A recent 65-mile bike ride was a study in contrasts. These came in both the human and natural variety, although I reckon that the family of humans is indeed a part of nature. Along with the rest of creation, we are all in it together. Dear reader, please follow me along on a marvelous journey, during which we become well-acquainted with two fascinating individuals doing unconventional work in difficult ground. One works among the poorest of the world’s poor, and the other is a hops farmer who fled a desk-job in the city. You will be inspired!
The beginning of the ride to the Two Harbors area was a familiar, well-worn path for me. The ride along Scenic Highway 61 is relatively flat and straight, being immediately adjacent to Lake Superior. A stiff northeasterly breeze was my adversary, but eventually I contented myself with a slower pace. The temperature hovered in the 40s, but I stubbornly refused to swaddle myself in the comfort of the jacket being uselessly carried in my backpack. Being a full hour later than planned, I found myself in a bit of a hurry all day (a most unwelcome feeling). I was on my way to deliver a single copy of my book to Joe and Pat Richter. Oh the lengths to which I will go to get The Emancipation of a Buried Man into the hands of readers!
Immediately upon turning left to head north up the hill away from the Lake, my outlook brightened considerably. The lake breeze and fog disappeared, a cheery sun brightened my spirits, and the temperature skyrocketed into the 60’s within five minutes of climbing out of Lake Superior’s basin. Most non-bikers are incredulous about the exertion required to climb 600 or more feet up the big hills that dominate the northern rim above the Lake, but I find the experience to be most heart-warming at this time of year. Fog and a persistent, cold lake breeze can dominate for weeks at a time down here. Climbing up the hill is like traveling to another region. It’s glorious to sense the changes as the topography is slowly crested. Humidity lowers, goose bumps stow themselves back into my flesh for future use, and the brightness of the sun showers and envelops as if you had just emerged from an underground mine. I’ll never cease to be amazed by a 20+ degree temperature change that occurs in short order:
I do not own a cell phone. Some day I’ll splurge on the luxury item, but for now I prefer being untethered to communication devices. I believe I have a greater sense of freedom than my friends who must stop and consult their phones every 20 minutes or so. Additionally, I find satisfaction in relying on the kindness of strangers now and again. On this day I stopped into a lovely café that I never knew existed, asking to use the phone to let my hosts know I was running late. Some day I’ll stop back with a friend. It’d make a fine destination on the bicycle for a visit over some variety of yumminess in a bowl, plate, or glass. After nearly an hour on the road, battling wind and cold, I found the brush with humanity to be most welcome.
My directions to the highlands above Two Harbors were simple. No map was required. Take County Road 9 to 10 to 11 to 12 and finally to Co Rd 123 prior to making a final leftward turn. Those were my marvelous directions. Almost immediately I came across a black bear directly in my path. The animal, black as night and sleek as a model, was walking toward me on the shoulder. Perhaps he or she thought I was one of those “harmless” automobiles that hum by from time to time. Fifty feet prior to colliding with the beast, I was the first to swerve in our game of “chicken” as I sought to give the animal a wide berth. This stunned the animal out of its trance as the creature bolted into the forest with all its might. Fueled with adrenaline, it was a remarkable sight to behold. Seeing the bear’s muscles flex and sway beneath its sleek blackness was a real treat, and a good reminder of just how terrified these creatures are of us. A remarkable specimen, indeed. I’m thankful for the encounter.
Seeing the bear pulled my mind out of the stupor as I neared the bed and breakfast run by the Richter’s. Being so far out in the sticks, my expectations were rather low, to be honest. Boy was I ever surprised! The log cabin they built with their son is a site to behold with wonder. Standing out front, I felt like I had arrived at a grand lodge nestled between mountains in Montana. Enormous white pine logs were the chief building material. Not seeing many trees of this size in our part of the world, I was surprised to learn that their son logged the hundred-plus-year-old trees in northwestern Wisconsin himself.
Sensing my exhaustion and hunger, my gracious hosts ushered me to the dining room table where they entertain guests daily. They possess an admirable gift of hospitality that is worthy of emulation. I greedily sucked down two large glasses of orange juice, a full plate of a divine Bavarian concoction I had never heard of, freshly baked rolls, and an interesting fruit salad for desert. The meal and conversation made the long bike ride worthy of the expenditure of energy, and then some.
The B&B, Superior Gateway Lodge, is a sort of retirement plan for the couple, who have been involved in missions for decades. Joe and Pat met in the Peace Corps, and Joe later came upon what many would have considered to be a dream job while working as a freshwater scientist for the EPA in Duluth. A conventional existence wasn’t his calling, however. He resigned in order to go back into full-time mission work. In the decades since then he has served as the Executive Director of Farms International, which is a faith-based ministry serving the poor around the world. As the name suggests, there is a special place for agricultural projects in their work. However, they also fund numerous projects in urban areas. They primarily focus on entrepreneurial loans for the poor, who otherwise wouldn’t have access to the capital required to lift them out of poverty.
Contrary to various micro-loan programs you may have heard of, such as through the Grameen Bank, Farms International focuses on larger loans that are generally somewhere around what would be about an average year’s salary. This kind of money (often between $100 and $2000) has the power to change lives of entire families forever, because the poorest of the poor otherwise would have no opportunity to save money toward substantial business investments. These funds are used to buy welders, get set up in an agricultural endeavor of sufficient size to produce a significant stream of income, etc. The revolving loans are delivered through what are termed as “projects” within the various countries, going through committees led by local church people and other leaders in the community. The projects are wholly indigenous, and Farms doesn’t pay any salaries. Additionally, the committees themselves determine the terms of the loans (such as the amount of the small administrative fee that’s assessed for covering various expenses and for building their capacity to help more people). Loans are repaid at a rate that modern banks in the western world can only dream of, and these funds are plowed back into the lives of more people. It really is an ingenious system. Additionally, I know of no other organization doing such work where one may so easily contact the actual Executive Director (who reports to a board of directors, by the way) with questions.
Suffice to say, there was plenty to talk about during our two-hour visit. The Richter’s provided me with another example of a family deviating from the cultural norm for their life’s work. I found it rather amazing that they so deftly balance the demands of a bed and breakfast with their ongoing work with Farms International. It appears to be yet another example of complimentary gifts at work. Joe’s wife, Pat, is able to put her passion for hospitality into good use while Joe continues on with Farms along with improvements to the property, etc. If you get the chance, I wholeheartedly recommend a stay at Superior Gateway Lodge.
Being so far from home, I was pleased to explore the contours of another unconventional family on the same trip. Since Joe and Pat are teetotalers, I found it interesting to pedal 20 minutes further down the road to a hops farmer. I offer no lesson for the reader. I just personally enjoy hearing from a variety of voices, and these two families are different in nearly every conceivable way. It is refreshing to avoid huddling up exclusively within a like-minded, everybody-is-the-same tribe. How boring that would be!
Ryan Melton, his wife Lori, and two kids, moved from Duluth to the Two Harbors area in order to pursue an alternate existence in a kind of back-to-the-land experiment. Being fully disenchanted with his career in the city, he purchased land containing a ramshackle farmhouse along the Stewart River a few miles north of town, and started a pick-your-own hops farm called Harbor Hops. Though he is still left with uncertainty, Ryan says it was the best decision he ever made for his family.
Previously the man was mired in an office job for a government agency. Unhappy. Dried up and withering. Unfulfilled. The work involved with maintaining two incomes carried additional stress into the home. For example, an unexpected sick day for one of the kids produced arguments between husband and wife over who would incur the sick day at work. For the benefit of marriage and family, they voluntarily scaled back—choosing quality of life and love over money—in pursuit of simplicity. This is a decision that families are increasingly making today. More and more of us are rejecting stress-filled lives and decades of unfulfilling family life in exchange for 10 or 20 years of “luxurious retirement living” down the road in the distant future.
Ryan doubles as a stay-at-home dad and farmer. Perhaps I could simplify his vocational work into one word: grower. He grows kids and hops. His wife commutes to Duluth for a day-job in marketing that currently sustains the family financially. Deftly balancing the demands of a two-year-old daughter and a son entering 5th grade, Melton finds a way to pour himself into his work growing hops. His story is inspiring for how he identified a niche just waiting to be filled, and for how he continues to wholeheartedly go after it. There are essentially no local hops for the many small microbreweries and beer brewers in our area. Ryan hopes to become a reliable supplier to meet the significant demand that exists for a locally grown, fresh product. It’ll take years to build the crop to that point, but he’s going after it.
The Stewart River, just down the hill from their home, is absolutely beguiling. This is a reliable source of irrigation. Full of life, it tumbles down small waterfalls and around rock of varying shapes and character through a mixed forest of older growth pines, aspen, birch, and spruce. The family’s fire pit, picnic table, and grill, are positioned in this lovely setting a short three-minute walk from their home near the county road.
At the top of the rise near the home is his burgeoning hops farm/hobby/obsession. Forty of these poles (tree trunks) puncture the earth, ascending to a height of 20 feet. Think of the work involved in auguring each hole to a depth of four feet and sinking them all in! Individual hops plants will scale the ropes. The plant you see here, well-established and currently about 2 feet tall, should climb to the top in about a month.
Hops store their energy below ground in the rhizomes. The vigorous vines, growing 20 -25 feet in a season, die off at the end of each growing season. Newer plantings will reach half that height this year, but should reach the top next year.
This past winter, cold and lacking in adequate snow cover, was hard on the crop. Some plants were lost, but such setbacks serve a significant purpose. Ryan is learning which varieties thrive in a difficult climate (zone 3) above the north shore of Lake Superior. He currently has 17 varieties, but is slowly narrowing this down to only the hardiest plants.
His long-term view of the operation is admirable. While several micro-brewers from Duluth and on up the shore have expressed interest in his crop, he is focusing on developing a consistent harvest that can be depended upon year after year prior to going after significantly-sized customers (brewers that will develop a seasonal, locally-sourced ale and may require 100 pounds of high-quality hops, for example). The most lucrative success seen thus far has come through selling rhizomes of the vigorous plants to small backyard growers looking to produce fresh hops for their own small batches of home-brewed beer. This helps cover many of his costs as he continues to plow resources and effort into the long-term sustainability of the operation (i.e. a healthy root-stock that is disease-resistant and effectively rides out extreme winters).
Continuing on in a theme of sustainability, Ryan is committed to organic growing practices. These are put to good use in everything he does, from disease and pest control to fertilizing. For the latter, he brews up a rich fish-guts-infused tea/concoction along with molasses and lactobacillus that smells FANTASTIC, but is great for promoting beneficial microbial activity in the soil. As with any farm committed to even the slightest whiff of sustainability, soil health is the first priority. Ryan obtains his supply of entrails and other unused fish part for free from Lake Superior Fish Company.
The Melton’s have been living in the high country above Two Harbors for 11 months now (though he began work on the farm back in 2011). Amazingly, a year ago the family lived across the street from a remarkably busy park that is thoroughly used year-round. Their son played hockey there, and they do miss the convenience of watching hockey practice from their living room. They also miss using the nearby bike path that carried them to many parts of Duluth, quickly and conveniently, but overall they are pleased with their move to a serene country setting. Complicating matters, however, is a ramshackle farmhouse that is unbelievably drafty and beyond the point of repair.
They do not know what the future holds. Much uncertainty abounds concerning their living arrangement. The farm is a long-term investment, but other than that there is a great deal up in the air for them. That being said, their perseverance and outside-the-box thinking is inspiring and worthy of emulation—contextualized to your own passions and interests, of course. I greatly admire them for taking this step, a risky one, while pursuing a lifestyle of choice for their family. Far too many of us fall into lives mapped out by social convention, status quo, and convenience. It takes courage to forge a new path through wilderness when a family is involved. Such bravery and long-term thinking is transforming a significant swath of our generation of young families. For this, I am thankful and fascinated.