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Mar 19, 2018 • By

Portrait of a start-up farmer

Zach Knutson is as much economist as he is farmer. He’s had to be.

Unlike many farmers, Knutson didn’t inherit land. Instead, he’s earned and invested his way into the industry, relying on his entrepreneurial savvy and passion for growing plants and crops.

Knutson’s career in agriculture started in elementary school when he had a small garden. Later, he nurtured a chicken flock to sell eggs for extra spending money. In college, he realized he liked the business.

He made the jump to full-time farming in 2012. Today, he’s finding ways to tie it all together – in addition to raising five kids, ranging from newborn to eight years old.

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Zach Knutson with his wife, Kari, and four oldest children. The family has since welcomed a baby. Photo credit: Esha Chiocchio

“Land is very expensive,” says Knutson. “Thankfully some landlords were willing to take a chance on us and rent us their farmland.  We were able to purchase our first farm, pasture, and cows using the Farm Service Agency’s Beginning Farmer Loan Program, and with the assistance of our local bank. Having to rent or pay a mortgage on every single acre makes it hard to compete with established farms, so we just have to work a little harder and smarter.”

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Knutson farms a mix of conventional no-till and certified organic crops in north central Iowa.

Knutson isn’t afraid to admit that profitability drives his farming decisions as much as doing the right thing for the earth – or that corporations have an important role to play in the future of agriculture.

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Knutson cultivates corn, soybeans, oats, and hay. Photo credit: Esha Chiocchio

“There is the misconception that profit and big companies are evil,” he says. “Profits gained through honesty and integrity are a good thing. They provide wages, opportunity for growth, and the ability to give back to charities. General Mills is a great example of this. Their economies of scale, experience with food formulation and consumer-base can help move the organic and regenerative agriculture movement forward, faster.”

Knutson farms both organically and conventionally. For him, it’s not a question of philosophy, but simply what’s best for the land and his business. And that depends on geography.

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Hunting for fossils at the Rockford Fossil Park.

“It’s not always a one-size-fits-all approach,” he says. “Avoiding chemicals is important to me, and I’m transitioning more of my acreage to organic. But there are pockets of land where conventional farming methods still make more sense, like where it’s hilly, terraced, or from a logistics standpoint, farther away from my home. Whichever method I’m practicing, my goal is to be the best steward possible.”

Asked what he likes so much about farming, Knutson says it’s being outdoors, the variety of work, and the satisfaction of being self-sufficient.

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Photo credit: Esha Chiocchio

“I believe in God, and working outside gives me a level of peace that I can’t find anywhere else. I like seeing the fruits of my labor.”

When he’s not fixing equipment, driving the tractor, tilling the fields, meeting with landlords, researching enterprises, developing a seeding plan, or completing paperwork, Knutson loves spending time with his kids.

He also enjoys fishing, hunting, nature walks, and watching the occasional Netflix mini-series.

Next, he says he’d like to raise more cows. They help recycle left-over, lower-value crops. Ever the economist, he says raising cows creates diversification, spreading the work and lowering risk.

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The current herd of cattle, wishing it were summer.

Knutson is a member of the General Mills Organic & Regenerative Agriculture Advisory Council (ORAAC), which helps support and advance our sustainability goals.

The featured image of this post was captured by Esha Chiocchio.

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