Jon Wiersma mixes the best of Mississippi and Minnesota agriculture
When a new farming opportunity knocked in 2011, Jon Wiersma packed his bags and travelled south. Leaving behind the cold of Minnesota, he headed 800 miles to the culturally and agronomically distinct Mississippi Delta. Four years later, Wiersma has gleaned a wealth of knowledge about Southern agriculture, using his Northern background and thriving as farm manager at MidSouth Family Farms, Jonestown, Miss.
Wiersma, 31, grew up 10 miles north of the Iowa border in Albert Lea, Minn. Born into a farming family, he raised livestock in his teens and earned a business management degree from Minnesota State University, Mankato. After graduating in 2005, he started a custom spraying business, as well as farming corn and soybeans on a 100-acre lease. Wiersma used his vehicle for collateral to obtain an operating loan and leased a new sprayer bought by his uncle, Steve Ladlie.
Two years later, Wiersma bought his own sprayer, again with help from Ladlie as co-signer. “Even during my first year of spraying, I knew an agriculture career was for me,” Wiersma says. “I’ve always been geared for challenges, and I attribute my drive to my sharp father [Tim Wiersma] who always moves with absolute focus. I also give credit to my Uncle Steve who did so much to help me get going.”
With a 90' boom, Wiersma sprayed 25,000 acres per year, tended his 100 acres and helped his father harvest 2,000 acres. In 2009, Wiersma, along with his father, uncle and three others, merged and farmed as a team of six.
As 2010 closed, Wiersma was the youngest and smallest investor in Frontier Family Farms—the biggest farm in Freeborn County at 12,000 acres. He was looking for opportunity—the challenge of decision making.
In an effort to learn from other operations, Wiersma called Scott Fullen, a farming friend in Ripley, Tenn. Fullen had picked up new acreage in Shelby County, Tenn., and Wiersma offered to help get the farm started. In January 2011, Wiersma began a one-year commitment. Midway through 2011, he was given full-time management of the Fullen’s home farm. In 2013, Wiersma gained the top management position at MidSouth Family Farms in Mississippi—working 8,000 acres.
The challenges of command are compounded by youth, but when Wiersma began managing at 27, he also dealt with Southern perceptions. Wiersma dug in his heels and let his abilities take the lead. “I recognize my Northern background and my youth. In turn, I offer respect no matter what and recognize the experience that comes with age. ‘We’ is key to making things run in our operation. When you manage people, they all need the same thing: respect, direction and opportunity.”
MidSouth Family Farms grows corn, soybeans and cotton. The first cotton crop Wiersma ever saw was the first one he planted. His boss, Tim Fullen, and the MidSouth team gave him valuable cotton advice. “Corn comes with its highest yield potential as a seed, and as it grows, corn is tempered by whatever it lacks. With cotton, the joke is the plant is trying to die at emergence. In cotton, you’re managing to build yield as opposed to corn where you’re trying to minimize yield loss,” he says.
Irrigation was a major change in Wiersma’s North-to-South move. In Minnesota, Wiersma grew 100% dryland crops; in Mississippi, he irrigates everything with polypipe and pivots.
Every acre Jon Wiersma manages is irrigated with polypipe and pivots. “Up North, God makes it rain. Down here, we’re able to make it rain,” he says.
Plant bugs, fungal diseases and weed resistance were other significant learning curves. In Minnesota, farmers often spray for aphids, but the Delta is arguably a poor man’s Amazon, with incessant bug pressure. Wiersma’s introduction to resistant Palmer amaranth was an eye-opener and continues to be a constant battle. “Word of warning for farmers in the North: You haven’t seen anything until fields of resistant pigweed arrive,” he says.
Wiersma is a quick study, soaking in Southern agronomic lessons and building on the information he learns. However, he brought invaluable farming experience from the North and uses it to his benefit. For example, he believes “airing out the ground,” a common Delta practice where wet ground is churned with a light tillage tool to dry it, is detrimental to planting and compacts soil.
Thomas Neblett, Sunrise Planting Co., farms 2,300 acres just south of MidSouth Family Farms and says Wiersma has overcame the difficulties of learning new production techniques while navigating in an unfamiliar culture. “Jon embraced the challenge head-on and jumped right on top. He learned the dirt, irrigation, heat and how different farming is in the Delta,” he says.
At MidSouth Family Farms, Wiersma wants to mold the Southern historical structure with Northern farming practices to enhance production. Labor quality has been difficult for Wiersma and resulted in a cycle of mistake chasing. “In the Delta, when I hire someone, I may as well flip a coin. If Northern farmers had a low-quality labor pool like the South, they’d pull out their hair.”
Wiersma has gained farm management judgement well beyond his years. He’s bolstered by requisite backbone and stamina, with boots-on-the-ground insights into the strengths and weaknesses of farming in Minnesota and the Delta. “I’m open to opportunity wherever the challenges line up in the future,” Wiersma says. “North or South, farming is farming no matter where you are.”
Tips to Ramp Up Production
After 10 years farming and four years behind the management wheel, Jon Wiersma is a unique agriculture veteran, a rare farmer with insights into the strengths and weaknesses of farming in the North and South. He shares these tips to take production to the next level:
1. Scout your fields during the growing season. You see and learn so much more on the ground than from behind the windshield.
2. Don’t keep doing the same things year after year. Try something new even if it’s only on a few acres.
3. Pay attention to your neighbors and what they’re doing. Don’t always follow the crowd, but many times your neighbors are doing things for a good reason.
4. Don’t wait to do something. Most of the time when you let up, it will come back to bite you.
5. Do everything the same way. Tailor the approach to the specific field, but workflow and strategy should stay constant.
6. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Focus on the big things, fix them and then move to smaller things to fine-tune your operation.
7. Have fun. If you aren’t having fun, then it’s just work.