Bret Braatan started farming at the start of the worst of times (1980), hunkered down, looked for opportunity, and kept expanding his operation while making do running with older equipment.
“We got really good at buying old and fixing it up,” he recalls. “When you are trying to make it in farming without a lot of money, well, you look for opportunity wherever it exists. So fixing up older equipment became a way of life and a way to make ends meet.”
Today, the Braatan operation is often a whirlwind of activity with children and grandchildren running machinery and farming at full speed.
“There are a lot of moving parts here … but in a family deal, everyone talks,” he adds. “Things get pretty exciting in the spring when four diggers [field cultivators] head to the field at once.”
SF: What were the 1980s like for you?
BB: Well, I started renting 280 acres from a retired farmer and then bought my first 80 acres for $3,000. Doesn’t seem like much now, but back then I was paying 18% interest. And during the downturn in the early 1980s, land plummeted from $3,000 to $4,000 an acre down to $750 to $800 around here. Still, this time opened opportunities to pick up more land as I wasn’t carrying that much debt.”
SF: How did you keep your debt down in the ensuing years?
BB: Well, by getting land that was cheaper at that time. But I credit our ability to expand with getting along running older equipment as a means to keep costs down. We always look for machines with several thousand hours on them, which we can then fix up. Our youngest tractor, a 2015 New Holland 9530, had about 2,800 hours on it … and that was low for most of our buys. The thing is, we’ve built up an extensive fleet of equipment — as many as six four-wheel drives and a couple of track tractors that may only get 40 to 50 hours put on them a year, so they last for years. We always have a spare tractor around we can grab and go with if a tractor goes down in the field.
SF: What type of repairs will you do?
BB: We fix everything and anything. Oh, we may have to take something like a hydraulic pump into a specialty shop for repair, but we do everything else. We are blessed that son Mike can fix or build anything. Repairing our machinery was part of the survival game in farming.
SF: What got you into hogs?
BB: Well, we don’t raise them. We ended up putting up four barns for a neighbor who wanted to do contract feeding. And then Mike and I built two barns of our own, which we rent to him. We fix the buildings and haul manure. Actually, we got into hog buildings for the manure fertilizer. Our neighbor now has nine barns; that produces enough fertilizer for about 600 acres.
SF: Has that saved you in fertilizer costs?
BB: Several years ago when fertilizer was cheap, well, manure cost a lot to haul. But now it offers considerable savings!
SF: Why did you add fresh peas and sweet corn to your crop mix recently?
BB: To diversify. True, at times there is more money in corn and beans. But you need to run an operation for both the good and tough times.
SF: You made a recent investment in the operation.
BB: We doubled our shop (originally 60×80 feet) with an addition that gave us an engine [mechanical] room and wash bay that serves as truck storage. And we run a school bus that was converted to do field repairs (as opposed to a service truck), which also gives us room to eat lunch and supper in the field.
Background: The Braatan operation includes four families that rent or have bought their own land but share labor and equipment. The base of operation is the Braatans’ original home. The families include:
- Bret and Annette
- Son Mike and wife Paula
- Son Blain and wife Connie
- Cousin Maloye and wife Marge Thomas
“There are a lot of grandchildren, all of whom help farm when they get old enough. The combined operations’ primary crops are corn and seed soybean (for Bayer). But we started raising fresh peas last year and sweet corn this year to diversify,” Braatan says.
The rich farmland of southwestern Minnesota comes from as much as 50 feet or more of glacial till. Incorporated in 1885. Population: 501 (2019).