Doing It Different

Grower of the Month: Ryberg Farms of Buffalo Lake, Minn.

Published online: Mar 28, 2019 Grower of the Month Tyrell Marchant, editor
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This article appears in the April 2019 issue of Sugar Producer

Brian Ryberg isn’t the type of guy who bases his decision-making on what someone else’s opinion might be. He’s not going to go against the grain just for the sake of being contrary, but neither will he stick to the main thoroughfare just to avoid some skeptical, sideways glances.

So when the thought came to him five years ago to take a stab at strip-tilling his sugarbeet crop—a practice few, if any, Minnesota growers employ—he knew his own gut and intellect would be making the final decision.

“To be honest, we didn’t get a very optimistic outlook from a lot of people,” Ryberg says of his farm’s first foray into strip-till beets. “We heard a lot of, ‘The ground’s too heavy, it’s too wet, it’s never going to work.’ But we tried it on some of our acres, and when we compared them to our conventionally tilled fields, they looked every bit as good.”

By the 2015 growing season, Ryberg Farms was fully committed, utilizing strip-till on all their sugarbeets, corn and soybeans. The farm’s costs have been drastically lowered; several pieces of now-unnecessary equipment were offloaded, and the need for fuel and labor is lower than ever before.

“We’ve implemented some cover crops and really brought our soils back to life,” Ryberg says. “The crops take water and heat better than before, and our yields certainly haven’t gone down.”

Not That Different

Of course, Ryberg is still, at his core, a farmer, a profession at which his father and grandfather also succeeded in southern Minnesota. His parents, Howard and Marilyn Ryberg, began growing sugarbeets in the 1960s and were instrumental in the formation of the Southern Minnesota Beet Sugar Cooperative, which harvested and handled its first crop in 1975.

Brian Ryberg says he “grew up with sugarbeets” and can’t recall a time when he wasn’t interested in the farm. After earning an agriculture degree from the University of Minnesota Waseca, he and his young wife Sandy returned to the farm in Buffalo Lake in a partnership with Brian’s parents. Howard and Marilyn retired in 1997, leaving Brian in control of the farm—something he always seemed destined for.

Today, Ryberg Farms comprises some 3,500 acres and does another 500 acres’ worth of custom work. This year, they will grow about 800 acres of beets for Southern Minn factory in Renville.

“We have really good soils where we live—dark black soil with high organic matter,” says Ryberg. “We don’t have any need for irrigation. In fact, we typically have more of a problem getting too much rain than not enough. About a third of our land is tiled to take off excess moisture, and we’re trying to expand on that.”

Give and Take

Ryberg has served on Southern Minn’s co-op board since 2015. That involvement, he believes, has had a direct impact on the success of his farm.

“Being on the board has helped teach me how all business is run,” he says. “I’m a better farm manager thanks to skills I’ve learned on the board. I’m better able to recognize the value of my employees and how to retain good people. I think I’m a better businessperson based on what I’ve been exposed to there.”

Minnesota was hit hard in 2018 with heavy rainfalls late into the growing season. Conditions were ideal for Cercospora leaf spot development, and a lot of beets were simply left in the ground because equipment couldn’t get in and out of fields. While Ryberg says his beet crop wasn’t hit as hard as many of his neighbors’, no one in the co-op was unscathed. He’s grateful at times like these to be involved with a sugar company that works so well with its growers.

“The sugar company is definitely aware of the issues,” he says. “We have great management at the factory. They’re doing everything they can to hold or bolster our current price.”

Something to Be Proud Of

Over the years, Ryberg Farms has consistently been able to grow and thrive. It’s easy to wonder exactly what combination of luck, solid business practices, and good agronomic decisions have made it work. As for himself, Ryberg doesn’t believe you can disconnect one from the other on a successful farm.  

“When you want to make improvements,” he says, “the mechanical, physical part of it is easy. It’s the mental aspect that’s sometimes tough to grasp and commit yourself to believing it’s going to work.

“I’ve been told we were the first farm to strip-till sugarbeets in Minnesota,” he continues. “We kind of hang our hat on not being afraid to try something no one else has. And it’s worked out well for us.”