Arboretum News

Growing with Bob Dressen

Meet the farmer who’s responsible for the fields and gardens at Farm at the Arb.

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By Liz Potasek

The new Farmer at the Arb Bob Dressen isn’t just planting fields, he’s also sharing the story of Minnesota agricultural food production, helping visitors make the connection between what’s on their plate and the work it took to get there, and showcasing some of the crops of the future being developed at the University of Minnesota. Dressen was a dairy farmer in Waconia who retired from his dairy farm in 2006 to pursue a bachelor’s degree in business management, which he completed in 2010. He started working at the Arboretum in July. He’s the first horticulturalist to oversee the new Farm at the Arb, which is still being fully developed.

This year Dressen is planning fields with typical Minnesota crops, like corn and soybeans (with separate fields for both conventional and genetically-modified plantings), as well as wheat, barley, buckwheat and cover crops, like Kura clover. There will also be a field of sunflowers and fields dedicated to crops of the future, like kernza. Fittingly, the Farm at the Arb also features University of Minnesota-developed apples and grapes. “The overall vision is to teach and tell the story of production agriculture from the past, present and future,” Dressen says.

Sunflowers in a field at Farm at the Arb in late summer of 2020. Photo by Liz Potasek.

One of Dressen’s favorite aspects of the job is sharing his knowledge and passion for farming. He hopes visitors will take time to ask him questions as they explore the Farm at the Arb. “Flag me down,” Dressen says. “Don’t hesitate to ask questions.”

What do your job duties involve?

To be the storyteller of agriculture food production. To develop a yearly crop plan, and to oversee the execution of it from planting to harvest. To incorporate crops of the future by tapping into our vast resources here at the University of Minnesota. To be a steward of the land.

Why are you passionate about your work here at the Arboretum?

Growing up on a dairy farm and continuing to operate and own it for 24 years, creates a passion that gets into your blood.  Once a farmer, always a farmer — no matter where life has led me. At the Arboretum, I am very fortunate to continue to share my passion with others. Meeting and interacting with members and guests is an awesome experience. One of my favorite questions to ask them is “Did you grow up on a farm?” Then I just sit back and listen. It is amazing how most people just love to tell me their stories.  It is truly fascinating! Even the younger generation will tell stories about their grandparent’s farm and the memories from it.

When I farmed, I gave field trips to preschoolers. Each year, I would teach them about farming both the crops and the cows. I really wanted the students to understand that milk just did not magically come in a jug from the store.

Photo by Jason Boudreau-Landis.

What is your earliest memory of gardening?

Farming is like having one, big 200-acre garden. So the memories go way back for me as a toddler tagging along with my dad out in the fields and around the livestock. On the farm, we had both a vegetable and a flower garden that my mother took great pride in. One of my fondest memories was going to my Great Uncle Bill’s garden on his farm to pick strawberries. His farm was next to ours, and his garden was big — or at least it seemed that way to a little kid. When my dad and uncles would bale hay and put it up in Bill’s barn, I would walk with my cousin from our farm through the pasture to Bill’s farm.  We would venture into the garden to pick strawberries and eat them to our hearts’ content.

Who inspired your career path?

It would have been my father and my uncles. I grew up in the 1960s and ‘70s.  Back then, agriculture was more than growing crops and milking cows, it was a way of life.  The two generations previous to me grew most of their food, both vegetables and meat. They lived through the Great Depression, and nothing went to waste. They taught me to be resourceful and to appreciate what I have.

Do you have a home garden? 

My wife Brenda and I have a garden. It gives us great pride to produce fresh food that we love to eat and to share with our family and friends. There’s nothing better than getting fresh veggies out of the garden and right to the dinner table. My favorite is sweet corn. When I was young, my dad would plant about an acre of sweet corn in the middle of a 40-acre corn field to hide it from the raccoons. When it was ready for us to pick, we ate it dripping with melted butter and salt. It was the entire meal except for bread as a side, most days for over a week. That was it. Loved it! 

What is the most challenging and most rewarding parts of your work?

The most challenging part of my work is the weather. You can’t change it, so you just have to roll with it. There are no two years that are the same. The weather patterns have become more extreme.  When it rains, it’s not just a nice, slow one-inch-all-day rain, it’s an hour-long 3- to 4-inch rain event. 

The most rewarding part of my job is scratching the ground in the spring and watching the crops grow in the summer in hopes of a bountiful harvest in the fall. I also enjoy interacting with guests and coworkers.  Everyone has a story to tell, and I find that fascinating.

After a storm on Sept. 30 of 2019. Photo by Norbert Lucas.

As an expert in your field, do you have any tricks, tips or advice that would help our readers?

Mother Nature is in control. She gives and she takes. Adapt. Be open to the future, but don’t forget about the past. Experiment with new ideas and technology. Enjoy life! 

How does your work impact Arb members or visitors in a meaningful way?

I hope that their visit to the Farm at the Arb inspires our members and guests to develop a greater understanding of production agriculture and how it impacts their lives. 

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