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.
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)
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!