An Agate Original
Organic, sustainable and “regenerative” farms provide numerous environmental and social benefits: they rebuild depleted soil, protect clean water, and foster small-scale growth of local communities. But small farmers in the Upper Midwest face innumerable challenges, ranging from high land prices, short growing seasons, and unpredictable weather, to skimpy government support for their kind of farming, a dearth of meat processing plants, and fickle consumers who are used to getting what they want year-round at the supermarket.
Small farmers must be nimble. Many farmers now extend their seasons using greenhouses and plastic covered hoop houses or high tunnels. And many are branching out to offer new products, such as meats, wool, honey, preserves. Agate checked in with three farms in the region to see how farmers are meeting their challenges with creative ideas and hard work.
The Food Farm: stretching the year
A gusty wind rakes the plateau high above the Nemadji River, but spring is in the air. The temperature on this late April day has climbed to 70 degrees for the first time since September. The stubble of last year’s sweet corn pokes out of the ground; other fields are blanketed with cover crops. Janaki Fisher-Merritt has been farming this land just south of Duluth, Minnesota since his parents enlisted his help at the age of twelve. Tall, slender, and full of good humor, he takes me on a detail-filled tour of his spread.
His father and mother named their operation the Food Farm when they started growing veggies here back in 1975, at a time when organic food was a new concept to most consumers. They were pioneers in a movement called “community-supported agriculture” (CSA), in which customers pay for food in advance and receive boxes of produce weekly or monthly during the season. The Fisher-Merritts had to coax these fields back to health after earlier farmers had grown potatoes, cabbages, and hay, mostly without putting nutrients back into the soil. They started by pasturing poultry on the fields, moving large cages across the land twice a day. As the animals scratched at the ground looking for food and deposited their waste, the discouraged fields came back to life.
Janaki shakes his head in wonder at the hard work his parents did. He says he’s happy to benefit from years of experience and research on organic methods since those early days. He has 15 acres devoted to certified organic veggies and 35 acres of field crops in rotation—organic oats, buckwheat, rye, hairy vetch, and clover.
Two enthusiastic dogs and a friendly cat keep us company on our tour. In one of the big hoop-houses, an employee labels pots for tomato transplants while another repairs the irrigation hose. The plastic-covered greenhouse is warmed by a wood-burning stove.
When Janaki finished college, and as his parents were moving toward retirement, it was time to boost farm income to support two generations, soon to be three. One obvious idea was to use a root cellar to extend the season. It was obvious because their CSA customers were asking for it. “Their kids wouldn’t eat store-bought vegetables in the winter,” Janaki explains, with an apologetic smile. “I don’t mean to brag, but the quality of our veggies is so much better!” The members invested in a root cellar, built in 2000. Gradually it began to seem overcrowded and inconvenient, and Janaki began planning for an expansion. A kick-starter campaign failed to reach the goal, but their customers and a personal loan brought in enough money to expand in 2015.
The new, well-insulated, concrete storage facility features four separate rooms to provide the different conditions required by various vegetables. Squash, for instance, likes it fairly warm and dry, while carrots and potatoes need very chilly temps and humid conditions.
The farm supplies not only CSA members but several restaurants and Duluth’s Whole Foods Co-op with veggies from the fields from mid-June through mid-October, and a similar amount of veggies from the root cellar from November through mid-April. Last year, the farm produced more than six million servings of organic vegetables.
In late April, when the last of the winter CSA boxes have been delivered, it’s time to clean and disinfect the root cellar and its equipment. Janaki is proud of the conveniences he’s designed into the cellar: concrete floors, drains that work, washers, stainless steel tanks to hydro-cool greens, conveyor belts, collapsing bins that can be power-washed and stored away. Solar collectors provide enough electricity to run the cellar, including air-conditioning in the early fall.
Janaki makes a point of sharing the root cellar design with anyone who’s interested, and he originally thought he would make space available for neighboring farms. That’s only happened a couple of times when nearby farmers’ coolers broke down. That impetus to share is part of the organic farming culture, he says. “The whole organic farming movement is remarkable,” Janaki says. “People really want to help each other do a better job.”
Janaki acknowledges that his work is hard and stressful. “There’s so little under your control,” he says. “If you go in with the idea that you can control everything, you’ll be disappointed.” He’s also not excited about many of the routine chores, like patching the plastic on a greenhouse, fixing irrigation hoses, filling trays with seedlings. But it all adds up to something very satisfying, he says. “If you’re doing something that is meaningful and you think it makes a difference and is important in some way, it really changes your attitude on things.”
And he believes his timing is good. “I’m fortunate that I came of age in a time when the market for what we’re doing is growing. It’s not like we’re making much money and it’s kind of nuts to be doing all this, but it feels like there’s a future there.”
Clover Valley Farms: adding value
Twenty miles northeast of Duluth, Clover Valley Farms nestles on 25 acres on land sloping gently south toward Lake Superior. The farmyard is studded with repurposed outbuildings and the remains of years of experimental projects. Under a gentle rain, about twenty sheep enjoy their first day on fresh grass.
Cindy Hale and Jeff Hall started with chickens and pigs, selling them direct to consumers for ten years while they held down full-time professional jobs off the farm. A couple of years ago they finally decided it was time to take the plunge and farm full-time. The years of rotational grazing by chickens and pigs had improved the clay soil, and the couple planted apple trees, juneberries, currants, cranberries, rhubarb, and aronia, a native midwestern berry that’s been gaining a reputation as a “superfood.” But fruit poses a special challenge. “You have to sell it on the day you pick it,” says Jeff, “otherwise it starts going bad.” They considered value-added products that would preserve the fruit. “We thought about wine, but the infrastructure for wine is huge, and the regulations for a winery are enormous, so we decided on vinegar.”
They experimented with recipes in their farmhouse kitchen, and liked what they came up with. Cindy had been a successful grant-writer in her academic career, and they applied for a $50,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) grant for a feasibility study to determine if growing fruit and marketing fruit-infused vinegar would be a viable business model. They learned that it would be feasible, “but you really have to make good, good, good decisions and brutally question your expenditures,” says Jeff.
They hired a local artist to create classy labels, designed to help persuade customers to pay a premium for the hand-made products. “The labels explain that we grow the fruit, we pick the fruit, we turn the fruit into wine, contracting with White Winter Winery in Iron River, Wisconsin, then we acetate the wine (turn the alcohol into acetic acid, which is vinegar). Each batch takes a year to make. It’s genuine, and it’s not just mass-produced,” Jeff explains.
The product line has expanded to include herb-infused salts, mustards, and shrubs, which are fruity vinegar-based syrups for mixed drinks. Attractive presentation on wooden display crates makes an impact, and the farm sells across northeastern Minnesota and in some co-ops and high-end food stores in Minneapolis and St. Paul. They plan to move into Madison, Wisconsin and other promising markets soon. But they still consider themselves farmers and not food manufacturers. “We till the soil, we grow the crops,” says Jeff.
Federal farm policy is frequently criticized for ignoring small producers in favor of standard row crop farmers. But Cindy won more federal assistance in a $150,000 Value Added Producer Grant, which reimbursed the farm for supplies such as bottles and labels.
What excited Jeff most about that experience was that USDA brought officials from all the neighboring offices to see the farm’s operation. “I think they realize this might be a trend, smaller farmers producing value-added goods, and I commend the Farm Services Agency for being progressive enough to learn from our work,” Jeff says. “I felt like a bug in a jar that day!”
Naturally there are stresses and insecurity inherent in their enterprise. But Jeff and Cindy say they relish most of the challenges. “We have weekly conversations about what the current bottleneck is; if it’s just in our operation, like production, marketing, or finances, those are solvable problems,” Jeff says. But they’ve also had to wrangle with credit card companies that want his signature on everything just because he’s the man, he says. “That drives us nuts.”
Farm income barely covers monthly expenses, including a full-time employee, so they want to become more profitable. But, “we just want to find our sweet spot; we don’t want global domination,” Jeff laughs. “We just want to have a happy life.”
Bayfield Foods: cooperating for efficiency
In northern Wisconsin, nearly two-dozen small farmers have banded together to form a cooperative that builds on farm specialties and vastly extends the marketing reach of these producers. Tom Cogger and his wife Connie were one of the founders of Bayfield Foods, and Tom is currently serving as president. “As a group we took the view that instead of being competitors we’d work together, and enhance our sales by specializing a bit, which makes for more efficient production,” says Tom. Farmers not only concentrate on raising the vegetables they can produce most efficiently; they also branch out into products that interest them, such as sauerkraut and other fermented goods, goat and sheep cheeses, spritzers, maple syrup, honey, jams and jellies, coffees and baked goods.
Setting up the co-op, the friends and neighbors forced themselves to do the “boring stuff” of writing by-laws and policies. Tom says it was a lot of work, “but it’s been invaluable, because everyone knows the expectations and the co-op can operate efficiently that way.” To centralize storage and shipping operations, the group bought five acres at a former agricultural research station in Ashland. The “aggregation center” has walk-in freezers, a cooler, and a refrigerated truck for deliveries. During the CSA season, from the end of May through the end of March, co-op members bring in their veggies and other products, form an assembly line, and fill the boxes together. The system has been so successful, the co-op plans to build a larger building, where the cooler will be big enough for a forklift—for yet more efficiency.
The co-op serves a growing wholesale market, delivering to restaurants and grocery stores across much of northern Wisconsin and northeastern Minnesota. The goal is not to make a lot of money for the co-op, but to enable members to sell more of their products at a fair price. “I think it’s a great model; it’s how agriculture should be,” says Tom.
A worrisome trend for many small farmers is that in recent years it’s been harder to recruit CSA customers. “People don’t want to be surprised,” Tom says. “If they open their CSA box and wonder what to do with a kohlrabi, they may not be satisfied. We try to include recipes with some of the produce, and now we’re starting to offer a much more customized selection.” Instead of the “whole diet box,” which includes a bit of everything, customers can chose specialty boxes, which contain only veggies, fruit, meat, cheese, bakery items, or even flowers. The group is even experimenting with home delivery, putting itself in direct competition with meal kit operations like Blue Apron.
But this effort to appeal to changing tastes adds immeasurably to the operation’s complexity, and the farmers would rather be out in their fields than sitting at a computer tracking logistics. So they hired managers to handle sales and delivery.
For Tom and Connie at their own Maple Hill Farm in Washburn, the staple product is pork. They raise corn, wheat, rye, and oats to feed the animals. It pays to raise a diversity of grains, as the weather can ruin one crop while sparing others.
Maple Hill Farm has even invested in a mill to grind grains. Tom got the idea when he noticed customers at the Chequamegon Food Co-op grinding wheat berries into whole wheat flour. He asked the store to try selling his wheat, and it became so popular he decided to set up his own mill, hoping it would add diversity and value to his grain crops. It wasn’t simple, though: he had to build a building, make the mill rodent-proof, and get a state license. Now he sells bagged whole wheat and rye flour and pancake mix. And he’s experimenting with oat flour.
These specialty products don’t bring in a lot of money—yet. But as in nature, diversity is good for a farm. In some respects, these small farmers are returning to the ways our grandparents farmed, where animals, plants, and humans work together to feed a community and nurture the earth.
What’s in a name?
Organic, sustainable, regenerative—these are all terms applied to a kind of agriculture that increasingly appeals to young and experimental producers. Each has a slightly different meaning, but in general they describe an approach to food production that aims to improve the land and the community. Here are some short-cut definitions:
Organic: The magazine Clean Eating explains the basics: organic farmers don’t use synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, hormones, antibiotics, or genetically modified organisms (GMOs). They submit to outside review and annual inspection to ensure their practices meet standards set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Achieving organic certification is a complex process that can be expensive and time-consuming. Many producers decide it wouldn’t bring enough added benefit, and they tend to embrace organic principles and methods without going for the organic label.
Sustainable: Farming in a way that leaves resources intact so that future generations will be able to support themselves. The Union of Concerned Scientists lists some of the usual techniques, including crop rotation and diversity, cover crops and reduced tillage to protect and build soil health, integrated pest management, and attention to community.
Regenerative: Sustainable farming with an emphasis on building soil health and restoring climate stability.
If you want to learn more about what small farmers near you are trying:
Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota