersen) in there now (as Commissioner of Agriculture),” Tracie said. Thom was a strong advocate for beginning farmer programs as MFU Government Relations Director for 16 years, and now leads the way on them as Commissioner.
From Wanda to Washington
The Wanda Local that Richard and Mary Berg were active in once has disbanded, but they haven’t forgotten what it meant to them.
“We had a neighbor who was really strong in Farmers Union,” Richard said. “He even went to Washington, D.C. with about a hundred people to speak up for the railroads.”
Bob and Tracie got to go to the nation’s capital themselves in 2018, as part of the Farmers Union Enterprises Leadership Couples program. Together with couples from North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana and Wisconsin Farmers Unions, they went through leadership training, public speaking and advocacy work.
“We met a lot of wonderful people from the other states, and they deal with a lot of the same issues we do,” Bob said. “I wish we were still in it.”
The Washington trip for the couples was the 2018 National Farmers Union Legislative Fly-In, which Bob and Tracie remember fondly.
“All the training was overwhelming when we were doing it, but when you think about it later, it’s really beneficial,” Tracie said.
And how will the farm’s next generation become leaders? Theo got his start by attending MFU Leadership Camp in 2017, learning how to build cooperatives. Reese hasn’t gotten the chance to attend yet, but it’s likely he will too.
In the meantime, we’ll keep fighting for families like the Bergs to farm for many more generations to come, and to make it possible for everyone with farm dreams to live them out.