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.
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.
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.