High equipment prices push farmer to be the fourth and ‘last generation’ to run the Bjork farm
Brian Bjork, 62, (pronounced “Byork”) a farmer from Forman, North Dakota, is selling his machinery piecemeal after making the decision in December 2021 to retire from farming. His reasoning: used equipment values are “hot” and unlikely to improve. He’ll enjoy retirement near family and will work for a young neighbor who will rent his land.
FORMAN, N.D. — In the fall of 2021, Brian Bjork put the farm equipment in the shed after his 42nd crop, thinking he’d farm another year in 2022.
But Bjork (pronounced “Byork”) turned 62 in November 2021, and changed his mind before Christmas.
He decided to retire and rent out his farm in southeast North Dakota that had been operated by a Bjork family since 1898.
While many Americans have stopped working in the “Great Resignation,” due to concerns about the pandemic, Bjork — as a business owner — said his biggest factor was how supply chain disruptions have increased the value of his line of used equipment.
“I thought, ‘This used equipment market is hot!’” Bjork said. “I’m not going to wait for it to go back down. I guess I’m done.”
‘Peaceful, easy feeling’
“A lot of guys will farm until they’re 80 years old, because they can’t give it up, you know,” Bjork said.
Since making the decision to retire, Bjork said he acknowledges thinks of the Eagles song, “Peaceful, Easy Feeling.”
Sure, he's loved farming. But he won’t miss buying fertilizer or truck licenses. He’s won’t miss crop insurance and worrying about whether weeds are resistant to chemicals. He’s suddenly done worrying about chemical availability or prices. Done with picking farm programs at the Farm Service Agency office.
And he has the satisfaction of dealing with a young neighbor, Scott Zirnhelt, age 42.
“I went over there at Christmastime and said, ‘You want to rent my land?’ He looked at me and says, ‘Really?’”
They came to a multi-year agreement.
In January 2022, Bjork went into the bank for his annual financial statement. He sold his grain and went in and paid off the combine.
“I told the banker, and said, ‘I’m retiring!’ It was a good day — to be done with the bank.” (He also thanked them for backing him on equipment deals over the years.
In a sign of the times, Bjork announced his retirement to the world via Twitter.
“Wow, the response!” he said, with a big smile. “There was people from other countries: ‘Congratulations.’ ‘I hope you enjoy your retirement!’”
Bjork doubts any long-time friends were surprised.
They know Brian's father, Norman, had “retired” and moved to town at age 62. That was 1983. Norman helped on the farm until about 2000 and died in 2002.
Since then, Brian has farmed mostly as a “one-man band.” His wife, Val, drove the tractor that pulled the land “roller” when he planted soybeans. She drove grain carts at harvest. Two years ago, he cut back on wheat and planted 200 acres of corn. With more bushels to deal with, his next-door neighbor Dan Zirnhelt (an uncle to Scott) drove the grain cart and truck during the corn harvest.
Things changed in the fall of 2020, when Brian’s mother, Joyce died, and her land split four ways. In 2021, Brian farmed just his own land plus the 25% he inherited — a total of 575 acres.
”It was pretty easy going,” Brian said, considering he had equipment for 1,500 acres. “In three days, we were done planting. It was the hottest summer in years and the crop wasn’t good. Without the crop insurance it wouldn’t have been very good.”
The ‘red house’
A lot of history has gone by at the Bjork place. Great-grandfather, Magnus Bjork (pronounced “Byork”) completed paperwork to acquire the home place place on Dec. 17, 1898.
Grandfather Jonas and his wife, Ida, built the original “red house” in 1929. (“The carpenters all spoke Swedish,” Brian said.)
Father Norman, born in 1923, was the oldest of three children and served in the military. He and Joyce were married in 1946 and soon took over the farm. They raised their four children in the red house — Sons, Randy, Brian and Jan and daughter Nancy.
Brian embraced farming while still a student at Sargent Central High School in Forman. He helped Norman raise cattle, hay and crops. The farm plateaued at 1,500 acres — all family-owned land, including a quarter owned by an uncle. At the peak in their cattle years, in the early 1970s, the Bjorks had about 100 cows and 100 feeders. They sold yearlings at the sale barn at Sisseton, South Dakota. They cut back the herd when the hired man left to take a job at the expanding Melroe Manufacturing plant, making Bobcat skid-steer loaders in Gwinner.
Brian graduated high school in 1978 and went on to the North Dakota State College of Science in Wahpeton. Out of school in 1980, Brian rented a couple of quarters of land from his dad. Norman and Joyce started going to Texas, so the family dropped the cattle.
In 1985, Brian married Valerie “Val” Swanson and the parents moved to town. Val came with two daughters —Heidi, then 8, and Becky, 12.
Brian and Val rented the red house from the folks and gradually upgraded equipment. Val worked as a computer programmer at Bobcat for the first 14 years, then at the post office in Oakes, North Dakota, for another 14 years. Her off-farm jobs provided income, but also important health insurance benefits.
The low spots in Brian's farming years included the 1988 drought. The highs were the 2011 and 2012 crop years when crops were good and the prices strong. Farm income those years meant Brian and Val could afford to build a new house.
They had a good reason.
Daughter Heidi, living in Fargo, wanted to move her three daughters back to the Gwinner area.
Today, Heidi is a paraprofessional at the North Sargent School, in Gwinner, and a junior high track coach for the county. The granddaughters today are now are 11, 13 and 19. (After an earlier marriage ended, Heidi married Chris Gleason, who teaches shop in Milnor High School, North Dakota.)
“When we moved to the new house we only moved the mailbox about a foot,” Brian said.
Having the grandkids 700 feet away makes it "all worth it," he said.
Brian usually makes room for a trampoline in the shop, to give the kids a way to burn off energy in the winter, away from the television. But this year, the trampoline remains outside because the shop is filled with equipment that Brian is preparing to sell.
Brian loves the situation — the "new" 10-year-old house, with its open floor plan, geothermal heat, its woodworking shop. He has a “man cave” — where he keeps his extensive “farm toy” collection, and other things. They designed-in an unusual large, “L” shaped garage, with doors on both ends. It's heated and air-conditioned. They've had parties there, and will probably have some kind of gathering for the retirement. Probably barbecue and a few beers.
Piece by piece
In the next few months, Brian will be busy with his equipment. Like on many farms, the machines are fitted into cold storage shed like a jigsaw puzzle. He’s been digging out the tillage pieces from the snowbanks.
In late February he sold his Case-IH 8230 combine, a 2014 model with 1,000 separator hours and premium light package (even though he doesn’t farm after dark.)
“I got to finish my career with a ‘classy’ combine,” he said.
He had a 35-foot wide MacDon FlexDraper header. There’s a 20-year-old Steiger with new tires. One Caterpillar Challenger with tires, another one with tracks for the grain cart.
He uses his Bobcat to dig out a Salford vertical tillage machine.
“I got it because my friends had one too,” he says, smiling.
He still has a Concord air seeder. And the three diesel trucks.
Brian has sold much of his equipment word-of-mouth. He’s had great luck selling on Facebook marketplace.
“I like (farm) auction sales, l like going to them,” he acknowledges, “but I’ve never thought that I’d have one.”
He didn’t want 200 pickups in his yard and a blur of conversations.
No auction sale for him. He'd rather bring everything through his own shop for presale maintenance.
“Get it ready for the next guy, and meet a lot of people (individually) along the way,” he said. “My plan is to sell most everything that’s got a motor in it, because it doesn’t do ‘em any good to sit around.”
One thing not for sale is his pride and joy — that 2021 Bobcat. In a techie twist, it’s fitted it with a “MaxControl” remote operation package. That means he can drive and operate it with his iPhone, up to 300 feet away.
“When you take your fingers off of the controls, the machine stops,” he said. It’s become his “favorite portable hydraulic jack.” and put a receiver hitch on it to move trailers around.
Fourth and final
Brian isn’t bothered that he’s the “end of the line” of Bjorks to farm here.
It’s more important that his daughter and grandchildren — the fifth and sixth generation — still live here.
Only 700 hundred feet away.
“I’ve realized for many years that some day there’s going to be an end to this game,” he said. "I’m fine with that. It doesn’t bother me to be done.”
Brian knows of eight or or 10 friends in his county area that don’t have anybody to take over their farm. A number of Bjork’s contemporaries still farm. Some have said they’ll go another year or two. Some farmed with older brother and will quit when the brother retires.
There will always be people to farm the land, he said. Farms will keep getting bigger.
“There’s bigger farmers with a lot of employees that are always looking for land, too,” he said.
Brian said he and Val hope to travel. They’ve been to New Orleans, south Florida, Texas. They’d like to drive up the California coastline, see the redwoods and relatives.
But most of his time will be back home. They’ll keep going to Gustav Adolph Lutheran Church in Gwinner. He’ll attend monthly meetings of the “Wild Rice Antique Tractor and Plowing Association.” He’ll keep driving his Oliver 77 in parades.
He’ll get his farming “fix” from sitting in the tractor of young Scott Zirnhelt’s equipment — spring and fall.
“That’ll be a stress-free environment, too," he said, cheerfully. "I’m just there for the day.”
And he adds, “I hope that as he farms my land, he makes good money on it.”