Grown on the Range Column 9, originally published in Hometown Focus

The other half of “grown on the range” is about eating local.  I’ve been highlighting various Iron Range farmers who supply part of our available food, either through direct-to-consumer selling or through area farmers markets.  But if we don’t buy from them, they can’t grow to be able to feed the Range.  Upscaling this local food system takes commitment from food consumers—and we all fit that bill. So what does it mean to believe in local food?  To commit to buying your food locally?

First, you have to know where you can get locally grown food.  The Iron Range Grown Facebook page is a huge resource.  (https://www.facebook.com/groups/IronRangeGrown/  ask to join, it’s free)  Looking for local honey or eggs from free range chickens?  Post a request on the Iron Range Grown page and you’ll likely get an answer.  Or grassfed beef?  Pastured pork?  It’s available, right from the farmer, right in our area.  And it’s not necessarily more expensive than buying meat at a typical grocery store.  I’ve been buying local beef, pork and chicken for years now and have been amazed at how economical it is.  But then I have a freezer to store stuff like that.  What if you don’t?  You can get locally-grown meat in smaller quantities at Natural Harvest Food Coop in Virginia, and at many local farmers markets including the Grand Rapids, Virginia, Cook and Ely Farmers Markets. 

What if you don’t have lots to spend on food?  Households experiencing food insecurity don’t always have the means to choose local, whether that’s due to transportation challenges or finances or dietary restrictions.  To help meet that challenge, the Arrowhead Economic Opportunity Agency partners with most of the farmers markets in our region to accept SNAP/EBT and participate in the “Market Bucks” program through Minnesota Hunger Solutions.  SNAP customers get a $10 match at farmers markets through this statewide program.  So you can double your buying power!  In Virginia, thanks to Essentia Health, Virginia Market Square farmers market matches up to $15 SNAP dollars.  Find details at   http://www.hungersolutions.org/programs/market-bucks/.

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Okay, maybe you don’t do Facebook?  The Arrowhead Grown website at www.arrowheadgrown.org lists all of the farmers markets in the Arrowhead region.  Don’t do Internet?  You can get a print copy of the Arrowhead Grown directory from the Rutabaga Project (Kelsey.gantzer@aeoa.org, 218-404-8466), the Farm Bureau via Ed Nelson (mredsfarmllc@gmail.com), or the Iron Range Tourism Bureau (800-777-8497).  There’s also Minnesota Grown, the state department of agriculture’s listing of markets and growers, available online and in print (minnesotagrown.com).  But it takes extra effort, you say.  Yep, it does.  But it’s not just about you.  Farmers markets are good for you and good for the local economy.  According to the Farmers Market Coalition, the average time since harvest for produce at a farmers market is ½ day vs. 13 days at a traditional retailer.  And that produce has traveled about 50 miles maximum to get to you vs. 1500 miles average at a grocery store.  Growers selling locally create 13 full-time jobs per $1 million in revenue earned while those not selling locally create only 3.  At a farmers market, 100% of your food dollar goes to the farmer.  At traditional retailers, the farmer gets 15 cents while 85% goes to marketing and distribution.  (USDA Economic Research Service, 2016)  Farmers markets are everywhere if you look.  Did you know that there are more farmers markets in the U.S. than Walmart stores?

When you buy directly from the farmer, you can ask questions about how the animal was raised, what it was fed, or whether the broccoli was sprayed with pesticide or the chickens fed non-GMO feed.  And that can be important if you care about the quality of your food.  But you have to be a careful consumer.  In 2016 an investigative reporter for the Tampa Bay Times traced the origin of produce at area farmers markets and discovered a fair amount of “reselling.”  That means the person at the market did not grow the produce, but bought it from a wholesaler or another vendor.  I had that experience a few years ago at a local market.  I asked if the tomatoes I was buying were treated with pesticides and the seller said “I don’t know, my dad bought these off a truck in Missouri.”  The Canadian Broadcasting System did a similar study in Ontario and found quite a bit of reselling.  So ask, and buy (or not) accordingly.

The State of Minnesota requires resellers to have a license.  However, “persons selling the products of the farm or garden occupied and cultivated by them” are not required to have a license.  Most of our area farmers markets restrict sellers to those who grow, gather, or produce their own product within 50 miles of the market.  And most farmers market managers know their vendors and have visited their farms.  In fact, that’s one of the benefits of buying at a farmers market—as the Farmers Market Coalition says, you can “shake the hand that feeds you.”

CSAs are another way to get fresh food from the farmer.  CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture.  Customers purchase a “share” from the CSA farmer at the beginning of the season and then receive a box or cooler or basket of food at regular intervals.  Sometimes CSAs deliver, sometimes you pick up your share at a set location or at the farm.  Most put together a newsletter introducing new vegetables or telling how to preserve winter squash or sharing recipes or stories of the farm.  CSAs allow farmers to plant a predictable amount based on share sales, and then deliver their products over the course of a growing season. There are several CSAs on the Iron Range.  You can find them in the Minnesota Grown Directory.

I was a CSA customer before my gardens yielded enough for my household and my friends.  And now I manage the Virginia Market Square Farmers Market as a volunteer for the Iron Range Partnership for Sustainability.  One of the most challenging aspects of running a farmers market is helping folks to understand that to eat local, you have to eat seasonally.  We open in June and we always have customers looking for tomatoes and sweet corn in June.  Since we restrict our market to products grown within 50 miles of Virginia, we won’t have those crops until August.  We try to help folks adjust to the seasonal nature of food here by highlighting rhubarb and lettuce and spinach in June, berries and fried green tomatoes in July and then, finally sweet corn and pumpkins and acorn squash in late August and September.  Minnesota Grown has a great chart listing many fruits and vegetables along with their growing season, but southern Minnesota has a much different growing season than we have here in zone 3a!  So ask your local farmers market manager what’s in season and what they’re likely to have the next week or two.

It takes commitment to support local farmers with the way you eat.  You really do have to believe in local food in order to make the effort to buy from a farmers market or enroll in a CSA or find a local food product through Iron Range Grown.  But it’s worth it.  It’s not just about health, it’s about regional economic sustainability too.  A study of the economic impact of local food published by the Iron Range Partnership for Sustainability in 2018 found that eating just 20% local would generate 248-694 jobs and keep $51 million food dollars circulating locally.  Let’s DO IT!

Grown on the Range Profile 8, originally published in Hometown Focus

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The all-locally-sourced pasty is coming in October for the first annual Iron Range Pasty Festival!  The pasty is a staple of Iron Range cuisine, having come originally from the tin mines in Cornwall, England via Michigan’s copper mines and then to the iron mines starting up in northern Minnesota.  The pasty tells an immigration story: when Cornish miners migrated to Michigan’s upper peninsula in the 1840’s to help open copper mines, they brought their lunchbox staple with them.  When Minnesota mines recruited experienced miners from Michigan to open the iron mines in the 1880’s, the pasty came with them.  Historical records show that pasties were present in 13th-century England, but mostly consisted of cuts of meat wrapped in pastry dough.  The Cornish pasty had to be more nutritious—fueling the hard-working miners for the rest of a long day after lunch.  They contained potatoes, rutabagas and onions as well.  Some say that the Finns here were the first to add rutabagas, and others claim that the Finns often substituted carrots for the rutabagas.  Whatever the case, all of the ingredients could be produced locally, right on the Iron Range.  Today, pasties tend to be sold “with” or “without” rutabagas.  And traditionalists claim that a real pasty must have rutabaga.  I’m in that camp.

The story about pasties in the Cornwall mines includes the notion that pasties allowed miners to eat them without washing their hands (a tough feat underground).  They held the braided crust and threw that away.  In my opinion, the braided crust is the best part!  The story also refers to the Cornish pasty as the Cornishman’s harmonica or mouth harp.  Whatever it was called and however it was consumed, everyone agreed that it kept well in a lunch box and packed a wallop of warm nutritious ingredients for hard-working miners.  When served in the home, pasties were topped with ketchup or gravy, or, in some cases, cut in half and buttered so that the butter melted into the meat and veggies.  There are, of course, still diehards in the ketchup vs gravy vs butter camps.

Pasty makers today have improvised gluten-free and vegetarian pasties as well as breakfast pasties with eggs and sausage, chicken and wild rice pasties, scotch egg pasties and many, many more.  There are even dessert pasties: pumpkin pasties, berry pasties, apple pasties….you can bake pretty much anything into a crust I guess.  In whatever form you eat a pasty, it seems to represent regional comfort food.  And on the Iron Range, the traditional pasty honors the history of iron mining and the hardworking folks of the Range.

In preparation for this fall’s first annual Iron Range Pasty Festival, a fundraiser for the work of the Iron Range Partnership for Sustainability, board members and friends will make 800 pasties from completely local ingredients.  A real “grown on the range” pasty!  The beef and pork are being raised right now by Jane Jewett on Willow Sedge Farm in Palisade.  The onions are growing at Janna Goerdt’s Fat Chicken Farm in Embarrass.  The carrots will likely come from Bob Byrnes (Byrnes Greenhouse) near Zim.  The potatoes are growing in Amy Loiselle and Tim Wallace’s large garden also near Zim.  The rutabagas are in the ground at Sherry Erickson’s Elm Creek Farms in Orr.  And for that delectable crust, Homestead Mills of Cook will grind the flour and Mary Ann Wycoff of Bear Creek Acres in Embarrass will provide the lard.  The pasties will be served as a meal with coleslaw made by Natural Harvest Food Coop with cabbage from Craig Turnboom’s Skunk Creek Farm in Meadowlands and a beverage (we’re thinking locally roasted coffee from Miller Mohawk roasters in Aurora and Dahl’s Dairy local milk).  Talk about farm-to-table….this is it!!!

The entire festival will happen at the Mt. Iron Community Center off Hwy 169 which is handicap accessible and has lots of free parking.  Daytime activities for kids and families (3-7pm) will include rutabaga bowling, a taconite pellet scavenger hunt, the first ever Mrs. Rutabaga Head contest, play-doh pasty making, storytelling by the Virginia Historical Society, live music by local musician Sara Softich and Friends, and s’mores over an open fire.  A “people’s choice” pasty contest will feature pasties from a dozen local pasty-makers on display and voting by $1 tickets happening all day/evening for your favorite pasty.  We’ll draw tickets from the votes for each pasty and the winner will get five frozen pasties from that maker.   Booths will display the work of the Iron Range Partnership for Sustainability in our area and there will be an opportunity to contribute to that work.

To top it all off, an evening beer garden (6-9pm) will feature locally-brewed craft beers.  And we’ll be playing Green Cheese, the region’s favorite original call-in trivia show from KAXE radio, truly local radio.  Julie Crabb will host the show from the KAXE studio that evening and the questions will all be about iron mining history and Iron Range food traditions.  Whether you’re a Green Cheese regular or totally new to the game, it’ll be great fun!  Tickets for the festival will be available from Brown Paper Tickets online and at the door.  $10 for a pasty meal, $8 for a frozen pasty (limit 5 frozen).

Grown on the Range Profile 7, originally published in Hometown Focus

Homestead Ponds, in the forest outside of Bovey, used to sell rainbow trout at the Grand Rapids farmers market and through local restaurants and retailers.  It all started when Scott Souder ordered 500 eggs from a source on the east coast and set up a hatchery in his garage.  That 500 eggs turned out to be about 5,000 and the business grew to five large ponds, served by 14 pumps on two separate circuits (just in case) providing aeration and filtration.  The Souders were, and still are, licensed by the State of Minnesota to process the fish in their commercial kitchen.  And then one summer night in 2013, they went out to dinner and a storm rolled through, felling a giant poplar tree right on the electrical connections and severing them both.  They returned home to find 5.500 fingerling trout dead.  That was a turning point.  They hired a backhoe and filled in all but one pond.  But these aren’t folks who give up.

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Their smoked trout and pickled fish had been very popular, so they found local suppliers for suckers and whitefish and a reliable source for salmon and continued those products.  They also had Scott’s Auto Electric to fall back on, in operation for 36 years, selling alternators and starters.  Scott is the ultimate recycler.  When you buy a new alternator, he takes your old one, dismantles, cleans, and rebuilds it to new condition—a complete re-use operation.  That recycling philosophy got them started on another venture.  They call their “business plan” an “evolution” that just keeps on evolving.

Scott and Jane attended a mushroom workshop and decided they wanted to give it a try.  Working with Itasca County foresters, they were able to identify red oak that needed to be removed.  They harvest them live, cut them into 4-5 foot lengths, drill them, fill the holes with mushroom spawn, then cap with beeswax and lay the logs out on the forest floor about two inches off the ground.  They own 14 acres in the middle of a dense forest, so this venture was a good fit.  The spawn comes from Field and Forest in Peshtigo, Wisconsin.  After a year and a half, the logs are ready to grow shiitake mushrooms.  But, as Scott explains, they need to be exposed to a cold snap in order to grow.  Scott wrangles them out of the forest and into the re-purposed wood fired hot tub on their deck—filled with very cold well water.  That shocks them into production.  From there, they go to the mushroom hut, a re-purposed chicken coop, for six days until harvest.  Each log produces mushrooms twice each summer for 4-5 years.  And you and I can buy fresh or dried, whole or powdered shiitake mushrooms.  I brought the powder home to try.

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Growing Shiitakes led to foraging for chaga mushrooms in the Chippewa National Forest, drying them on top of their wood stove, and offering them for sale in varying forms: chaga tea concentrate, ground chaga, and dried whole chaga.  The Homestead Ponds Facebook page offers information on the health benefits of chaga.  The forest also yields wild cranberries and crabapples and the Souders harvest them to make bottled iced tea and frozen tea concentrate.  I’d call foraging a kind of recycling too. 

Their commercial kitchen is the site for roasting---coffee beans, nuts, and salmon and whitefish, as well as for making Scott’s “Grandpa Roy’s Pickled Fish” from suckers bought on Pike Bay in Tower.  Their weekly schedule includes grinding special coffee blends from fair trade organic beans and bottling a cold brew coffee concentrate (with Jane’s grandparents featured on the label).  They smoke whitefish from Leech Lake and salmon in their large oven/smoker.  They rotate the shiitake logs and harvest the mushrooms.  They design new flavors for roasted almonds and cashews (sriracha honey is the latest) and get them ready for the farmers market each week.  And they make the family recipe pickled fish which is also sold by S&S Meats in Grand Rapids and Four Seasons Market in Coleraine.  The smoked salmon and whitefish are particularly good sellers along with the cold brew coffee concentrate which I bought to sample.

Scott says he’d like to do a little less work and enjoy a bit more free time in these next few years.  Jane and Scott have grandchildren they enjoy and they’ve built a small log guest cabin in the forest not too far from the garage and kitchen building.  It looks pretty inviting, out there in the middle of the trees.  They affectionately call their place “the Homestead,” and offer products for sale there, too, for those who miss them at the farmers market.  The Grand Rapids Farmers Market is open on Wednesdays and Saturdays from 8am-1pm and features locally grown fresh fruits & vegetables, home raised meats, eggs, honey, maple syrup, jams & jellies, fresh baked goods, & canned goods, all produced by members within 50 miles of Grand Rapids, MN.  They’re open mid-May through October at 11 Golf Course Road, Grand Rapids, MN 55744, just off the corner of Hwy 169 and Golf Course Road next to the Grand Rapids State Bank branch.  Visit the Jane and Scott and all of the other local vendors there for some wonderful and unique products!

 

Grown on the Range Profile 6, originally published in Hometown Focus: Assessing the gaps in the Iron Range food system

The 2018 study “Local Food as an Economic Driver: A Study of the Potential Impact of Local Foods in the Taconite Assistance Area” recommended that we analyze four elements of our regional food system in order to identify gaps.  With funding from the Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation, we produced descriptive maps of producers, processors, retailers and distributors in the Taconite Assistance Area.  They’re shown here with our explanations and conclusion.

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The producer counts on the map are taken from the Census of Agriculture, conducted every five years by the USDA.  It is intended to be a “complete” count of U.S. farms and ranches and the people who operate them. Even small plots of land - whether rural or urban - growing fruit, vegetables or some food animals count if $1,000 or more of such products were raised and sold during the Census year.  While it would seem that this could be a fairly accurate count of growers/producers of local food, on the Iron Range we have many part-time operations where the heads of household have non-farming full time jobs and much of what they produce is sold or bartered on a very small-scale basis.  It is likely that many of these “producers” aren’t even aware of a Census of Agriculture nor would they see themselves as part of something that includes 20,000 acre commodity crop operations.  We talked with several of these small-scale growers and present short descriptions here as an illustration.

 

For example, a small “veggie farm” near Grand Rapids plants ½ acre of what the USDA would call “specialty crops” each year and an acre or so of hops for brewing.  They sell to friends but not at one of the area’s farmers markets.  Another somewhat larger farm keeps bees as well as chickens for eggs and two hoop houses for vegetables.  They occasionally sell produce and honey to our local food coop, but can’t always connect with them due to work schedules–both householders also work full time.  They sell eggs to family and close friends.  Most of their acreage is planted for pollinators.  Neither of the preceding operations has been included in the Census of Agriculture, but each plans to eventually produce more and sell at local farmers markets. 

A third example: a young couple just south of here just started to raise heritage breed hogs for market. They have future plans to expand into producing charcuterie, canned goods, and vegetables.  But they’re working on establishing relationships with a meat processor and pursuing the necessary food safety training and certification.  They both have off-farm jobs.  One final example is a small grower with 40 acres, 5 of which are in production yielding asparagus and garlic for sale at a local farmers market.  One member of the household has a full-time off-farm job and the spouse works part time.  They also raise 4-6 pigs for their own consumption and sale to close friends.  They do fill out the Census of Agriculture because their sales top the $1,000 threshold.  As these examples illustrate, on the Iron Range there is a mix of producers–some are clearly-identifiable farms, some even with full-time farmers, and many very small producers with off-farm jobs.

Our state has a history of production that we can use as a model.  In 1930, Minnesota had 76,329 commercial apple farms.  Now there are 488.  In 1930, there was not a single Minnesota county that did not produce apples commercially.  How times have changed.  Today, only 0.3% of the food products sold by farmers are sold directly to their ultimate consumers.  The average food item travels 1,500 miles to our tables in the Midwest.  And 90% of what Minnesotans eat is produced out of state.  In 1930, 70% of Minnesota farms raised food for their own and their neighbors’ use.  Now, Minnesota farms, especially in the central and southern part of the state mostly produces corn and soybeans for livestock to eat.  Northern Minnesota has the capacity to feed itself with the right kind of investment in our producers and local food infrastructure.

Small producers need a way to transport their goods, and back hauling (filling empty distributor’s trucks with local farm product back to the distributor for re-distribution is a pilot project in central Minnesota) is a possibility.  But the cost for delivery, without these arrangements, is prohibitive.  Insurance is the other barrier.  Large distributors like Sysco, Bix and Sodexho require farmers who sell to them to carry $5 million in product liability insurance.  That leaves most of our local producers out of the formal distribution supply line.  We need medium-sized aggregators who can collect and then market produce.  The Cook Area Farmers Market just became a licensed aggregator–this is a first step!  And we need back hauling or another innovative transportation system that meets the needs of small producers at a cost they can afford.

(See processor map) The information on the map shows value-added food processors in the region. The businesses shown have wholesale food processor/manufacturer licenses through the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA). MDA defines a wholesale food processor/manufacturer as a business that, “makes food and sells to other businesses for resale. This includes processing or manufacturing raw materials and other food ingredients into food items, reprocessing of food items, or packaging of food.”

Our map represents 35 businesses, but there are some factors that may cause gaps in the data. For example, if a business was making and selling food, but the majority of their revenue came from their own retail location, they would be licensed as a Retail Food Handler, rather than a Wholesale Food Processor/Manufacturer. Italian Bakery, located in Virginia, MN, is an example of a business listed as a Retail Food Handler, rather than a Wholesale Food Processor/Manufacturer, even though they make and sell their products to other businesses.

Even when we include the value-added processor businesses that are operating under other licenses, the opportunity for the expansion in the region is immense. Currently, area businesses are producing a limited range of products, with the majority falling into just four categories: wild rice, maple syrup, bakery items, and ice. While these food products may be the norm for this area, businesses that have experimented in other areas have found success.

Crapola, the whimsically-named granola processor out of Ely, has been expanding their sales and distribution since their inception in 2007. The Crapola website currently lists 75 store locations carrying Crapola across Minnesota—with nine in Ely alone—and out of state stores as far as Anchorage, Alaska. Their business trajectory is a model for other regional producers. They started small, sold at their local farmers market, moved into a rental kitchen and expanded their sales into grocery stores, and eventually built their own production facility. While wild rice and maple syrup may always be the staple items produced in this region, we have the opportunity and ability to produce a wide array of food products here.

(See retail map) The information on the map shows 42 grocery stores in the region. All of these businesses hold a Retail Food Handler license from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA). According to the MDA, “retail food handlers sell food directly to the end consumer. Examples of retail businesses regulated by the MDA include grocery stores, convenience stores, bakeries, and meat markets. Retail businesses can also be regulated and inspected by local public health agencies and the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH).”

Due to the wide variety of business that fall under the retail food handler license, we chose to focus on full-service grocery stores where the majority of household grocery shopping is done. Of the 42 stores, 13 locations are operated by two regionally owned chains: Super One and Zup’s. There are 19 locally-owned stores, accounting for nearly half of the 43 grocery stores in the region. The locally-owned stores include small country markets, cooperatives, and family-owned businesses.

Except for a handful of larger cities in the region (Virginia, Hibbing, Grand Rapids, and Ely), most rural communities only have one grocery store.

A 2016 study by the University of Minnesota Duluth titled, Food Access Issues and Comprehensive Planning: An analysis of food access in the communities of Mountain Iron, Tower, and Soudan, found that geographic distance of a grocery store is tremendously important to community residents:

Despite their higher prices and limited selection compared to big box grocery stores like Super One, focus group participants rely strongly on their local Zups, due to its close proximity and ease of access. Residents showed concern regarding the recent closing of Zups in nearby Aurora, Minnesota. For locals, Zups is not just another business: it is an important counterpoint to potential food insecurity in a rural community.

Since the publication of the study, an additional Zups location in Cook, MN has closed—at least temporarily—due to a fire.

The prevalence of small, locally-owned stores provides an opportunity for local farmers, value-added food businesses, and distribution channels to more easily place their products in the stores. Large-scale chain stores are often unable or unwilling to place local products on their shelves. Small, independently-owned stores have the autonomy to make local purchasing decisions.

Although the majority of these retailers carry a relatively small amount of local products at the moment, their autonomy creates an opportunity for the region to gradually shift towards selling more and more local products.

(See distributor map) According to “Mapping the Minnesota Food Industry” 2009, “it is...difficult to compile hard numbers covering the food processing and distribution sectors since these firms are not required to share data with public bodies....”  So there’s no “index of distributors” as a handy reference.  And some businesses who do distribute, like Dahl’s Sunrise Dairy of Babbitt and Wildly Organic of Silver Bay, don’t show up as distributors even after an extensive web search.  They are small, niche-product distributors, and they are local but nearly invisible.  There are likely many more that we did not find.

The same document concludes that “few channels exist that can aggregate production from a number of small producers,” as noted in the “Producers” narrative.  The study recommends the following:

“Plan and build storage and distribution networks that create local efficiencies.  The infrastructure under which commodities and local foods are traded was designed to increase the efficiency of DISTANT TRADING of food markets, under the assumption that fossil-fuel energy would be inexpensive and readily available [forever].

Local efficiencies – systems that draw their strength from local transactions, proximity of farmers to consumers, first-hand knowledge of each other’s needs, local resiliency in the face of potential breakdowns, fostering knowledge of local place, building capacities among residents, promoting healthier eating and exercise, and connecting residents into a more harmonious social fabric – have never been the primary purpose of food planning; THEY SOON WILL BE (emphasis ours).”

The Iron Range is ripe for small-scale aggregation systems and niche product (i.e., locally produced) distributors.  A large potential market for purchase of locally grown foods can be found in education (National Farm-to-School network) and, more significantly, in health care institutions.  According to Ryan Pesch, University of Minnesota Extension, in his “Food to Institution Survey,” Northeast Minnesota Health Care institutions report buying only $33,000 worth of food directly from local farmers in 12 counties.  With institutions like Essentia Health interested in buying local, this could increase exponentially with the right investments in infrastructure.

We need to build production, and, at the same time, build food processing and distribution networks that meet local needs.  Through the Arrowhead Grown campaign, we are working hard to increase the demand for local food.  The challenge is to capitalize on the supply possibilities that we have and to grow them.

 

By Marlise Riffel and Kelsey Gantzer with graphics by Matt Jankila

 

Grown on the Range Profile 5, originally published in Hometown Focus: Nutrient Dense Produce from Skunk Creek Farm

When farmer Craig Turnboom sells you a head of cabbage or a bag of apples from Skunk Creek Farm at the Duluth farmers market, he can tell you the nutrient density of the produce you’re buying.  Not many farmers can do that.  But Craig has been on a mission to increase the nutrient density of his produce for the past decade.  He tests the soil at his farm near Meadowlands every year and amends it with help from International Ag Labs in Fairmont, Minnesota.  The goal is healthy soil that produces intensely healthy food.  It all started when he noticed store-bought produce rotting sooner than he thought it should—so he went on a mission to figure out why--and discovered the world of nutrient-dense food.

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Although Craig had gardened as a kid, he didn’t know much about soil health and its impact until a few years ago.  His mission to figure out rotting produce lead him to read “Life & Energy in Agriculture” by Arden Anderson.  He was fascinated.  He got himself a “Brix” meter and started testing the nutrient density of every piece of produce he could buy. You can learn more about the Brix meter and nutrient density here: http://bionutrient.org/site/bionutrient-rich-food/brix No matter what he bought or where, nothing measured “excellent” on the Brix chart.  Even the produce he was growing didn’t measure up.  And that’s when he started biological farming.  He took his first soil samples to International Ag Labs and brought back amendments to try.

Turnboom hasn’t always farmed.  He owned a successful logging business for 27 years until the crash of 2008.  A few trucks and pieces of equipment remain at his farm, along with the beginnings of a beautiful log house that sits ready to be finished as his dream home.  His father had the 80 acres where Craig now farms three of those acres using carefully calibrated soil measurements and additions of natural materials.  Soil in optimal health has high levels of microbial activity (beneficial bacteria and fungi) that work in tandem with plant roots to boost plant nutrition.  It’s often called “biological farming.”  Here’s a description from Skunk Creek Farm’s website: “Biological farming aims at attaining balance between the physical, chemical nutrients and biological facets of the soil aided by improved organic carbon content. Measuring, planning, changing, and taking control of these aspects give a more complete view of soil fertility and a greater degree of control over the growing environment. This, together with sustainable management practices, ensures the stabilization of our fragile soils similar to the way a sponge takes up water. This “sponge,” stores and makes plant food available, has greater water holding capacity, and enhances vigorous root growth.”

Turnboom’s goal is to increase the Brix score of each of his fruits and vegetables every year.  And it’s been working!  His veggies now score “good” on the Brix chart and he has apples in the “excellent” range.  And there are other benefits too: the healthier the soil, the fewer the pests and diseases.  Last year the only “pesticide” he used was diatomaceous earth, and his produce was picture perfect.  He grows potatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, cucumbers and lots of squash plus an acre of various fruit trees, apple, cherry, plum, and blueberries and honeyberries.  He uses two root cellars for storage when necessary, along with canning and fermenting.  He gave me some red cabbage sauerkraut that was amazing.

Craig farms with very little equipment: a small John Deere tractor and his own sweat.  Last year he did 2,000 transplants by hand.  That led him to his new purchase: a Japanese-developed paper pot transplanter that also runs on human energy but uses it very efficiently.  (Check it out at https://paperpot.co/ )  I visited Skunk Creek Farm at planting time and he was just ready to try it out.  He showed me a short video on the transplanter and it looked like the perfect tool for his size operation.  We walked through the vegetable area—ready to plant--out to the fruit section. The apple trees were in bloom and smelled wonderful. The planted acres are surrounded by beautiful woods and two ponds that he’s made.  He doesn’t usually need to draw from the ponds, though.  His soil holds moisture so well that the crops can survive 6 weeks without rain.

Like many farmers in northern Minnesota, Craig has an off-farm job at Hibbing Taconite.  But he manages to tend his land and grow his crops and market them at a Duluth farmers market.  Not too many folks know about nutrient-dense foods, so much of his selling work is educating buyers on how his fruits and vegetables are different.  His apples are not the equivalent of most other apples in terms of nutritional value and trace minerals.  And not everybody cares about that.  I grew up in a family where we ate mostly frozen and canned vegetables, iceberg-only lettuce, and regular store-bought fruit.  When I started gardening in 1972 as a young adult, I learned from folks who used synthetic fertilizers and commercial pesticides and herbicides.  Nobody that I knew composted anything—we didn’t even mulch our gardens.  I’ve just learned and changed over the years.  We all have, haven’t we? There’s so much to learn!  Check out Craig Turnboom’s farm at www.skunkcreekfarm.net or his Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/Skunk-Creek-Farm-1645144009070977/ to learn more!

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Thank you for reading this column.  Its goal is to remind all of us on the Iron Range that we have the capacity to feed ourselves, and to feed ourselves well.  This is the fifth in the series of stories of area farmers/growers who are already feeding us.  Buy from them if you can!  Visit www.arrowheadgrown.org to find a local farmers market.  Or post to the Iron Range Grown Facebook page asking for or offering what you produce locally https://www.facebook.com/groups/IronRangeGrown/  Or visit Craig Turnboom at the 3rd Street Duluth market.

Grown on the Range Profile 4, originally published in Hometown Focus: The Hietala's Floodwood River Farm

The Floodwood River begins right here, flowing south from Floodwood Lake.  There used to be a logging camp here—logs were floated down the river to the city of Floodwood, where the river joins the St. Louis.  Rob’s parents grew up on a farm 8 miles south of here, and in 1976, his father bought 40 acres on the river and split it into three properties.  Rob and Jill Hietala raise fruits and vegetables on 12 of those acres now.  Jill’s parents had an 8-acre orchard and truck farm in southern Wisconsin and she grew up selling at at the Mitchell Street Market in Milwaukee.  So this place, and this way of living, are “in their blood” so to speak.  Like most other small farmers, both have off-farm jobs for health insurance and a steady income.  But they love to garden and enjoy doing it together.

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The gardens are expansive and stretch on, one after another, punctuated by young orchards and trellises for beans and cucumbers, to the woods.  Most of the 12 acres is wooded and they have tapped the maples up until this year when a spring flu bug laid them flat for over a month.  There’s a new hoop house this season and some early crops are doing well in its shelter.  Their son and his family, who live on the same property, also have large gardens.  There are tulips in bloom and rhubarb coming up on the early spring day I visit.  And its finally warm enough for the kids to be outside without coats!

The hub of activity is the greenhouse/sugar shack/summer kitchen/hunting stand structure built of wood from trees right on this property after a huge storm downed them.  When life gives you lemons, make lemonade, right?  They brought in a sawmill and started to build.  The structure is heated and the glass along the taller south side provides plenty of light for starting plants.  There are peppers and tomatoes looking healthy and almost ready to transplant.  This is the place where sap is boiled in late spring and canning takes place later in the season.  But this place has a secret hideout.  Rob pulls down a door in the ceiling to reveal a ladder up to a hunting stand with a great view.  Jill says she likes to just sit up there and enjoy the quiet and the abundance of the land.  She’s talking about moving her sewing machine up there.

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Jill sews and knits mittens with wool from Mistee Made, a local farmers market vendor.  I’ve seen this yarn at the Hibbing Farmers Market—each skein is hand-spun and hand-dyed with natural pigments and labeled with a photo of the sheep whose wool it represents.  That’s local sourcing!  Mittens are one of the products Jill and Rob offer at the Hibbing Farmers Market.  The mittens even sell in the summer.  Jill tells the story of a young boy who bought a pair of mittens and wore them all day in the heat of a July market.  But Floodwood River Farm is probably best known for its pickles.  They pickle EVERYTHING!  It’s not uncommon to see a jar of pickled asparagus, beans, kohlrabi, garlic, onion, carrot and snap peas with a grape leaf for good measure.  Rob grows nine varieties of cold-hardy grapes but, unlike most growers, he uses the leaves too.  Google “grape leaf recipes” and a whole new world will open up for you.  Unless you’re from the Middle East or a Mediterranean country where grape leaves are a common part of the cuisine.  Yet another “specialty crop” that we can grow here in northern Minnesota!

In addition to the unusual combinations, they have regular old dill pickles and sweet pickles, pickled rhubarb and pickled beets too.  And they make vinegar to sell.   The gardens yield abundant greens, squash and potatoes in addition to all the pickled veggies.  Did you know that pickles are good for you?  They are a source of antioxidants, they help the friendly bacteria in our guts, they are full of vitamins, minerals and micronutrients, they help reduce ulcers and control diabetes!  What’s not to like about that power food?

Rob and Jill’s gardens also bear abundant fruits—all kinds of berries, plums, pears, and they’ve just planted the beginning of an apple orchard.  Jill makes jams and jellies for the market.  And they often sell cut flowers that grow right alongside the fruits and veggies.  No monoculture rows here, but some of everything making a colorful patchwork of greens and colors in each large fenced plot.  Multiple paradises for pollinators.  And that, of course, helps all of us.

Floodwood River Farm used to have chickens but the predators were a problem.  And they’ve had pigs—those working animals who till and fertilize garden sites and then yield themselves to become ham and pork chops.  The animals here and there have been for their own personal meat supply, not for sale.  I meet several very friendly dogs and cats who freely roam the acreage and are great companions for the grandchildren.

Rob and Jill have sold bedding plants, too, at the market.  And maple syrup in years when they’ve tapped.  They’re pretty flexible and experimental—trying new things in new locations.  In fact, Rob says that everything here is an experiment, something to learn from.  That’s part of the joy of gardening in northern Minnesota—nature throws curve balls and we humans adapt.  We rotate our plantings, interplant beneficial bug-attracting flowers with bug-susceptible veggies, we try adding compost here, straw mulch there and leftover leaves somewhere else.  And most of the time, we strike a fairly good deal with Mother Nature and feed ourselves as well as others from the abundance.  Rob and Jill enjoy the farmers market because it’s a fun, social place.  The Hibbing Farmers market has been going since the 1950’s in several locations.  Presently, they are located along Hwy 37 right across from McDonald’s at 1309 E 40th St. Hibbing.  This year the market opens June 18 and runs Tuesdays 2-5 and Saturdays 9-1 through most of October.  All products sold at the market must come from within 50 miles of Hibbing.  There’s always great produce, honey, baked goods, soap, wool and a variety of other delectables both edible and otherwise.

Before I left Floodwood River Farm, Rob and Jill and I talked about how our local farmers markets could grow and thrive.  We’re always in need of more vendors…maybe that’s you, dear reader?  Several of our markets now have storage sheds for tents and tables which helps immensely with set-up and take-down.  But we dream of shelter over our heads that is a bit more weatherproof than tents.  An open-air pavilion would be awesome….picnic tables and chairs for folks to sit and visit a bit.  Shelter from the sun and wind and sometimes rain.  We just keep on dreaming and working to make each farmers market a trusted source for fresh, local, healthy food from our land and the work of our hands, shared.

Grown on the Range Profile 3, originally published in Hometown Focus: Jane Jewett's Willow Sedge Farm

This is the third in a series of articles telling the story of Iron Range farmers and growers who can feed us.  Recently I spent the day at Willow Sedge Farm.  The most common native plants on this farm are willow and sedge, hence the name “Willow Sedge Farm.”  I’ve been buying grass fed beef and pastured pork and chickens from Jane Jewett for several years now, and I had always wanted to visit her farm.  “Bring knee high mud boots” she advised, and I’m glad I did.  It had been raining off an on for over a week, and the potholes in the gravel driveway were muddy and deep.  The journey from Virginia took me down along the Mississippi in the very early spring.  I grew up along the Mississippi in Rock Island, Illinois, and reconnecting with the great river always feeds my soul.  I stopped in Jacobson at the landing to just sit by the river for a bit; it was way out of its banks.

Jane Jewett grew up on a farm and has lived on one all her life except when finishing her degrees, a B.S. in agronomy and an M.S. in plant breeding.  She breeds mostly animals these days and I got to meet many of them.  New chicks had just arrived and Jane had them in a heated coop.  They were going to be introduced to the great outdoors in a few days using a protected enclosure right outside of their cozy nursery.  A number of the other coops had collapsed in the heavy snow last winter and were in various stages of being rebuilt.  By the end of the summer, Jane will have produced 150 meat chickens.  She restricts her flock to females because “they don’t fight with each other.”  The fourteen adult laying hens were free-ranging and we ran into them everywhere.  Jane has to fence in the rhubarb and veggies near the house to keep them for the humans.  The hens were busy pecking bugs out of last year’s leaves as we walked around. 

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A baby lamb just weaned from the bottle let us know that he was not happy about that.  He was hanging around with several adult sheep still in their heavy winter coats.  (The sheep are Jane’s daughter’s project.  A couple of years ago they had the wool processed and offered it for sale at the local farmers market.  The color of pure cream, this wool looked and felt wonderful, but it didn’t sell well. The mutton sold much better.)  The sheep graze on a cover crop of oats, field peas, turnips and sunflowers in season.  Jane says when her daughter goes to college, she likely won’t have sheep anymore.  So many animals to care for here.

Despite the mud, about a dozen yearling cattle look clean and happy in their large enclosure.  The cattle winter in a pole barn with an automatic waterer and access to the outside all the time.  “Weather-dependent” winter grazing allows them to range over a large area until it snows enough to cover the grass.  Jane says they come up to the gate by the house to let her know when they need hay.  Right now, the pole barn is home to the other dozen members of the herd, all of them cows who will calve this spring.  As of this writing, seven calves have arrived.

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The rest of the year, Jane uses “adaptive multi paddock grazing” also known as AMP which research has shown is more friendly to the environment than traditional grazing.  An analysis in the journal “Progressive Farmer” explains “Ruminants, particularly beef cattle, are perceived by many as a problem since they are a source of greenhouse gas (GHG) due to the methane produced by rumen fermentation.  Richard Teague, professor of ecosystems science and management at Texas A&M University, and colleagues Seong Park and Tong Wang examined the possibility of reducing the net carbon footprint of ruminants using improved grazing.  The adaptive multi-paddock grazing is more environmentally friendly, because it results in more carbon sequestration in the soil. In fact, the higher-quality grass produced by using this method actually reduces the methane gas emitted from the cows.  Teague explained that by using this method of grazing and keeping the plants leafy, it results in a higher quality of nutrition for cattle. The cattle can digest the higher-quality grass more quickly, which lowers the amount of methane gas they emit. Teague explained that by managing rangeland in this way, the amount of bare ground is also reduced. Since bare ground causes loss of carbon from the soil into the air, more living plants covering the ground minimized carbon losses.”  So not all grass-fed cattle have the same impact on the planet, I learned.

It was too muddy to walk or drive across the farm through all of the grazing paddocks, so we sat at Jane’s kitchen table and looked at a map of the farm.  It spans acreage that crosses a road.  On the side with the barn, she moves the cattle every day or two, pushing them ahead down large lanes radiating out from the barn, opening up a fresh grazing area by removing the fence in front of them.  This way the cattle have access to water and shade behind them and paddocks of fresh forage ahead of them.  The grazing fence is electric, and the cattle are used to the fences and the regular movement.  It takes about 45 days for a paddock to re-grow when it’s been grazed.  With 113 acres, there’s plenty to graze.  And it takes about 18 months to get a full-grown animal.  The cattle graze a blend grasses, clover and birds foot trefoil which grows wild in most of Minnesota.  On the other side of the road are similar lanes of paddocks with an “alley” at each end for turning.  On this side, Jane has to bring water—in her 550-gallon water wagon.  Rotational grazing is hands-on work!

Cutest face ever, eh?

Cutest face ever, eh?

The farm’s ten sows and one boar roam and root, but they’re also fed a combination of alfalfa pellets, oats, a protein supplement, and corn.  And, let me tell you, that combination results in amazing bacon!  We approach the fence near the feeder and they come to say hello.  Jane scratches the boar’s ears and he grunts gratefully.  The pigs’ job right now is to till and fertilize a field that will eventually grow corn and squash and beans.  Pigs are consummate tillers, their hooves perfectly shaped for breaking ground.  The huts that kept them warm this winter are largely abandoned now as they bask in the spring weather.

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Jane and her husband have built both of the log houses on the farm, moving from the small one, now a shop, when their family outgrew it.  The chickens and sheep are closer to the house where a dog is tasked with keeping watch for predators.  Predators on the farm have included bears, skunks, coyotes, foxes, timberwolves, owls and raccoons.  The other abundant wildlife--deer, geese, wild turkeys and sandhill cranes were all evident as I drove down the Great River Road.

Jane has farmed here since 1994, but her grandfather began farming here in 1923.  Her brother farms up the road.  The land changed hands a few times, but has largely been in the family.  Jane says that, when you grow up moving cattle on pasture like she did, you learn to assess the health of an animal easily.  That skill is something she uses every day.  And the animals here at Willow Sedge show it.  Both Jane and her husband have off-farm jobs and her husband also does some logging, but the farm is all Jane’s.

She faces the same challenge that most area livestock farmers face: the lack of a USDA processing plant nearby.  Transporting livestock several hours to Foley or Swanville or Sturgeon Lake is a time-consuming and labor-intensive expense.  This highlights one of the missing pieces of a complete food system on the Range.  We also have very few value-added food processors in northern Minnesota.  Building a local food system step by step is what’s necessary to feed ourselves.  We have the land and the growing season to raise the food we need to be self-sufficient.  But we have work to do encouraging new farmers and growers, advocating for the missing elements, and pledging to buy local food whenever we can to make this a reality.

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Grown on the Range profile 2, originally published in Hometown Focus: Jack and Ericka LaMar’s Early Frost Farm

Who on earth would move to Embarrass, Minnesota in January?  Our featured farmers for this week’s story did just that in 2013.  Jack and Ericka LaMar lived in Hibbing but dreamed of a home with lots of space to grow their own food and, for Jack, an outbuilding to use for a shop.  After looking at several other rural places, they walked this property on opening deer season weekend in November (wearing blaze orange, of course) and fell in love with the 118 acres and its Gothic barn (see photo below) and a house built in 1936.  So they bought “the Rantala place,” christened it “Early Frost Farm” and started to work on the house and rebuilding the side of the barn that was falling down.   That first spring they bought chickens and jumped right in.  They had taken the University of Minnesota’s Apiary Management class and wanted to try bees too.  So they laid out space for chickens on one side of the barn and bees on the other and settled in to working on the needed house repairs.

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Both hold professional jobs off the farm, so their time is precious.  And there was much to do.  The whole farm had been logged in 1992 and is now largely covered with quaking aspen, red pine, black spruce, some tamarack, a few birch and some majestic Hawthorne trees that the bees love.  The formerly tilled fields had been fallow for more than seven years when these beginning farmers arrived.  In partnership with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, they built a hoop house/high tunnel and planted 5 acres of pollinator habitat and a deer plot.  They have finished renovating the house and are now enjoying the benefits of their location.  The farm is home to a wide variety of wildlife, both animals and plants, and the wind whispers through the pines on a breezy day.

 

Always discovering new wonders, they’ve cleared a few paths to favorite patches of blueberries, cranberries, chokecherries, gooseberries and raspberries, many of which make it into jams and preserves.  Ericka loves to cook and has found a variety of wild mushrooms too.  There’s a huge flat-top rock clearly visible from space, or at least from Google Earth….probably a story behind that!  And they’ve discovered two beautiful forest ponds on their farm, one with wild ladyslippers growing at the shore. (See photo) 

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They added another hoop house and have been growing bumper crops of kale, lettuce, peas, carrots, beans, cucumbers, squash, potatoes, eggplant and celery.  (See the interior of one hoop house below.)  They sell some produce through Natural Harvest Food Coop, some to friends and neighbors, and Ericka makes salsa and pickles and rhubarb conserve and tomato sauce and even balsamic cherry tomato carmelized onion conserve with the abundance.  With two full-time off-farm jobs, there’s no time for farmers markets.  But this coming fall, Early Frost Farm will help to supply Mesabi East Schools with produce in the first Farm-to-School program in the area!  

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Statewide, 51% of Minnesota school districts participate in Farm to School programs with 1,021 schools serving 416,501 students locally grown food for lunch.  (See graphic)  Mesabi East has initiated the program here.  Farm to School programs teach children about the benefits of eating fresh local food, introduce them to new foods, and help them to get to know the farmers who grow the food.  According to the USDA Farm to School Census, in 2015, Minnesota schools invested $12,301,600 in local food and the health of their students.  It’s a win-win combination.

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The Early Frost chickens overwintered this year more easily than the bees.  It’s an ongoing challenge for beekeepers in the area. They lost last year’s hives so they’re starting fresh with three new hives.  Two years ago their four hives yielded 15 gallons (180 pounds) of extracted honey.  It takes about 556 worker bees to gather 1 pound of honey from about 2 million flowers. It takes about 55,000 flight miles per gallon of honey. A very labor-intensive product!!  Chickens, on the other hand, work more slowly.  A hen's body begins forming an egg shortly after the previous egg is laid, and it takes 26 hours for an egg to form fully.  So a hen can produce slightly less than an egg a day.  The 27 Early Frost hens took a little break from laying in the dark of winter, but they’re back at it.  They greet you when you come to visit and keep the large cleared area free of ticks and slugs and other chicken delicacies.   And they coexist peacefully with the two family dogs and two “barn cats” who’ve recently upgraded to the house.

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What’s on the horizon for Early Frost Farm?  Jack was recently inspired by the keynote speaker at Earth Fest this year, Mark Shepard, author of Restoration Agriculture, to add cows to the mix.  This summer, he’ll be fencing in a large field and planting a wide selection of cover crops.  The plan is to buy just a few yearling cows and grass-finish them on the abundant greens next year, harvesting in the late fall.  For now, Jack and Ericka buy their meat from other local farmers like nearby Bear Creek Acres (my favorite source for the most amazing local Italian sausage and the innovative brat burgers).

 

On the day I visited, we walked the property, then ended up on their big sunny front porch, one of their favorite parts of the house.  I asked what their favorite things about the farm are.  The answers came quickly—the quiet, privacy, being right in nature.  They used to go camping all the time but haven’t camped since living in a picture-perfect forest.  The sounds—owls, ducks visiting the pond, sand hill cranes, so many songbirds.  The smell of fragrant Hawthorne trees in bloom.  And dark skies, said Jack, who has been fascinated with stargazing since he was 6 years old.  His telescope is always at the ready.  And from the front porch, they can see northern lights like this stunning display not long ago.   

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It’s a beautiful place with the potential to yield more food as our local food economy grows.  It’s one of 779 farms in St. Louis County according to the 2017 Census of Agriculture, and one of the 40% of those farms who have less than $2,500 per year in farm sales.  The seven-county Arrowhead region is home to 1,882 farms, but you would hardly know it—farmers tend to be quiet folks, busy folks with off-farm jobs too.  But they have the potential to feed us.  And that’s why Grown on the Range and the Iron Range Partnership for Sustainability want to tell their stories.  Watch for this column every two weeks in Hometown Focus!

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Grown on the Range profile 1, originally published in Hometown Focus: Kelly and Liz Dahl’s Aspen Falls Farm

This is the first in a regular column presented by The Iron Range Partnership for Sustainability titled “Grown on the Range,” highlighting the many and varied ways that food is grown/produced/raised on the Iron Range.  We live in a region that is capable of feeding ourselves.  The Partnership is committed to making that happen.  Currently, U.S. food consumers buy less than one-half of one percent of their food directly from those who grow it.  The ingredients in our average meal travel 1500 miles to our plates.  Imagine reducing that mileage to 50 with a commitment to buy local.  We have the power to create the demand for local meat, fish, eggs, vegetables, fruits, dairy, nuts, beans, flour and oil.  Local farmers and growers have the power to respond by producing our food.  According to a 2018 study commissioned by The Partnership, purchasing just 20% of our food from local farmers would create 248-694 jobs on the Range and keep 51 million food dollars per year circulating locally, building our prosperity while providing our neighbors with delicious, safe and nutritious food.  That’s economic development.  Moreover, the health benefits of eating fresh local food have been documented through research.  How can we lose on this one?

As has long been the tradition on the Range, most folks who grow food for sale on the Range are what we would call “smallholder” farmers.  No 10,000 acre commodity crop operations…that happens much farther south in Minnesota, most of those commodity crops are used to feed livestock, and mass agricultural production takes a tremendous toll on the land.  What we have in our region are many growers who not all may be full time farmers, likely have other jobs, and farm as well.  They may sell directly off the farm, through a farmers market or CSA or u-pick operation, but they’re not big operators.  They vary from folks who grew up on the farms they now tend to those who bought an old farm that was sitting idle because they fell in love with our lakes and trees and the smell of balsam in the air.  That’s what brought Kelly and Liz, our featured farmers, to the Range.  They founded Aspen Falls Farm on an old farmstead that had been in the same extended family since it was homesteaded in 1903.  After a lot of learning, they are now growing organic produce for local retail and wholesale.

Having traveled to Northeastern Minnesota many times, Liz and Kelly felt a connection to the area, and loved the people, wildlife, lakes, and rivers.  Destined for adventure, in the 1990s they started looking for a home on the Range with some land for themselves, the dogs, cats and horses.  In 2001 an ad on Internet led them to their eventual home. Kelly and Liz contacted the real estate agent and arrived to look at the property.  They drove in and saw exactly what I saw when I arrived to interview them—the most breathtaking view you can imagine and a distant roar, almost like the ocean.  The Little Fork River flows by the property--the Hannie Falls are visible from their “front yard” and audible from every other place on their 200 acre Farm.  Kelly jokes that Liz exercised her best negotiating skills when seeing the waterfall for the first time when she said, out loud with the agent listening, “we have to buy this place.” 

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It was the most beautiful place they had ever seen outside of a park.  Sometimes you have to do something crazy and take a risk, they thought.  Sometimes things are just meant to be.  They felt fortunate to befriend the owner, who it turns out, worked for years in the bakery in Virginia owned by the father of one of Kelly’s college roommate-small world.  They “bought the farm” so to speak on September 9, 2001.

Wanting to respect the great heritage of a property passing out of the family for the first time, Liz and Kelly enjoyed getting to know the owner and the family to whom the place meant so much, and hearing stories about the history of the Farm.  It turns out that two brothers had homesteaded two farms next to each other, each originally 160 acres, in 1903.  The land wasn’t cleared, and the brothers imagined building a grain mill on the river.   In the early days, there was a small log “bachelor cabin” built by the homesteaders in 1904, and that was about all.   Through the years, the land went to descendants of this big extended family in succession.  The owners kept cattle and planted big gardens, growing hay in cleared fields and, like most, worked in the mines and other jobs to make ends meet.  

After the brother who originally homesteaded the property left for Washington State seeking better fortunes, the farm was purchased by the daughter of the remaining brother and her husband.  This fellow had quite an interesting story himself.  He and his brother immigrated to America looking for a better life, with their names pinned to their coats when they arrived with nothing but the clothes on their backs.  The ended up coming to the Range to work in the mines.  One married and moved to the farm.  The other tragically perished while working in the mines at a young age and his portrait still hangs in the old farmhouse on the property.  

Liz and Kelly didn’t actually move north until 2010.  The family and friends who hunted the land since childhood continued to do so.  It was fantastic to see the old traditions continue.  While they lived and worked 600 miles away, Kelly and Liz came to the Farm at every opportunity to maintain the property, build barns and fencing. And plan for the future, including the joys of growing produce in USDA Zone 3a in clay soil more suited for throwing pots than growing food.  It was a steep learning curve.  They heard tales of the big garden where the barn once stood and set out to restore it to its glory by improving the soil.  Then there were the Northwoods animals.  Kelly planted a whole apple orchard, not realizing that the deer would consider this a gift.  “Who knew those buggers would eat a tree right down to the root; oh, well. . . .”  It was not the first or last foolish thing done in the sometimes comical school of hard knocks.  The first time experimenting with cutting and bailing hay resulted in the discovery that swearing is an integral part of the process.  So they learned, by trial and error.  Neighbors, friends, the Extension Service and the local gardening club were very helpful, patient and willing to share their knowledge.

When they finally relocated to the farm in 2010, they brought the solution to their soil problems—three horses that do an admirable job of manufacturing manure to feed the planting beds with bountiful compost.  They moved into the small new home built by the previous owners, with large windows looking out on the amazing waterfalls.  There were many buildings already on the Farm including the original farmhouse, a beautiful sauna, Morton sheds and the fanciest heated outhouse you will ever see.   They have since built a hay shed, barn and shop.  The old farmhouse now serves as a greenhouse of sorts in the winter and spring with its many windows and an extra kitchen with its beautiful old wood stove.  When I visited, many plants were wintering over and hardening off in the farmhouse and the Siamese barn cats were keeping the mice down.

In their first years, they started growing produce in raised beds and “low tunnels” to mitigate the early and late frosts.  They joined a local farmers market and sold a wide variety of produce as well as jams, salsa, green tomato relish, and some very delicious baked goods. 

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 However, last year, after two major rains of 6.5 and 7.5 inches, they lost pretty much everything.  To deal with these extremes of weather and in the effort to increase yield, Kelly built a high tunnel over the original big garden.  With steel frames and 6 ml greenhouse plastic and sides of woven mesh on winches, it stands 30 – 72 feet, a bulwark against the frost and wind.  They will use drip irrigation and no synthetic fertilizers to organically grow lettuce, radishes, parsnips, scallions, tomatoes, peppers, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, beets, peas, beans and kale.  They will experiment with peanuts, artichokes, melons, and cucumbers in the high tunnel.  Outside, they’ll grow asparagus, winter squash, corn and shallots, rutabagas, potatoes, onions, herbs and other veggies as space and time allows.  In addition, they have currants, raspberries, hops, and a few apple trees, now deer-protected.

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The farm has also yielded abundant old barn boards and downed trees and Kelly has built some of their household furniture from these gems.  An amazing hutch and tables have been worked from trees that have special significance.  Everything is used for something here.  There is no waste, only abundance.

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Though they are still fairly young, both are semi-retired and volunteer in many capacities in their local community.  Liz is very involved in the local rural hospital board.  Kelly has contributed his time to the arts, sustainability, preserving the land to honor the past, and at the local farmers market.  One goal is to provide an incentive to revitalize other farms in the area with a local food hub providing:  “Jobs for our neighbors, honoring history while preserving the Northwoods and good fresh food to boot.”

Kelly has put together an experimental aggregation project for the local farmers market to try to encourage the development of a local food hub comprised of small farming operations.  Aggregation projects help local small growers to market their produce to restaurants, groceries, and institutions.  This project has six growers involved so far and three institutional buyers.  Liability and coordination is covered through the Minnesota Farmers Market Association with a grant from SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education).  The project will use the online platform Local Line to connect growers and buyers somewhat like a virtual coop.  It’s one of nine experimental aggregation projects in Minnesota. 

At home, their “children” are their beautiful dogs and cats and horses who greet and welcome visitors with gusto.   I visited on a cold April day and, as we walked parts of the farm, we noticed signs of early spring like this hardy pansy known as Swiss Giants already in bloom.  Liz had covered it with straw for winter protection and it was enjoying the newfound sunshine.  I learned that these folks care deeply about the land and about their plants and animals, and about the wild plants and animals around them.  They moved here, to the Iron Range, because of its beauty, bringing professional skills with them and fulfilling their dream to give back to the community in food and good will.  Look for more stories of our neighbors growing food for us and sustaining our rural communities here, in Grown on the Range.  Thank you Hometown Focus, for your willingness to publish this! 

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