Wrestling with a $90 turkey

Ninety dollars for a turkey. Are you kidding me??? When I agreed to take the extra bird off the farmer’s hands, I assumed it might cost about half that. At the time I was working for minimum wage as a part-time farmhand at the Food Farm, an organic farm located in Wrenshall.  I traded nearly two days of work for this bird, and probably half that in bike time just to get to and from the farm. Was the tremendous cost in blood, sweat, and tears, worth it? The story that follows was originally printed right here.

This just might be the very bird that grew into dozens of satisfying meals, along with farmer and son…

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Lunch has been extra-special lately. Sacred even. I look forward to that short break on the farm owner’s porch for hours. When the moment arrives, I nestle into a chair on the cool, shaded porch, remove my confining work boots, and savor every bite of the meal that follows.

My nourishment is the fruit of last year’s labor, cost me dearly, and is worth every ounce of sweat equity that went into it. Who knew a simple sandwich could be so satisfying?

It’s all in the turkey. The price tag on this bird was $90. My cost was even higher, though. Twelve hours of hard labor at the Food Farm comprised my part of the deal. This time was passed—joyfully, mostly—while toiling under blistering sun, persevering relentless wind, and while enduring rain and cold. Lets just say that it wasn’t like trading a dozen hours of Netflix binge-watching. I earned it.

Was 12 hours a fair exchange for a pasture-raised bird that now resides, mostly, in my freezer? This turkey lived a full 22 weeks on pasture, foraging on healthy grass, upon which I have walked. Farmers manually moved their portable pens to fresh grass every day. There are no automatic feeders out there on pasture, so these must be monitored twice each day.

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And, holy cow, is their feed ever expensive. Janaki Fisher-Merrit, owner of the Food Farm, pays more than twice the rate per pound for his organically grown grain than what you’ll pay for a 50-pound sack of conventional feed at the local feed store, even though he hauls in a thousand pounds at a time! Kelp and minerals are also added to it. Janaki says, “Stuff like that gives the meat more of the “good fats” and less of the bad, and also makes for a healthier bird that can handle being out in the elements and staying alive for a longer period of time.”

Raising turkeys outside on pasture for 154 days requires a significant investment of time, money, and energy, on the part of the farmer. It simply costs more to raise a bird traditionally on a family farm than to employ the “efficiencies” of a factory farm, where the animals are de-beaked and pumped full of antibiotics simply so they may survive, never see the light of day, and as seen in numerous undercover videos, routinely endure shocking abuse.

If $90 still seems outrageous, consider the life of the turkey. What’s that worth? I think of Laura, one of the farm’s interns from last year, who felt grateful to be with the turkeys in their pen during their final moments. One by one they were selected for processing, and as their numbers dwindled, she wept.

(Here are the birds in their final portable pen as the end draweth nigh. Young Truman, the farmer’s son, keeps watch.)

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I might talk big about my 12 hours of hard labor, but does this even compare to the turkey’s level of sacrifice? That animal, quite literally, laid down it’s life so that I might live. We should never be glib about such a thing. Frankly, it is only right that such sacrifice would cost us dearly. And we should be thankful. Every day, on that cool porch on the farm, I feel tremendous gratitude for the life of my turkey. A life that was spent living as a turkey should, expressing its innate turkeyness, until its dying breath.

These animals are raised to be the centerpiece of a family’s Thanksgiving dinner. Would anything less befit an annual celebration that purports to be a celebration of all that the Maker has provided? On this of all days, it behooves us to source food grown in a manner in which it was designed to be grown.

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I’m glad it took me over six months to finally cook up this enormous 26-pound bird. Having spent more time farming since then, I find myself appreciating both the farmer’s labor in producing such high-quality food AND the life that was sacrificed for me.

Every day is an opportunity to express thanksgiving for the blessings showered down upon us from above. Begrimed in sweat and dirt from working down in the earth each day, I am filled with gratitude for every mouthful. This is worth $3.50/pound.

Here you can take a gander at what is considered more normal and conventional. To loosely quote Joel Salatin, this is the intersection of pure capitalism, amoral science, and a complete lack of foresight. Is this a more fitting centerpiece for your Thanksgiving table this year? Conditions like these create the need for overdosing our food supply with antibiotics, and also the rise of superbugs that may soon result in the end of the antibiotic era.

I realize that most of us cannot regularly afford a pastured turkey like this. Amazingly, the going rate in many other markets is about double the cost. With a little planning, however, and perhaps through sharing the cost with others, you might be able to have a more meaningful Thanksgiving this November. Go visit the farm that is raising your turkey. Meet your farmers. Then, when you gather with loved ones later this year to celebrate this season’s bounty, give thanks for both.

FYI, I’ll soon be raising chickens on pasture in a similar manner. These will be available to you in September. Stay tuned!

June highlights and a midlife crisis update

Hell just about froze over when I made the switch. No, we’re not talking transgender here, but the change was revolutionary on a cosmic scale. You just might have sensed a small tear in the space time continuum, in fact.

I finally broke down, in 2016, and bought a cell phone. Being rather Amish-like in my approach to adapting “new” technology, it was super hard to leave the roughly 5% of folks confined to just a landline. Having previously thrived without any phone at all back when I lived in a cabin near the Canadian border, I never found this confining. Perhaps I even felt superior to all you folks carrying around those annoying gizmos, constantly looking down at them, never experiencing the real world. I had my grandmother’s rotary phone, which contains an actual bell, and loved it.

Now I’ve got more computing power in my pocket than Bill Clinton had in the Whitehouse. THAT’S CRAZY!!!!!! And I have to admit, I love it. It really is a game changer having one of these smart phones. I’ve heard more than one farmer claim that the Iphone is their most used tool on the farm.

The midlife crisis rages on. Just about everything is on the table. I need to change in many areas, and sense a strong need to whittle life down to the essentials and FOCUS: father, husband, farmer, writer, friend, child of God.

During a recent trip to an impressive scrapyard, my friend and I felt like Sanford and Son as we drove up onto the tipping scale with an old van and trailer. The guy waiting behind us was pulling 65,000 pounds of scrap (who knew that was possible?). My little operation felt pretty ridiculous, but I did clear out some distractions, while also netting $57 in the process.

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It was super interesting with all the trains, cranes, and ships around. The super touristy part of town, Canal Park, is just a half-mile in the distance across that open water. The scale of this place is amazing.

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It’s essential to focus on others, rather than myself. While striving to find my niche in the community, I want to be useful. Too often I feel obsolete like all this junk waiting to be melted down. I try not to dwell on that, feebly pressing onward.

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It’s difficult to balance finding my niche while also feeding a family. I’m currently working three full-time jobs, essentially, and feel behind with all of them. My main job these days is as a farmhand, which is providing valuable experience. The farm’s owner left me in charge of the place for two weeks while she was in Europe recently. My own farm was sort of put on hold. I’m painting a house for some cash-flow as well.

I’ve been so busy that my first harvest at my budding urban farm, Tiny Farm Duluth, completely caught me off-guard.

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It’s rather comical, but I’ve been schlepping lettuce and these gorgeous Easter Egg radishes around, often with a cooler in my bike trailer. My small deliveries have grossed between $3 and $12. I realize it’s kind of asinine, but you’ve got to start somewhere. This morning I’ll be harvesting for my very first delivery to a restaurant, Bulldog Pizza. Man, are those folks ever supportive. I left our little meeting resolved to get more things going. Between running the other farm while my boss was away, the side job of painting a house, and messing up the seed density of my other crops with a precision seeder, I had given up on turning a profit this season. However, this small harvest has inspired me to redo some of these garden beds so I can offer more to my super small customer base. All of the beds should look like the lettuce, which retains moisture and crowds out weeds. Above that lushness you see the spinach. In those two beds the seeds became clogged in the seeder, so they were only planted sporadically. The only way you’d know would be to weigh the seed bag before and after planting, because you can’t see the seeds going into the ground. I should have turned these under a couple weeks ago and started over. In this business you have to identify failures quickly, and start over. A lesson for next time…

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I’ve run into some obstacles with rock in that area under the tarp, which covers 2,000 square feet. The adjoining plots, still in the process of being smothered, are more promising for the future. For now, I plan on putting a cover crop into that area while slowly figuring out how to proceed.That’ll buy time while building soil, suppressing weeds, and attracting beneficial insects.

My wife has a splendid art exhibition at the new Lakeside Gallery, located next to Amity Coffee, right here in our neighborhood. The pieces will be featured all summer, and I think she’ll have a permanent presence there going forward. I missed most of her opening on Saturday, desperately needing to paint that house, and showed up filthy near the end. I just love that I feel comfortable going into this place dressed like a hillbilly. It isn’t the least bit pretentious. Art should be accessible to the common man, and this place goes a long way toward accomplishing that. Along those lines, Shawna has prints available for $25 down there, super inexpensive greeting cards are in the works, and small original paintings (not appearing in this image) for around a hundred bucks.

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Watch for my column in the paper this weekend. It’s a good one about a $90 turkey we’ve been consuming that cost me nearly two days of hard labor last Fall. I’ll post that story here next week.

Hope and life rising from the ashes

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Somehow this little tree sprang to life in my fire pit, even though we last had a fire a little over a month ago. It’s firmly rooted on a piece of charred wood. Talk about resilience! I found some inspiration in it while walking with my head down, deep in thought, rushing between chicken chores and heading out to some responsibility for the day. I probably spent a good five minutes with the little guy, potted him up, and might even spend a few decades with this new friend. Hope and inspiration spring up in the most unusual and unexpected places.

I sprang to life at 3:45 this morning, eager to get going on the day. I’ll hop on the bike and hopefully put some beans in the ground at Tiny Farm Duluth. Then I head off to my job on another farm located just a couple miles outside the city limits. It promises to be a big day with work done on two farms, setting the stage to start painting a friend’s house tomorrow, racking up 20 miles on the bike, a little time spent writing, and family duties.
Attempting to build a farm from scratch in between moments at my other farm job, heavy rain, shuttling kids to soccer games, washing dishes, doing laundry, and all the other basic necessities of life, has been rather hectic. The need to stay sane has me scaling back expectations for Tiny Farm greatly this year, using this time to put systems in place for next season. The learning curve is just nuts. Also, time management, discipline, and organization, are all growth areas for me. Slowly, I’m whittling down to the bare necessities and building FOCUS.
Today’s great task is to find joy in the journey, choosing to be pleased that the family car is unavailable, and refusing to regret what I did not accomplish at the end of the day. There’s a chapter in my book called Joy in the Journey. It begins with a sentence describing life on the train:
Riding the rails is a feast along a bountiful reservoir of time.
Today I will strive to recover this mentality in everyday life. Ironically, you’ll find yourself being far more productive while existing in this mindset. You experience clarity, and are able to focus on what really matters.
Now 40 years old, I envy the 20-year-old embarking on a journey like this through apprenticeships and similar hard knocks, but without all the responsibilities. There’s no time for regrets or whining. We only have this one life to live. Time is ticking.

Raising entrepreneurs organically.

In writing this column for the paper, I was stunned to discover that my earlier encounter with this family just might have altered the direction of my life. WOW. I really hadn’t thought of it until now. Check out my original story about Max Organics, Ben’s Blooms, and the origins of Duluth Trading Company right here. This helps reinforce my conviction to live a more locally-based life. Simple connections within your own community can result in a tremendous impact on your life.
At the time, I was on the cusp of turning 40, mired in depression, and feeling desperate to chart a course for our family’s future. Endless questions and uncertainties remain, but we are slowly moving forward. One step at a time. As usual, my wife’s current paintings continue to help me process these complexities. The column follows…
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On December 9th, in the midst of an icy rain, I made 14 small punctures into the earth’s crust. Into each of these small holes—desperate for some hope while enduring what felt like a bottomless depression—I placed individual cloves of garlic. Might this have been the latest outdoor planting of a crop in the entire history of Duluth?
Though they entered the ground last, the resulting plants were the first to shoot out of the soil in early Spring. All 14 of them! Now over two-feet-tall, the early greenery was a real shot of encouragement in the month of March.
Learning of a kid-run business is what impelled me to put the crop in at the end of last year. After reading about Max Organics in the Whole Food Coop’s newsletter, I immediately went there to purchase the local garlic for seeding. Crestfallen to learn they were out of stock, I shelled out a buck for another garlic bulb, immediately raced home to put the cloves into the ground, and set out to meet the kid behind this unique business instead.
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Eventually I enjoyed an outstanding visit with the entire family in their beautiful home on Park Point, where I was entranced by a story of entrepreneurship unlike any other.
Max Organics is owned and operated by a 16-year-old, Max Fierek. Max has already been an entrepreneur for half his life. As an eight-year-old, he asked his dad for an allowance like his friends were getting. His father, Robert, denied the request, opting to teach him to earn his own money through running a business instead.
Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.
Robert Fierek is unusually suited to provide these lessons to his two boys. As a young carpenter he invented the Bucket Boss tool storage system, and ultimately parlayed this success into the formation of Duluth Trading Company alongside his brother. He sold his stake in Duluth Trading 20 years ago, saying, “I wanted to be a dad rather than a CEO.”
The germination of the family’s bent toward entrepreneurship can be traced back to the closure of the U.S. Steel mill. Robert grew up in the Morgan Park neighborhood, which was originally formed as a company town by the industrial giant. With 77 years of cumulative service between his dad and grandfather at the plant, it was assumed that young Bob would continue the tradition. The mill was larger than life.
Strong, burly men wept in public when the mill’s closure was announced. Bob says, “I remember seeing a man with tears in his eyes looking straight up into the air for answers.”
As much of Morgan Park packed up to leave, Bob realized that a big company couldn’t be counted on for one’s sole livelihood. It was then and there that he resolved to make a living by his own wits. He speaks of this with firm conviction, and has done an admirable job of leading his sons in this area.
The proceeds from Max Organics has enabled Max Fierek to aggressively pursue his passion of competitive mountain bike racing. An accomplished rider, he travels a racing circuit and has even earned some sponsorships. Racing-quality, carbon fiber mountain bikes aren’t cheap, and garlic continues to pave his way. There have been no handouts, and the hard work each year has obviously taught him the value of delayed gratification.
Last Fall he planted 3,000 cloves of garlic into his well-drained and carefully managed soil. This year’s plants are thriving, and point to a good harvest in the coming months. You’ll find his fresh, local garlic at the Whole Foods Co-op, Mt. Royal Fine Foods, and the Duluth Grill, later this summer. His homemade garlic salt, a premium product available in a salt grinder that is remarkably potent and tasty, is available now.
What I learned and observed from this family just might have been critical in my recent decision to pursue market gardening as a career, at the age of 40. Visit the link above for a lengthy story about Max Organics and Ben’s Blooms (his brother’s quirky business). 
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Eddy’s Overwhelmed

Shawna originally titled this piece, “Eddy’s Overwhelmed.” Not only did I inspire my wife’s painting, it resonates strongly, and even helps me make sense of this crazy life we’re living. The weight I bear is not only impossibly difficult and stressful, but beautiful. At the last minute she renamed it, “Big Dreams.”

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I even got a photo of Chuck Marohn—founder of Strong Towns and a real American hero in my book—beside it. He just happened to be wrapping up an event immediately prior to the opening of my wife’s current art exhibition at The Red Herring Lounge last night. Many of my dreams for a more locally-based life, a stronger and more resilient community, etc, will be impacted by his incredibly influential work. He has the ears of scores of America’s mayors, and was even at the White House recently. It was a remarkable coincidence to meet him right here at this spot…

Chuck and painting

These days have been busier than at any other point in my life. I recently took a part-time job as a farmhand at Talmadge Farms, while continuing to also endure the struggle of building my own urban farm. After laboring in the fields under the sun, I raced home on the bike (only 16 miles roundtrip compared to 60 for the Food Farm) to accompany my wife to the show. Standing in the shower a few minutes before we left, I observed the extremely dirty water at my feet. What a contrast to the pristine wastewater coming off me between tours of duty at the office! Time—oh so scarce and precious—on the bike spent pedaling through the countryside was rewarding: mentally, physically, and spiritually. And then, wearing the same tattered shoes as I had on in the field, we’re at this big-time event only an hour later. Surreal…

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Meanwhile, down on my own farm, the work is painstaking, slow, and arduous. So far I’ve only got six beds prepped (30 inches wide by 30 feet). The other night I received my first mosquito bite of the season while working the broadfork. I borrowed this remarkable tool from Francois Medion, the head gardener at The Duluth Grill. It aerates deep down into the subsoil, and is one heckuva workout. Who needs Crossfit?

Broadfork

Rocks have become my new nemesis, even lovely Lake Superior agates that churn up—this place was at the bottom of the big lake years ago, after all. The paperweight below was heavier than me. After heaving it out of the ground, I rolled the oblong object a few feet off the field, where it’ll probably rest until the end of time. Twas a miracle that I didn’t break the shovel handle on it.

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The farm only takes small sips of gasoline on occasion, so this work is bringing home the full meaning of Slow Food. I’ve had this Trek 1200 bike since I was 14. With all original components, it’s the very same “portal into other worlds” that I spoke of in my book (I did record an audiobook as well, y’all).

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Alas, a foundation is being laid for long-term success. I’m already looking forward to getting off to an early start next season with all this prep work behind me. Building a farm from scratch requires serious, sustained effort, and so much more of farming life is mental than I ever realized. The decision-making is endless. What sort of irrigation should I use? What should I plant? When and how should they be staggered for succession planting? Where should they all go? How can I put up a quick fence to keep the deer out? The questions are never-ending. Even these are part of the journey. Key elements of beauty.

As I continue pondering and toiling, I hope you’ll head out to The Red Herring Lounge to take in Mischief, Memory, and Wonder: A Collection of 25 Paintings by Shawna Gilmore. These pieces will be on display until June 15th. As you enjoy a favorite beverage of choice, and perhaps some good music, think of me out in the field. That’s almost certainly where I’ll be at that very moment. Or sleeping…

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extra just in  case

Eddy's Overwhelmed

Podcast with Charlie Parr, and “She Saw it Coming”

My wife swears that I did not inspire this painting that is still in progress. I have to admit that I was worried about the possibility. It’s called, “She Saw it Coming.” (Pardon the blurry image, but you can see it in person next week at The Red Herring Lounge as part of her upcoming exhibition there.)

She Saw it Coming

Charlie Parr strolled into the neighborhood yesterday—barefoot, even though it was cold and damp. We had a nice conversation on my podcast about the hardships and joys of life on the road, dropping out of school, and how he slowly got into making music as a vocation. He’s doing what he loves, and that’s what I’m trying to do: as an author, and an urban farmer. My new urban farm, Tiny Farm Duluth, is slowly coming together. The soil of formerly wasted space within the city of Duluth has been tilled, and seeds will soon be sown.

Charlie on easel

What does urban farming have in common with art and music? Give a listen to this unvarnished podcast with Charlie at tinyfarmduluth.com, and decide for yourself. As you probably know by now, my wife, Shawna Gilmore, painted the album art for Parr’s most recent record: I Ain’t Dead Yet. 50 limited edition hand-numbered prints are available of the original artwork right here, signed by both Charlie and Shawna. This, like a well-lived life in general, is a symbiotic relationship between different art forms. We’re pursuing the intersection of ecology, economy, and community. I’m not saying we’ve arrived yet, either…

After TOILING for days on end, I got a hot tip from my new boss at Talmadge Farms (I’ll be working part-time over there while learning a thing or two), and found someone with big boy equipment. This former rocky hardpan has finally been tilled. The beat goes on…

It takes a village

Also, just in case you’re interested, each of these vegetable propaganda prints are available for just $20 each on archival, fancypants art paper (we can figure out one $5 shipping charge if you want more than one). These will be delivered straight to your door, leaving a trail of pixie dust all along the way…

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The birth of Tiny Farm Duluth

Setting up a website for my new urban farm was a total GONG SHOW! Anyhow, here it is: Tiny Farm Duluth. Right now we’ve got prints available for sale, some information, a blog, and a podcast! My podcast is pretty stinkin’ basic, and I reckon it will continue to be henceforth, but I hope to get better at it over time. This one is with my friend, Catherine Conover from Stone’s Throw Farm, and we’ll have one with Charlie Parr soon. We’re all about bringing in an abundant local harvest…

This is all part of our good-swift-KICK-in-the-pants-STARTER, so I hope many of you will join in on the fun. Whether or not you purchase a $20 print or donate, I’d be honored if you’d simply listen to the podcast and check back often for updates. I’ll have a separate blog over at tinyfarmduluth.com as well. I realize many of you live far away, but I think it could be inspiring for y’all to follow the progress wherever you live. I’ll be cutting out all this sod later today, as well as another 2,000 or so square feet that adjoins this. The plastic was endlessly frustrating, because of persistent gale force winds flying in off Lake Superior. See video below to get an idea of the struggle…

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