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.
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!
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.