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.”
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.
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.
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.
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!