Do you know a farmer that is an organic and a conventional farmer, one that embraces different systems to fit personal farming choices? Carolyn Olson, originally a city girl from Champlin, Minnesota, turned Cottonwood, Minnesota farmer is just that, an organic crop farmer and conventional hog farmer. She explains her farming choices below in her own words. I met Carolyn a couple of years ago when I spoke at an AgChat Regional conference in Rochester, Minnesota. I was struck by Carolyn’s compassion, kindness and the way she explained how she farms with her husband, Jonathan.
Since then we have mostly stayed connected through social media while developing a trusted friendship, rooted in quick notice prayer requests and stories we exchange at all hours of the day. I cherish her friendship and respect her outreach efforts to advocate for food and farming choices and explanations she gives in both organic and conventional farming.
Carolyn speaks her mind on her blog and as a trained speaker. In addition to her farming, she intertwines her faith, her commitment to her husband and marriage, the joys and struggles of parenting which includes three adult daughters and a new son-in-law, along with a new journey into being a foster parent into her sharing.
Earlier this month, she ran for a district seat on the Minnesota Farm Bureau Federation’s State Board of Directors and won. Women in agriculture will never be seated at a board of directors table if you never try to run for a seat. Carolyn did just that and it makes me proud to see, knowing it sets an example for others to be encouraged to run.
Meet Carolyn Olson from Cottonwood, Minnesota.
What is your role in agriculture today? I farm with my husband, Jonathan. I run tillage equipment in the spring and fall, run the combine, and help out where needed.
How has agriculture shaped your life? I grew up in the suburbs of Minneapolis. I had relatives that farmed, but had very little personal farm experience. When I married Jonathan, I moved to the farm, and fell in love with agriculture. It is now my passion. I love talking about it, advocating for it, and working in it. That passion has grown into leadership positions in my county and state Farm Bureau, becoming a trained agriculture speaker, a blog, and agvocating over social media.
What excites you about your community? The people. We live in a pretty strong Norwegian and Belgian community. Family and relationships are so important. When tragedy strikes, our community comes together to comfort the hurting. It is also pretty exciting to see young people coming back home to work or farm and be closer to their families.
When was the last time you tried something for the first time? On November 21, 2014, I ran for our district seat on the Minnesota Farm Bureau Federation’s State Board of Directors. It still hasn’t sunk in that I won! My faith is super important, and I was confident that I was being called to serve on the board, but I still had to step way beyond my comfort zone to campaign and work for the position. I’m looking forward to the challenge, and serving the members in my district!
What do you do to encourage others? Who/what serves as a source of encouragement for you? I try to be there for others…listening when they need to vent, giving advice when they seek it, laughing and/or crying with them.
My biggest source of encouragement is my husband, Jonathan. We’ve been married for 26 years. We pray together, work together, play together, and support each other in our activities. He’s the first person I go to when I need a shoulder, or reassurance. Besides Jonathan, I have a great network of friends, both in agriculture and outside of ag. Some I mostly communicate with via social media, but that doesn’t make them less of a friend.
If you could choose anyone, who would you pick as your mentor? There are so many great agri-women, it is almost impossible to choose one. Each one has a different set of gifts that are valuable! My current mentors are Katie Pinke and Emily Zweber when it comes to agvocating with grace. For foster care, my mentor is my friend, and now daycare provider, Dani Brower.
If you had the opportunity to get a message across to a large group of people, what would your message be? Jonathan and I started transitioning to organic crop production in 1998 after grain buyers kept asking if the food grade soybeans we were raising were organic. They talked about the growing market, and they were looking for farmers who could raise beans for their contracts. We talked about it, asked a ton of questions of others who had already transitioned and attended events at a nearby experiment station before making the decision to start transitioning a 40 acre field. We transitioned slowly, making sure we could handle the work load, and were 100% certified before picking up more land in 2008. We were once again 100% certified organic in 2011 after the 36 month transition period ended. We went into this process thinking it was a great economic decision for our farm. We have fallen in love with the process of organic farming, and we like how it fits with our land and management style.
A key component to our system is our hog manure. We have been custom finishing pigs for our neighbor since 1992, starting with a little inside/outside lot for the pigs, and growing to two 1200 head curtain sided barns. When we decided to transition to organic farming, we also made the decision to continue raising pigs indoors. We live in Minnesota, where the summers can get hot, and the winter can be super cold. The pigs are more comfortable, and naturally healthier when raised in our barns than they were when we had an outside lot. It is also easier to capture the manure to use on our fields when the pigs are in the barns.
The way we look at it, this is one area where organic and conventional work perfectly together. It’s all about keeping an open mind, and embracing the systems that fit your management style and soil or location. It doesn’t matter if you are farming 1 acre or 10,000 acres. You need to be able to make the choices that best fit you, not your neighbor.
What makes you smile? Our 3-year-old foster son brings so much joy along with the extra gray hair. A year ago, Jonathan and I went through the certification process to become foster parents. This is our first long-term placement, so we’re pretty new at this. It is a big jump to go from our daughters, who are all in their 20’s, to a 3-year-old boy! Unlike farming, we may not see the results of our labor with foster care. We can give structure, boundaries, and a lot of love, hoping that we are truly making a difference in the life of the child.
Thank you, Carolyn for sharing your farming diversity and perspective as a leader for women in agriculture!
Below are links to all features in this 30 Days of Women in Agriculture series. Take the time as you can to visit each of them and get to a wide swath of women in agriculture. Each has a unique story and perspective. Plus there is this holiday treats baking giveaway to enter until Saturday afternoon, November 29, 2015! November 30 will bring one last Women in Agriculture giveaway for you!