North Dakota man pivots from tech career to farming and owning multiple businesses
In 2022, as Jon Bertsch’s 10th farming season draws to a close, he not only is fully entrenched in agriculture but also running commercial trucking, food truck and technology businesses while he dabbles in agritourism.
HILLSBORO, North Dakota — Ten years and nine months ago, when Jon Bertsch’s father, Leon, asked him in if he wanted to farm , his son’s answer was “no.”
Ten years and five months ago when Leon Bertsch unexpectedly died, Jon’s answer changed to “maybe.”
In early 2013, it became a “yes”
In 2022, as the younger Bertsch’s tenth farming season draws to a close, he not only is fully entrenched in agriculture, but he also is running commercial trucking, food truck and technology businesses while he dabbles in agritourism.
Most important to him, he’s a father to two young sons. Making the transition from being a technology company employee to full-time farmer, businesses owner and father required humbling himself to ask “dumb” questions, learning to let go of what was not in his control and learning how to delegate authority.
- Benson and Turner Foods perseveres on meat processing plant, even after death of business partner
- Southern Minnesota oats marketing group sprouts amid search for third crop
- Green Plains looks at the future of adding value to corn through more than ethanol
- For southeast Minnesota greens growers, winter doesn't halt their harvests
- Christmas trees are more expensive but remain in demand this season
Bertsch, a Minnesota State Community and Technical College graduate with a degree in computer technology, was employed as a network administrator in Fargo, North Dakota, when his dad, who was doing estate planning, asked him if he wanted to farm. Although he enjoyed helping his dad on the farm, especially during harvest, he didn’t have any desire to move back to Hillsboro.
But after his father died in June 2012, the decision about whether to farm became more urgent because he knew that it would be his one and only opportunity to do it.
“It was, ‘Sit here at this desk and regret it later on or go jump into the deep end and start treading water and see where this leads,'” Bertsch said, during an Oct. 11, 2022, interview in the farm office southeast of Hillsboro.
He and his sister, Allison, who pivoted from earning a nursing degree from Mayville (North Dakota) State University to come back and farm with her brother, planted their first crop in 2013. She left the farming operation in 2015 to start another career.
“Sometimes family can be in business together and sometimes family can’t be in business together, and my sister and I found out that we are better brother and sister by being brother and sister and not being in business together,” Bertsch said.
The learning curve was steep for Bertsch, now 35. He had helped his father farm during high school and occasionally after his graduation from Hillsboro High School in 2005, but he hadn’t dived below the surface. Meanwhile, his two grandfathers, both farmers, died the same year as his dad, leaving him on his own to learn the ins and outs of farming.
For the most part, taking over Bertsch Farms was like drinking out of a fire hose for the first few years, he said.
“I’d curse my dad under my breath with how he made it too easy at times,” Bertsch said.
He lacked knowledge in the basics of agricultural crops production, including what to plant and how to plant it, what equipment maintenance needed to be performed and how to market the crops.
“Sometimes it would be as simple as ‘Who do we call and how do we sell bushels of corn? This is what we’re planting on the farm: Will our equipment do this? How does it operate?'" Bertsch said.
“The biggest thing I found was surrounding myself with good people and good advisers,” he said. For example, his uncle, Mike Kozojed, a neighboring farmer and Ihry Insurance crop agent in Hillsboro, helped him with agricultural production and crop insurance questions.
Bertsch’s background in technology was helpful because he had honed analytical skills that helped him learn the nuances of agricultural production, including growing crops, cash flow and landlord relations, Kozojed said.
“He was able to run the numbers, so he was very good at that. He just needed to know what he was doing. 'What do I need, agronomically, for fertilizer, for seed production?’" Kozojed said. “Those were things he needed to pick up on."
Besides asking Kozojed for advice, Bertsch also put aside his pride and asked what he at first thought were “stupid questions,” when he was at farm meetings. He figured out, though, he often wasn’t the only one who needed answers.
“A lot of times it would be funny … People who had been farming for a while, in the same room you asked the question, wanted to ask the question but didn’t want to look like the one who didn’t know the information,” he said.
With nine years of farming under his belt, Bertsch has reached a comfort level with farming that includes going out to a field in the spring and grabbing a handful of soil to determine when the field will be ready to seed.
He also has brought with him knowledge that has helped him to increase the farm’s technology beyond what he had ever imagined would be possible.
“We’ve adopted a lot of precision technology on the farm, which has been great to kind of take that background of mine and bring it to the farm,” he said. His most recent project is installing drain tile on family land and rental acreage.
Along with the farm, Bertsch runs a farm-based business called Bertsch Trucking, which his grandfather, Otto Bertsch, founded in the 1950s. The trucking company hauls semi tractor-trailer loads of products, mostly grain, for customers across North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota.
Meanwhile, Bertsch owns One Line Tek, a computer technology company in which he works as a consultant for people or businesses seeking technical assistance. The company also is a distributor for electronic equipment such as the Owl Labs video conferencing device, which Bertsch himself uses for employee meetings.
The farm continues to be an inspiration for other business ventures. The latest is a food truck called “Truckin’ Good Foods.”
He conceived of the idea for a food truck that could park at various locations during the farming season when he was sitting in line at the elevator. After mulling over the idea for several years, he dove into the business this spring with two fully equipped food trucks that he purchased from a Texas company.
A self-described non-cook, Bertsch hired Stevie Trudel, a local woman who has years of experience cooking meals at Hillsboro Public Schools and owns a catering business, to run the food truck.
The truck parks at locations such as grain elevators and farm supply stores around Hillsboro and in area cities, including Fargo. Each day, Truckin' Good Foods features a different, single meal.
“We basically try to keep things simple and something that can be easily delivered and that people can eat when they’re in the fields,” Bertsch said.
The time of day the food truck serves customers is seasonal; typically breakfast in the spring during planting, lunch in the summer and an evening meal during harvest. Eventually, Bertsch would like to offer delivery service to fields.
“It’s a fun, ‘nother way of doing hospitality in the area,” Bertsch said.
The food truck also is available for catering private events, such as anniversaries and employee and customer recognition dinners.
During the summer of 2022, Bertsch also hosted a "Day on the Farm," featuring a movie, farm tours and tractor and combine rides. The fundraiser for Ukrainian farmers was a success, with more than 200 people attending, and he is considering doing a "Day on the Farm" in the future as a way to teach people about agriculture.
One of the keys to managing multiple businesses is not to worry about things that are impossible to control and to control the things that can be in the best way possible, Bertsch said. Another management approach Bertsch has learned during the past nine years is to not be involved in every aspect of his businesses.
“I don't want to be a part of everything,” he said.
Learning to “let go” was challenging but necessary to their success, Bertsch said.
“In order to empower people, they have to take ownership of the projects," he said. "People want to have a sense of belonging and making it their own. That’s my biggest thing. I want people to make it their own and figure it out.”
More important than being an imperative part of sound business management practices, not micromanaging employees is critical to maintaining a family life, he said. Bertsch's two sons, ages 5 and 3, are his main priority.
“It’s fun to do all these other things, but all these fun things can’t take the place of family. If you aren’t delegating you’re going to give up at that time,” Bertsch said.