When his wife, Margaret, miscarried their child several years ago, Ben Barlage of Long Prairie said his eyes were opened to what was truly important. For him, it was family.
Although he loved selling advertising for one of the radio stations in Alexandria, which was where they were living at the time, he knew it was time for a change.
“I really enjoyed my job, selling radio advertising. I really liked it. It was fun. I had a good boss who cared about his employees,” he said. “It felt like we were doing really well there and then this happened and it really opened my eyes.”
Ben said it was at that moment he realized he wanted to farm. Farming had also been a lifelong dream for Margaret, wanting to take over Brickhouse Farm in Long Prairie where she had grown up.
“I have always wanted to farm. I remember telling my dad, even as a little kid, ‘Dad, I never want to leave here.’ His answer would always be a comforting, ‘I’ll be here with you,’” she said.
Margaret said that after she graduated from high school, she farmed with her dad. But when her sister, Leah, and brother-in-law, Adrian Murtha, started taking over the farm, she figured she better find something else to do. She then went to school for cosmetology and also met Ben.
“I had told Ben farming was something I had really loved to do. He was not a farmer, so he tried it out, working for my dad for a summer and he really loved it,” she said.
However, the timing wasn’t good for the farm to support three separate families — her parents, Hans and Lynn Kroll, her sister’s family and theirs, Margaret said. Her parents were also not ready quite yet to retire.
As a result, she let go of her dream of farming and the two moved to Alexandria, where they also had their son, Ezra.
“We just closed that door and made a life in Alexandria. I didn’t realize that he didn’t completely close the door, but I did. I figured, ‘We tried it. It didn’t work out. It’s OK, I can find a new dream,’” she said.
Margaret said at first when Ben suggested they return to Brickhouse Farm, she had bucked the idea. Their life was in Alexandria and she liked it.
They decided to move back to Brickhouse Farm and try farming. By that time her parents were ready to retire and her sister and brother-in-law had realized farming was not for them. After farming for a year, Ben and Margaret took over Brickhouse Farm. Her parents and her grandparents, John (or “Opa” as she calls him, which means grandpa in German) and Susan Kroll live there, too.
While her parents and grandparents live in different houses, Ben, Margaret and their two children, Ezra, 4, and Thea,1, live in the original red brick house. It was built in 1893 when her great-great-great-grandparents, Joachim and Henricke Heinck immigrated to Minnesota from Germany.
“This farm has been passed down. I am the sixth generation here and my kids are the seventh generation living on the farm consecutively,” Margaret said. “I actually got to go to Germany with my opa and see where they lived. It was really neat to be there and it felt like home. I get why they came here. It probably felt like home.”
In 2003, her father, Hans, transitioned the farm into becoming certified organic. Margaret said the push behind going organic was because the low milk prices made it impossible to survive as a small dairy farm.
“The conventional market was tanking so my dad’s options became either to diversify the farm and go big and do whatever farms have to do — buy land, tractors and hire people or go organic,” she said.
The decision to become a certified organic farm paid off as it allowed him to not only support his family, but also Leah’s, Margaret said.
However, transitioning into organic practices wasn’t a huge step for Hans, as he was already, unknowingly, farming organically as he rarely used pesticides, fertilizer or other chemicals.
Brickhouse Farm remained a dairy farm until April 2019 after Ben and Margaret purchased it in February 2019. They decided the best move for the business was to focus on producing organic grains.
While the farm consists of 400 acres, about 150 acres are tillable, Ben said. The couple plants organic grains and sells soybeans and corn.
In addition, the two raise and market their own organic beef and lambs. Following the regulations, the livestock spends at least 75% of the year grazing in pastures and are not administered any antibiotics or growth hormones. They are also only fed organic grain straight from the farm.
“In our case, it is self-sustainable. We grow it. We also do our own calving so we don’t buy anything outside the farm. Everything that is raised here is from a cow that has been born on this farm. It’s a closed herd so we are not introducing any new diseases,” she said.
The best part about farming for Ben is the family time he gets to enjoy. It isn’t unusual for Ezra to ride with his dad in the tractor and Ben anticipates Thea will follow suit when she gets a little bit older. Many times, when he is working in the field, Margaret brings lunch and the two and the children are able to eat together.
“I was previously in a sales position, Monday through Friday. I was gone all the time. It has opened a perspective for me to be able to see them grow up,” he said. “There is also a sense of accomplishment every day in farming. It’s a lot of work, but at the end of the day, you can look out the field you just plowed or planted, that’s growing. There is always that feeling that you did something good.”
Before Margaret and Ben moved to Brickhouse Farm, they chose to bury Eden there, the girl they lost in the miscarriage. Although they didn’t know at the time they would return to live at the farm, they knew the farm would remain in the family and they would always be able to visit her. Now they can see her spot just looking out the window.
“Ezra and Thea love it out here. This is home,” Ben said.