A tale of three organic farms defying the odds, and one on the way

Throughout the summer months, Duluth is regularly carpet-bombed by boxes of vegetables. The popularity of CSA’s (community supported agriculture) has exploded in recent years in these parts. Where previously this sort of labor-intensive, organic farming comprised a small, niche market, it now seems to be penetrating the outer periphery of the mainstream.

Not only are consumers increasingly choosing to source their food locally, it is becoming more common for young people to pursue organic farming as a legitimate career and lifestyle. These farmers are possessed by a certain chutzpah that enables them to dig in against long odds. Blood, sweat, and tears are poured into the land in a quest to make a sustainable living. This is a beautiful sight to behold. Sure, the scenery is often marked by awe-inspiring beauty, but I am most fascinated by the unique landscape of humanity making it happen each and every back-breaking day. We all can learn much about perseverance from them, whether or not we have an interest in farming.

Low pay is exchanged for endless work, stress, responsibility, and vulnerability to forces beyond one’s control. In an effort to understand these diehards better, I am currently in the middle of an author-in-residency at the Food Farm that I dreamed up in an effort to become better acquainted with three sets of couples (all in their 30s and farming within close proximity to one another in Wrenshall, Minnesota) who have fully committed to this lifestyle. Twenty years ago one would have been hard-pressed to find a single person in this age group farming this way, but here I am within two miles of three significantly-sized operations. I’ll be staying here for three days while seeking an unvarnished view of this unusually difficult lifestyle.

The Food Farm is the most established of the bunch. You can read more of this amazing farm in previous posts I’ve written here and here. Interestingly, they’ve been instrumental in mentoring future competitors. Northern Harvest Farm, for example, got its start 10 years ago right here at the Food Farm. Rick and Karola Dalen, the farm owners, began by cultivating land owned by Food Farm. They required just 1.5 acres to supply 30 weekly vegetable boxes. This was provided in exchange for their work as interns at the established farm, where they gained knowledge and experience over two seasons. Not only were they provided with land, but they were blessed with the use of Food Farm’s equipment. However, they had two farms to look after, in essence. Rick worked three full days, and Karola put in two days for the Food Farm each week. The rest of their time—ALL OF IT—went into establishing themselves as legitimate vegetable growers in their own right. Two years went by like this. Since they didn’t hate the work, and dare I say even loved it, they took the plunge by purchasing their own land. Their example of apprenticeship prior to diving in head first is one that is worthy of emulation in plenty of other fields as well. They have built the farm slowly and sustainably, careful not to get in over their heads. Rick tallied up his hours last year and determined that he earned a whopping $11 per hour, a great increase over earlier years at around minimum wage, while bringing in a profit of about $15,000. And yes, they have kids. Remarkable, isn’t it? Karola has held a full-time job as the recycling coordinator for Carlton County for the past three years, which greatly decreases the family’s stress. After talking with Rick at length today, though, there isn’t a doubt in my mind that they would have found a way to make things work even without his wife’s income from conventional employment.

NH 1

In the above picture Rick is on the tractor while carefully pulling a tined instrument that helps control the weeds. In the next photo you can see the results of this efficient weeding method. In the background, atop the hill, they are beginning an orchard. Somewhere around 300 apple trees are in various states of growth. The Dalen’s are ambitious while planning ahead toward a future in which the farm will provide a more sustainable income for the family. I have no doubt that this will happen.

Rick and weeding aftermath

Stone’s Throw Farm is also a fascinating story for its utter craziness. Catherine Conover has built this CSA from scratch. Armed with three years of intensive work spent growing vegetables while working for other farmers, including a stint as an intern at the Food Farm, she felt she had the experience necessary to take the plunge and invest in 40 acres of her own. Now in its sixth year of existence, the farm has the equivalence of 55 members. Full shares go for $500, and half shares cost $300. You can do the math pretty easily, I reckon. Clearly she isn’t in it for the money either.

ST crops

In her 20s, following college and graduate school, Conover found herself deeply unhappy in jobs that did not suit her. By the age of 29 she reached a turning point and had to question what she wanted to do with her life. All she knew was that she wanted to be outside. Feeling as if she had nothing to lose, and possessing an adventurous spirit, she began her third decade while earning a low wage as a farm intern. After enjoying lively conversations with both Catherine and Rick, I am struck by how remarkably valuable these low-wage internships are for would-be farmers.

The level of sacrifice and determination displayed in Catherine Conover is impossible to exaggerate. For instance, she didn’t purchase a farm, but merely bought 40 acres of mostly wooded land. It was completely undeveloped. A well was drilled first thing, greenhouses erected, a single outbuilding has been built, and now she revels in the luxury of a working bathroom every day. Her deer fences have a homemade quality to them. Unlike Food Farm’s 10-foot-high fence that circumnavigates the property and never fails to protect the farm’s livelihood, her’s isn’t completely impenetrable, but does the job well enough.

ST Fence

The infrastructure of her farm is cobbled together with ingenuity, wit, and perseverance in the face of a difficult environment. Only seven of 40 acres are under cultivation. The rest is wooded. She hopes to build a home with her partner and love, Eldon, in the near future. Currently she finds herself both in Duluth and out on the farm. Long days on the farm keep her apart from Eldon several days each week. He lives and works in the city, and has supported Catherine in her obsession ever since the early days when she moved east for her first stint on a vegetable CSA. It’s interesting to note the level of sacrifice that comes with small-scale organic farming. As a community we should all be grateful, whether or not we’re members of these particular farms, because of the incredible value that these gems of humanity are adding to the community.

This greenhouse was converted from an old garage hoop building obtained on Craigslist for $100:

Greenhouse 2

Early in the season when it’s cold, this greenhouse is heated with a kerosene heater to be kept at just 33 degrees. Seeing my incredulousness, Catherine responded that, “Only the toughest plants survive spring at Stone’s Throw Farm!” She cannot be wasteful of anything.

Stones Throw Greenhouse 1

Eldon works as an architect for a small firm in Duluth. He isn’t raking in gobs of money, but I get the sense that life could be more comfortable for them both if Catherine didn’t have this need to farm. If she were to calculate her hourly earnings it would be somewhere around minimum wage. Is it mental illness? Obsession? Amazingly, she really REALLY believes in the importance of what she’s doing (as do the other farmers I’ve spoken with).

She freely notes that she couldn’t do it alone. Her parents have been indispensable in helping her get the farm off the ground. Not only did they donate some equipment they no longer needed on their own farm, but they even bought a house in Wrenshall so they could help her during the summer months. Hours are spent with a hoe, packing vegetable boxes, and other necessary grunt work. Catherine runs her farm with only minimal mechanization. Nearly everything is done by hand.

ST Pigs

One of the common elements among the subjects of the three farms I am profiling during this stay is the steadying presence of POOFS – Parents Of Organic Farmers. This is what they call themselves. Parents of each of these couples recognized that their kids needed help, and they generously moved into tiny Wrenshall so they could provide daily assistance in many instances.

My gosh these farmers work hard. Last night I enjoyed a very late dinner with Annie and Janaki at the Food Farm. At 9:41 pm I asked if they always eat at 19 to 10. The answer was, “Oh, this was early!” After a lively conversation I turned in and caught Janaki watering the turkey chicks at nearly 10:30 pm. Farming is definitely a lifestyle and not just a job.

I am nearing the end of my first day out here. I’ve learned a great deal, but I get the sense that only the surface has been scratched while attempting to learn what makes these fascinating people tick. Take, for example, a fourth farmer I wasn’t aware of until today. Adam is now in his 8th year as a farmhand for Northern Harvest Farm. All those years have enabled him to command a wage somewhere in the neighborhood of $11.75 per hour. It’s hard for a small family farm to even pay this amount, though they would love to pay far more. Rick says he wishes he could pay Adam $20/hour. Not only is Adam not bitter about the arrangement, but he purchased his own land directly across the street from his job! He is in the very earliest stages of establishing a berry farm, the fruits of which will eventually be offered to Northern Harvest Farm members in the form of fruit shares. Both Adam and Rick are grateful for their working relationship, which could potentially last for decades. His focus for the time being is on developing healthy soil. This requires nurturing and care over a period of years. There is no magic wand.

Adam’s land is immediately adjacent to Stone’s Throw Farm. He and his wife have a small child under the age of one. They have recently completed building a garage on the property, which currently serves as their living quarters. Eventually they’ll build a proper home on the property. This will be done slowly, methodically, and sustainably, which fits in with the overall lifestyle.

Here you can catch a glimpse of this odd little neighborhood that is developing. Stone’s Throw Farm is on the right. You can see the greenhouses. Adam’s garage/house is the brown building somewhat right of center, and Northern Harvest’s impressive operation is largely concealed by the trees on the left. You can make out some of their outbuildings if you squint hard enough. Knowledge is not hoarded within the organic farming community, but is freely dispersed. Each of these farmers want to see their friends and neighbors succeed. This has been key to the growth of the local food movement.

lay of the land

Here are my accommodations during my brief stay…

camper

And I get to eat with the family at this table. I’m writing from this location right now:

window onto Food Farm

This is the Food Farm’s resident dog guard. Despite his voluminous appetite that is fitting for a polar bear, Chester more than earns his keep. He makes rounds throughout the night, barking along the way (all night long, for which I was given ear plugs by Annie before turning in!) while scaring off predators who would otherwise tear into the various flocks of chickens or young turkeys.

dog

I am deeply grateful for this time. I gain so much more than I’ll ever be able to give to this place. Please take a look at Food Farm’s Kickstarter video here. This is an important means by which our community can help ensure the long range viability of significant quantities of locally produced food. We are on the cusp of something great in local agriculture both here and across the nation as more and more of us are finding value in local agriculture vs the old, worn out industrial agricultural model that is sickening society in every conceivable way.

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