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15 minutes with hemp farmer, Leigh Barry

For this Minnesota grower, farming is all about trial and error.

Leigh Barry buys wisely to optimize yield potential, because, as with all farmers, every dollar counts. Technology that allows him to monitor his corn and soybeans in real time – and to make adjustments as needed – is key to achieving that.

Barry, who farms about 2,000 acres near Richville, Minnesota, is always trying to figure out the best placement and the best timing for inputs and how to eliminate unnecessary applications. 

“If we want to put more bushels in the bin, we have to do it in a way that not only is cost-effective but also improves soil health,” he says.

Taking a chance on the latest technology requires a lot of trial and error – as well as patience. Barry talks about why he’s willing to take a risk on some of those tools – as well as a new crop – and the lessons he’s learned along the way.

SF: Why invest in technology?

LB: If I want to become a better farmer, technology has to be a part of that change. I know there will be growing pains, because not everything we try is going to be successful. Yet, it’s also important we learn from those failures.

SF: When have you seen a technology pay?

LB: In 2017, I cut the nitrogen up front for the first time on all irrigated and dryland cornfields. Through tissue testing and utilizing WinField’s R7 Field Forecasting tool, we monitored the crop weekly all the way to silk. 

I thought we had given the fields all of the nutrition they needed through fertigation and Y-drop. I ran a late-season nitrogen application in the model to see how it would respond.

The tool recommended an extra 4 gallons of nitrogen that would yield a 12-bushel response. After consulting with agronomist Kelsey VanOverbeke, I placed my trust in the technology and made the application. The result was better test weights and improved yield.

I wasn’t used to looking at a post-silk application, but it was so little for a nice return.

SF: What prompted your decision to grow hemp for CBD in 2019?

LB: We’d been thinking about growing hemp for a couple of years. It had been a thought for long enough, and we finally decided to act on it. 

SF: Why did you shift from your original plan to plant 40 acres (about 41,000 plants) of hemp to 6 acres (about 6,150 plants)?

LB: There is a lot of manual labor involved in growing hemp, especially during harvest. There were long lead times when ordering equipment, and some of it wasn’t going to arrive in time for harvest. 

I knew I wasn’t going to have enough hands to handle that many plants, so I decided to downsize. I wasn’t willing to risk more than I was willing to lose.

Starting small also allowed me to pay close attention to the intricate details between planting and harvest that may have been overlooked with more acres. 

SF: What was one of the main lessons you learned in your first year of growing hemp? 

LB: Whatever can be done ahead of time, like getting licensed or preparing the ground, do it. The more things you can take care of up front, the better off you’ll be in the long run.

SF: Whether growing a traditional crop or a new crop, why is having a trusted adviser important to the overall success of your operation?

LB: The knowledge an agronomist like Kelsey brings to my operation is invaluable.

She helps me define which technologies make sense and how they can improve the management strategies on my soils that range from sand to heavy clay. We want to be in front of as much as we can. But if an application doesn’t make sense, we move on. If it does, we take a serious look at it.

Because she is also a hemp specialist, Kelsey was instrumental in helping us learn how to grow hemp, especially when it came to nutrition. For months, she researched what it took to raise a crop that hadn’t been grown in our area for decades. 

Whether we succeed or fail, we learn either way. But we know more today than we did yesterday.

Background: Leigh Barry began farming in 2004 when he purchased 200 acres once owned by his grandfather. He used the land to grow hay and graze cattle. Barry transitioned into row crops in 2012, and he farms about 2,000 acres today.

Last year, he grew 6 acres of industrial hemp for the first time. Because he is still extracting/refining the crop seven days a week, as well as assisting other farmers in growing hemp, Barry decided not to plant it in 2020. 

“We simply ran out of time. I am hoping we can plant hemp next season,” he says.

Barry received a liberal arts degree from North Dakota State College of Science.

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