Recently in Local Foods Category

Rising from the Praire- Abbey of the Hills

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Stained glass window in the small chapel

Last weekend the kids and I went to the open house at the former Blue Cloud Abbey, now Abbey of the Hills, near Marvin South Dakota. This place is a gem upon the prairie. It somehow captures so much about this place and its prairie beauty and foreshadows some of the past century of this place.

Abbey of the Hills rises up out of the Prairie Coteau. You can see the Prairie Coteau rising up out of the prairie from where we live, on a crisp clear day. The first time I drove west from our farm, with my mom and kids to buy vegetable from the Hutterite Colony, my mom said "what's that rising up out of the prairie." "Must be a bank of clouds," I said, because I hadn't heard of any hills or mountains on the other side of Big Stone County, MN. But I was wrong. The Prairie Coteau is hauntingly lovely "Alps of prairie" as described by the early 1800's explorer Joseph Nicollet.

It is in these hills that a group of Benedictine monks built their Blue Cloud Abbey in 1950. This place is just 40-some miles from our farm. A refuge.

I'm not Catholic and so won't claim to know the heart and spirit that went into these monks, whose stained glass window says "Pray, Read, Work", finding and building this place. There's a good story (click here) about how they found this piece of land on their way from one place to the next.

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And they built this place both simple and glorious. An Abbey in the Prairie Coteau- a place of subtle and astounding beauty in which to seek G-d under blue skies. They built it, really, at the peak of its population and maybe hopefulness. Or before we even knew we needed to be hopeful. Because family farming was still thriving all around them out on the prairie and there were still young men and women inspired to live lives of "Pray, Read, and Work."

But things have changed since 1950, haven't they? The independent farms that dotted every section of land have been consolidated and the homesteads are coming down. The number of young people going into full time religious life has plummeted. And both of those demographics meet out here on the prairie.

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And so it was exciting news that after more than a year and a half of looking for people to buy the Abbey, that a group of 6 local families decided to buy it. It was bitter sweet news to learn that our inspiring grape growing and biodynamic farming neighbors were among the visionaries stepping up for this great adventure. They have relocated there are applying their skills and innovation to this place.

Here's the kayak that Dan built as a fundraiser for the Abbey. Now imagine that kind of craftsmanship and heart going into a place.

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What's remarkable to me is that Abbey of the Hills is being remastered, in part, on a hope for this place that is a palpable hope for so many rural and family farm advocates--that we can find a way to thrive out in the country. What is that way? Well, for one thing, that is by having a healthy and local food system that nourishes our bodies, souls, and communities. Because when we lost those family farms, we lost the small town creameries, butcher shops, as well as the kids who attended schools, and the Masons who built sturdy and lovely brick buildings on Main Street. So those folks at Abbey of the Hills are looking at their sustainable farming operations, their greenhouse, their wood shop, art lofts. They are baking bread in their commercial kitchen and selling it in local grocery stores. They are hoping for a rural renaissance that includes a people landscape with good food and satisfied souls.

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I found this butterfly on one corner of a wall of stained glass. It spoke to me of that transformation that I hope for our rural places and prayers for the success of Abbey of the Hills. The chapel was completely full of well-wishers for last Sunday's prayers and hymn.

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On the way out, I had to wait for my kids. They'd met up with their friends and were having a great time catching up and exploring. I was standing in the concrete hall, the working part of the Abbey, between the greenhouse and the mechanic shop. I lingered there wondering where the heck my kids were. And then I looked up at the ceiling with the exposed pipes. And what did I see?

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Even this 'industrial' corridor of the Abbey was touched by the spirit, where some Brother had discreetly put Leonardo da Vinci's Creation of Adam and the hand of G-d reaching towards humanity in between the electrical conduit.

Saving our Small Town Grocery Stores

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There's an epidemic of losing small town grocery stores across Minnesota and surrounding states. Shuttering the grocery store knocks the wind out of a community. It's like losing a part of the lifeblood of what keeps our small towns vital. To say nothing of losing the access to healthy food, which is the core purpose of these independent businesses.

In the past few days Kerkhoven, MN (nearly twice the size of Clinton) lost its grocery store. That loss means one less place to practically purchase good food to nurture our families but also the loss of a community gathering place and outlet for locally grown food. I'd bought locally grown squash in that Kerkhoven store.

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We are lucky to have a grocery store on Main Street in Clinton, Minnesota. Did you know that Clinton is one of the smallest towns in Minnesota that has a full service grocery store? It says a lot about community loyalty and shows that people support their local businesses. But it also says a lot about the "stick-to-it-ness" of store owner, Bonnie.

What's right about small town grocery?


  • -access to healthy food for people in our community- everyday and in times of need

  • -outlet for locally grown food

  • -responsive to our requests for specialty foods (gluten free, etc...) and organic food

  • -keeping Main Street and small towns lively and alive

  • -having a gathering place with a purpose in the middle of our town

Once a town loses its grocery store it is very difficult or impossible to find the people and the financial backing to run such a low margin enterprise. In this day and age, having a rural grocery store in your small town requires support from the whole community.

What does having the support of the community mean?

1) Shopping for your groceries at that local store. Please 'vote' with your food dollars and help keep your local small town grocery store thriving. ** see below** for shopping from the circular.

2) Show up for the community fund raiser dinner from 5-7pm on Wednesday October 30th at the Clinton Memorial Building. There will be a community dinner to help purchase energy efficient freezers for Bonnie's Hometown Grocery.

So please come tomorrow night. Our grocery store in Clinton, Minnesota is what would be called a mom and pop shop. And yes, it is a private business, but it is run also for the public good of our community. Our town would be a lot quieter and sadder without the grocery store.

Having those new energy efficient freezers will go a long way towards keeping the lights on and the doors open on Main Street for years to come.

Not Just a Minnesota Issue:
The plight of small town or rural grocery stores is not limited to Minnesota. The loss of these important parts of the rural infrastructure is occurring across the Great Plains. In Kansas, this epidemic was hitting rural communities so hard, that Kansas State University started The Rural Grocery Initiative to research and support efforts to help small town grocery stores thrive. You can follow the Rural Grocery Initiative on Facebook, Twitter and see their website here: http://www.ruralgrocery.org/

One recent finding they published is the 70.6% of small town grocery stores sold locally produced food- produce and meats. So for those of us interested helping farmers diversify and have other profitable outlets for locally grown food, we need to support the rural grocery as an important part of that equation. Frankly, having a local grocery store is an important part of community food security and improved access to food of all sorts. In the event of any crisis, we will be grateful to have grocery store throughout all corners of our state to help keep our food supply stable and running.

I believe that Minnesota could really benefit from having the Rural Grocery Initiative work in our state and instead of reinventing the wheel, I'd like to see K-States good work put to use here. There is a lot of attention and support that our Main Street small grocery stores could use and here's a source of some good ideas.

Shopping at Small Town Stores--or how to save money by buying off of the circular!

Bonnies Hometown Grocery store in Clinton, MN runs a weekly ad of specials that many times cost less than large superstore prices. The circular that lists the specials arrives in the Valley Shopper and the Northern Star newspaper and can be found on line here. I plan my weekly grocery shopping around the circular and buy those items on special in large quantities.

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For example, it is now the time of the year for big pots of chili, a favorite in our house. The Chili beans are on sale at Bonnie's and so I would purchase a case of 12 cans. I know that we use 2 cans per month and the case will last our family 6 months. Since the expiration date is 2 years out, this is a good investment in food that my family will enjoy. You can do this with many items on the circular. We make homemade pizzas on Friday nights, so I buy mozzarella cheese by the case (12 packages) when it is on sale and then freeze it. Shredded mozzarella freezes perfectly fine.

Likewise, when Tuna Fish is on sale I will buy a case of that as we eat tuna melts a couple Sunday's a month. Now that is a large case, 48 cans, but we use 4 cans a month so we go through a case a year. Tuna has a long shelf life, so I've never had an issue with them expiring.

Now of course you don't have to buy in case lots- you can just shop off the circular to stock your cupboards a few cans at a time.

In a small town store, like Bonnie's, I feel like I have a personal grocer! When the shopper is full of good ads, I text Bonnie and order cases of everything from toilet paper to coffee to spaghetti sauce.
• I save money on my groceries
• Save money on gas by shopping locally
• Feel good that I'm helping keep a Main Street business open and running

One issue that is a tougher nut to crack is getting fresh produce. It's hard for our small town store to carry fresh produce if people are not buying it regularly. This is how it works- the more we purchase, the fresher and more produce Bonnie can carry. And thank you to Bonnie who orders special request organic produce to stock on the shelves- items like organic carrots and kale. And there are frozen and canned fruits and vegetables available- all of which are healthy alternatives to fresh produce.

So friends, in these times it takes a whole community to keep your local grocery store doors open. Please shop and buy locally. And while you are shopping locally, you can save money from the circular, say hello to old friends, make new ones, and feel good about keeping your local community healthy and thriving.

Big Stone County Agri-Tourism

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On Saturday, September 28th, a group of 30 people from Fargo-Moorhead area toured some of the small farms and local foods highlights of northern Big Stone County, thanks in part to a mini-grant from Minnesota's Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program of the USDA. I think that this might be a first for our county. Even some local folks were surprised that the roads go both ways from Fargo and that a busload of people would spend an entire day checking out our small farms and local foods. It was a great day- organized by the tireless farmer Noreen Thomas from Doubting Thomas Farms in the Moorhead area.

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The tour began at the Russ and Theresa Swenson farm just east of the Big Stone County line. The Swenson's grow garlic on a market scale as well as raising both milk and meat goats. They make a variety of goat cheeses on their farm including mozzarella, garlic and chive flavored hard cheeses, and soft ricotta type cheese. In Minnesota you can produce and sell cheese from your farm, but the only way to purchase it is to take a trip to the Swenson's farm. From our experience, it is worth the drive!

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From there the tour went to The Cabin Café where Doreen Winston provide a lunch of homemade barbeque pork sandwiches and salads made from local produce- cabbage for coleslaw, fruit, local tomatoes, zucchini, and peppers. The lunch was served as a picnic at The Apple Ranch on Big Stone Lake, where the group had the opportunity to tour the orchard and buy locally grown apples, namely the Honeycrisps and Haralsons that are currently ripe.

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From there the tour went to the Dan and Michelle Moberg vineyard, named Juanita's Vineyard after Dan's mother the late Nita Moberg. The delicious and cold-hardy Marquette grapes (from the University of Minnesota) are at perfect ripeness and the group had the opportunity to spend time walking in the vineyard and harvesting grapes to eat on the spot and to take back home with them. In addition, the Mobergs had samples of the wines they have made as well as grape jellies.

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The final stop was the Mike Jorgenson family farm. The Jorgenson's have put a portion of their farm into pasture and are raising grass-fed beef, both Irish Dexters and Lowline Angus. They also have a University of Minnesota organic edible bean variety trial on their farm that includes both market classes like kidney and pinto beans, and specialty beans like cranberry and eagle's eye. Two U of M graduate students were there to both explain the field experiment and to begin harvesting some of the plots. The trial is to help select heirloom bean varieties that grow well in Minnesota conditions.

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One aside from this trip, noted by this author, is the role of the University of Minnesota in the crops on these farms. Bette Johnson, owner of the apple ranch, made a point of telling the crowd that all of the nine varieties of apples in her orchard were developed by the University of Minnesota (though she did note that the more recent varieties that the U has released are not as accessible as past varieties). Likewise, the Moberg's noted in describing their vineyard operation that the three grape varieties they grow were develop at the U of M. The Jogenson's demonstrated first hand how the U of M continues to work with farmers to develop new crop and hopefully new markets.

Overall, the day was a success and many in the group hope to return. Already some have asked the Moberg's to invite them to help harvest grapes next year. They found the vineyard peaceful and the work "therapeutic" and would like to volunteer. Upon leaving, the group asked if there were places in Big Stone County where they could hold retreats and stay for more than a day. With places like the Beardsley Lodge open, it is hoped that more tourists will discover the hidden and not hidden treasures of Big Stone County. It is gratifying to see outsiders appreciate the beauty and the local foods that our area has to offer.

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Photo courtesy of the Kansas Historical Society, 1899

It's already the end of August. Summer passed by too fast ~~ a few wafts of regret. I didn't make enough time for swimming and gardening and family. Today, however, was a beautiful day despite life threatening heat indexes and the increasingly severe drought conditions. It looks like this lovely day that will end with our family of five sleeping in the living and dining rooms--the only rooms with air conditioning. That's fine. We've lived here six years next month and this is the first time the heat has driven us out of the upstairs.

Mike noticed the cattle getting heat stressed in our western paddock. The grass is high and deep, but there is no shade out on the open prairie. One of our low-line Angus had gotten herself into the water tank and the other Angus cattle were panting (Note: Mike has observed that our Dexter cattle seem to handle the extreme weather better than the Angus).

So the two of us left Sunday dinner and herded the cattle back around the farm and into the paddock by the barn that has a watering pond surrounded by trees that Mike and his dad dug out years ago. Today I didn't have the camera with me and missed capturing the most strikingly beautiful scenes. As I closed the last gate behind Mike and the herd, I saw a view that I want imprinted in my mind for the rest of my days: Mike walking in his Australian sun hat, white t-shirt, blue jeans leading his herd of cattle across a bright green, neat and clean pasture. The sky was blue, a few white clouds. 30 brown and black cows followed trustingly despite the painful heat. When we got through the last paddock the cows took off at a run!! They raced through the green grass (it will be brown soon without rain- which is not in the long term forecast). They ran to the shady pond and every last one of them waded into the water--some went in over their backs-- their noses touching and drinking the water-their panting subsiding as they cooled off in the water. Happy cows.

We stood and watched them for a while; basking in their relief. We make plans to deepen that pond in the fall, just in case this drought continues. Then we returned to our Sunday dinner with Mike's mom, dad, uncles, and an aunt. An all around good day.

Let me tell you about this Sunday dinner, brought to us by the farms and farmers of Big Stone County. We had a grilled leg of lamb (thanks to Radamachers), cucumber salad (Shumachers), greens, spuds, and an Aronia (choke berry) pie.

There are a few different stories around that Chokeberry pie- stories about community, family, health, and soil conservation. The journey to getting this pie on the table started at the café where I stopped to get a cup of coffee on Friday morning. There were a group of beautiful, elegant, and kind local matriarchs enjoying a coffee gathering. As a result, I was invited to pick berries at Marge's farm. Izzy was at the café and also interested in some berries. So Saturday morning my kids, Izzy and I drove to Marge's- a nice multi-generational farm with a variety of animals and crops including the first mature, full fruit bearing Aronia bushes I have had the delight to encounter.

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Aronia, also known as choke berry (not choke cherry, which people are more familiar with), is native to our region and produces seedless berries, larger than blueberries. Aronia is touted as the next "superfruit" because it is full of healthy nutrients and is attributed with all kinds of health benefits.

Whooo hoo!!! I was just giddy to have a chance at these berries. Izzy, Marge, the kids and I picked berries for about ½ hour and harvested about 8 gallons of berries. The berries are in clusters, about eye level, come off without stems attached. Easy, easy, easy!

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At home we processed them into pie filling, jelly, syrup, and juice. A number of fun hours and a huge mess- as these projects usually are. When each batch was finished the kids descended upon the kitchen to lick the pans and spoons.

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How did this great stand of Aronia berries come about? Well, they were planted with the advice and assistance of a United States Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service program called EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program). This program provides cost share to plant wind breaks and implement on the ground conservation practices, like grassed waterways, pastures, cover crops and even organic farming. The NRCS and their close colleagues the Soil and Water Conservation Districts (in every Minnesota county) are really where the rubber hits the road in getting conservation practices onto the landscape. These are the guys with the equipment (like tree planters and native seed drill presses, the plant material (thousands of trees, grass mixes, etc...) and manpower to lay down the landscape fabric, plant the trees and the prairie grasses.

Now, here's the deal. You can buy any tree imaginable from the SWCD for the EQIP program- the point is to hold the soil in place. The "ah-ha!" is that we can select trees and bushes that also provide human and wildlife food. There are a whole lot of folks interested in growing and others interested buying locally grown food. And here's a chance to do double and triple duty on the land- soil conservation AND food and food ventures. On our farm, with the help of NRCS and the SWCD, we've planted our windbreaks with 400 fruit and nut trees including:
Aronia (chokeberry)
Prairie Red Plum
Chokecherry
Hazelnuts
Mulberry
Black Walnut
Hackberry
Chestnuts
Gooseberries

It's a cool idea to have an edible windbreak as a conservation practice, but there's still work to be done to catalog and promote these multipurpose tree plantings to include fruits and nuts. There are all kinds of reasons this is a good idea including increasing access to healthy foods in rural places, like Big Stone County, which is a USDA designated "Rural Food Desert." So it's win-win-win: keep your soil in place, grow some pie and jam berries, and if the harvest is good enough you can even sell those berries. What is needed is to get the information together on the how's and why's of growing these trees as part of the EQIP program and then get the word out that you can plant your windbreak with fruits and nuts.

By the way, the pie was an absolute hit across three generation. With a good cup of coffee, some more stories about barn building and how the electricity came to these parts in 1941, I'd say it is just about the most satisfying piece of pie I've ever enjoyed.

What stories did you take part of or hear lately? Do you have or remember ground cherries and gooseberries?

A few good hours of farming

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There were about 24 giddy hours where we felt like we had finally done something right on the organic portion of our farm (about 40 of the 320 acres). We've had a few trials and errors compounded by both floods and droughts. Seems like if we are committed to any particular thing, it is a commitment to experimenting. Problem is we got skunked a few times with our experiments. The tillage radish was good, but no income. We gave organic corn a shot, but ended up plowing it under. So this year, lo and behold, we got our first crop off the 40 acres.

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Alfalfa bales

It's an absolutely gorgeous crop of lush, green, alfalfa. One heck-uv-a yield. I kinda get that whole "waiting to exhale" idea. We've been holding our breathe on so many of our farm ventures and finally one of them turned out well. Sigh.......

The other precious thing about this hay crop is that part of it was harvested with a lot of family and neighbor hands at work. The kids and I drove in from an evening of roller skating to find a couple haying efforts underway-- though it was growing dark. The kids ran down and pitched in with Mike, Russ, Theresa, and kids. Pumping out small square bales and putting them on a hayrack. Just a couple hundred that way, but still-- a perfectly wholesome farm and family night.

Last night, we jumped in the car and went to the street dance in Clinton, MN. When asked how the farming was going, we beamed. "Great!" "Excellent!" "The alfalfa crop was great and it's baled!"

We had a solid 24 hours of farming we could brag about.

And then the phone rang over breakfast-- cattle out of their paddock on the US Fish and Wildlife land. Mike has spent the last few weeks toiling to fix 50 year old fences so that we could graze our cattle on the adjoining federal land (we've worked out a lease with the US Govt).

As it turns out, our cows can swim. Even the little babies it appears. They swam around the fences that went up to the edge of the slough. So we geared up with waders, fence post, wire and headed out to separate our cattle from another herd they had decided to 'mingle' with and set up fence into the slough.

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Getting fence post set so the cattle will stay put

It was 94 degrees, hot and buggy. But we got the job done- new fence up, cattle herded back. That's a good feeling.

All in all, it is a joy to see this farm in grass. The cattle barely visible in a sea of shoulder high, tall grass prairie grass. And it looks like we now have enough hay to get this herd and a few more through the winter. Plus, we're going to butcher our first two steers- Trouble and Bill (yes, they have names). So stay tuned to order some grassfed beef from us. We're going to try it before we start to sell any.

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I'll be back in the coming days with more cattle tales. In the meantime there are community celebrations to attend and fireworks tonight in Clinton, Minnesota. I am grateful for these days and this place. And I'll savor those hours when the farming is good, the grass is green, and we are living in the lushness and abundance of life on the tallgrass prairie.

A Counter Cyclical Investment

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New fence posts on the farm

I've said this before, but it bears repeating. Our neighbors think we are idiots. Not all of them.

The price of corn is so high that it can tempt a good man, a farmer, to not only plow up humble farmsteads (see entry below) but to turn over graves and bury the tombstones in pits. In the face of this gold rush, we took 100+ perfectly good, fertile, flat land out of corn production and are put it into pastures. Yeah, I'll tell you that it's not just the neighbors who think we are idiots, but Mike and I sometimes look deep into each other's eyes and say "what the hell are we doing this for?" We could just rent this land out for an exorbitant price and get rich the easy way. No... we have to do this the poor and hard way.

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Watering station piped in. Boys chasing backhoe to next station.

Here's where we're going. We are looking to be grass farmers. This is the rainfed, tallgrass prairie after all and so we know that for most of the past 10,000 years this place has done really well as grassland. The plan, as much as it is, is to raise entirely grassfed beef using what is called intensive rotational grazing and probably mob grazing.

I just paused to ask Mike if we'll be doing mob grazing and he said "yes- depending on the weather" (meaning enough rain to green up the paddocks). Without knowing what I was writing about he said "yeah- that will mean more work, but we can get more cattle on per acre." I started laughing at the "more work" comments. And he said- but we can have the kids do that.

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Playing on corner posts.

More work. Less money. For what? For an abstract security for us and for our community. What kind of security? Well, if monopolized seed and input companies decide to jack up the price of seed, fertilizer, pesticides then farmers gotta pay. Can't say the same thing about our 28 species pasture mix. What we're hoping (praying) for is that some of those 28 warm and cool season plant species will thrive in the variety of weather events we've seen on this farm. In just the five growing seasons I have lived here we've seen nearly ½ of our farm under flood water and been land locked because our roads were underwater to the extreme drought we're under now where the soil profile is dry as a bone 15 feet down (by the way 'bone dry' is a figure of speech). The land is under remarkable dryness that is startling even to the old timers.

I ask again--what kind of security are we looking for? What kind of advantage? What kind of return on the investment of our time and our money?

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Speaking of money- very unMinnesotan of me- the 3.5+ miles of fence and pipe we installed on the farm this fall cost just over $34,000. Now if you add the minimum we could have received for cash rent for that land ($15,000) that comes to a $49,000 cost with $0 return on investment. Investment... Ha! We've divested in all those ephemeral virtual digital spreadsheets that you can see on your computer screen- you know- those things like college funds for our kids, retirement accounts for us, and bank balances in the black. Our plan for our kids' education (off farm) is selling a few of those cows in the pasture each semester to pay tuition.

You need us for security too. Why? Because any good portfolio is diversified. Just ask any Wall Street investment guy and he'll tell you "Diversity is Good." It's their credo. You need stock, bonds, large cap, small cap, international etc... You don't put all your eggs in one basket. Likewise, there is a need for diversity in farming and farmers too. In case things don't go as planned in Algerian oil fields or we find out the Bakken Oil Play costs us 1 barrel of oil to extract 1 barrel of shale oil, you'll be glad there are oases of farmers and food production across the landscape that have a range of skills and practices to jump start the agricultural system. Diversity is good- especially in something as critical as producing food.

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Frankly, I think a huge part of the local foods movement is our instinctual knowledge that having food production (real food- not Hot Pockets and Mountain Dew) that is recognizable and understandable and close by is absolutely connected to our well being and maybe even our survival. The global food supply brings untold pleasures (read coffee and cinnamon to name two), but a local food supply bring daily sustenance. I digress.

We are making this counter cyclical investment for another reason -- we want to be the change that we seek in the world. We've put our family on the front line of sustaining happy, healthy, family farms and the rural communities that they are bound up with. Now there are plenty of good folks down this path in front of us- Audrey, Laverne, Richard, Mary Jo and many more. But it sure feels like the front line from my kitchen table.

I'll quote one of my living folk heroes, John Michael Greer, in his recent column

...any meaningful response to the crisis of our time has to begin on the individual level, with changes in our own lives. To say that it should begin there doesn't mean that it should end there; what it does mean is that without the foundation of personal change, neither activism nor community building nor anything else is going to do much. We've already seen what happens when climate activists go around insisting that other people ought to decrease their carbon footprint, while refusing to do so themselves, and the results have not exactly been good [kjd notes: the result is that people don't take climate change seriously and even stop thinking that it is really happening]. Equally, if none of the members of a community are willing to make the changes necessary to decrease their own dependence on a failing industrial system, just what good is the community as a whole supposed to do?

So we are rolling the dice that we need to have a diversified, labor intensive farming system in place so that over time whatever trajectories we are on-- you name it--the end of petroleum era, the consequences of leaving the gold currency standard, a flu pandemic, climate change, the zombie apocalypse (I've trained my children to "repeat after me 'the zombie apocalypse is a metaphor for what happens to humans in the collapse of civilization'") or a dust bowl.

Be the change you hope to see in the world. What do we - what do I--want to see in the world?


  • Meadowlarks on my farm

  • Green fields for months on end

  • Vital, thriving rural communities

  • Wholesome food that feeds our bodies without making us fat and feeds our souls in its production

  • Animals that thrive in healthy, real environments until they become our food (note: our baby calves dance, jump, run and play through the green grass. And I don't ever recall calves frolicking in dense, dirt feedlots)

  • Soils that are protected and regenerated and held in place for generation of farmers to come

  • Trees, orchards, windbreaks

  • Clean energy

  • The sense of pride of meal on your table that comes from your land, your labor and G-d's goodness.

  • Raising children who know the value of hard work and actual 'fruits' of their labors

  • Needing to pay attention to the natural world every day and throughout the day for the well-being of the animals in your care and for the crops you are tending.

Along with these earnest hopes for my world, I hope that I am gaining the street cred to promote this path. Voluntary simplicity. Voluntary labor. Investment.

Just tonight Mike and I noodled over the numbers to get our John Deere 4440 fixed--a cool $7,000 in repairs. If we fix it we could still get the money back if we needed to, cuz' we could sell if for more than the cost of the repairs. Let me say, there's a lot of that kinda reckoning going on around our farm.

Political activism, community building, and a great many other proposed responses to the crisis of our time are entirely valid and workable approaches if those who pursue them start by making the changes in their own lives they expect other people to make in turn. Lacking that foundation, they go nowhere. It's not even worth arguing any more about what happens when people try to get other people to do the things they won't do themselves; we've had decades of that, it hasn't helped, and it's high time that the obvious lessons get drawn from that fact. (John Michael Greer again)

Oh, and did I mention that we saw the first Meadow Lark on our farm since we moved back? Priceless.

Connecting Over Food- in Kerkhoven, MN

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I cut out of work a bit early on Friday and drove the four hours home from St. Paul to Big Stone County with a tear stained face. I'm sure many Americans headed home to embrace their families and children the same yesterday.

Something good happened along the way down Hwy 12 and it seems like a good time to tell a happy tale. It may not be widely known, but I have a penchant for rural food access and a love of rural grocery stores. So I make it a point to spent 100% of our grocery budget in these mom and pop shops that are the front line of providing healthy food in our small towns.

Julio D at the Quality Family Foods grocery store in Kerkhoven, MN
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I stopped in Kerkhoven MN's Quality Family Foods to do some grocery shopping. There was an assortment of locally grown squash varieties near the front door. So I loaded up on them- as well as some fruit, nuts, and crackers. When I checked out I had to pay for the squash separately as that money went directly to the farmer. My mountain of squash came to $13.29. I counted out my dollars and a handful of change and came up with $12.29--one dollar short. I was thinking through my options 1) put one of the squash back 2) ask the clerk to just gimme the squash for $12.29 when the young man behind me said "Ma'am. I can pay for your food."

I turned to look at the young teenage boy in a hoodie buying his Mt. Dew and Doritos. "Really?" I asked him. Here I am - a stranger, a middle class, Scandanavian looking woman in my professional attire-- and this boy was stepping up to buy my family our healthy, local food. I paused- wondering whether accepting this boy's money was the right thing to do. I mean, should I take money from this young guy? Maybe his family needs that food money more than mine.

"Thank you. I would really appreciate that" I said and he handed his money over to the cashier to pay for my food.

"Did you just see that?" I asked the bag boy who was helping me take my groceries to my car. "That kid just bought me - a rich white woman- my groceries." And I used the word rich, because I am rich in that middle class kinda way- with a home, food, car, loving family, interesting and meaningful profession, etc... I grabbed my camera and went back into the store.

"I'm Kathy. That was really kind of you to help pay for my groceries. Can I shake your hand? What's your name?"
"Julio D__", he replied.
I asked him if he'd mind if I took his picture and wrote a little story. He gave me his ok.

I told the few people in the store that I thought this nice young man and his generosity to a stranger said a lot about their little town. I should have said and a lot about the good values that Julio's family had instilled him- kindness, respect and generosity. Values that I find many rural Minnesotans hold in common.

There's been a series on Minnesota Public Radio about how the face of rural Minnesota is changing to include more immigrants. An article on Making Connections Across Ethnic Lines was highlight just the day before. As I took Julio's picture- the blonde teenage girls with him wanted him to look good and said "put down your Doritos!" And when I said that Julio made their town really shine, they coo'ed "oooooh!"

I want to thank Julio of Kerkhovan Minnesota for stepping up to help a woman he'd never met, and probably will never meet again, to buy food for her family. I promise you that tonight as we bake and eat that squash that our mealtime prayer will include a blessing for those who helped provide it. In this case it will be a blessing for Julio.

Friday Night (No) Lights

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Home games at Clinton-Graceville-Beardsley school played in the afternoons on the unlit field

It's funny how you can't even imagine or guess the things in life that you will end up loving. That's happened to me a few times in life. Like when I was first introduced to the field of Soil Science. Dr. Terry Cooper, U of M Dept. of Soil, Water and Climate, taught a field soils science course where we went around the State and looked at soil cutouts (profiles) and I discovered a whole entire new world and universe. Holding a Munsel Color Chart up to a soil profile and working my eyes to make the perfect, delicate match R5/Y3. I fell head over heels in love with this new world filled of creativity and art and science. The thoughts I developed in those early days of learning Soil Science still drive part of what we are doing on this very farm. And then there's the shocking fact that my daughter got me hooked on country music by insisting that she would help put up the corn ONLY if we stopped listening to MPR and put on some toe tapping tunes. In defense of country music, I've found it hopeful, touching, and more importantly respectful of women.

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CGB Homecoming Parade

My most recent heartfelt attachment has been right under my nose for a few years. Not sure what it was that tipped me over the edge- but it happened at the homecoming football game. Maybe it was watching the children and contributing businesses and clubs on Main Street Graceville, MN for the Homecoming parade. (Though this was the 5th year I've taken in that parade) Perhaps it was being outside for a few hours on one of those few, absolutely perfect autumn afternoons. There are some autumn days in Minnesota so perfect that if you aren't are your knees giving thanks you should have tears in your eyes and bliss in your heart. Maybe it's the fact that my twin boys are now 8 years old and no longer need my 100% vigilant attention at games.
Whatever the combination, something clicked for me and I find myself thoroughly enjoying the world of 9-man high school football.

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There is something wholesome and right about an afternoon 9-man football game out on the prairie. On this particular night, the flag at half mast in remembrance of 9/11 and people were sincere as they, to the last person, held their hands on their hearts for the Star Spangled Banner- my daughter playing for the 1st time in the pep band. The corn fields were ripening and drying beside the field and guys watched from their back of their farmer father's truck. Maybe it's the feeling of being a part of this place--the friendly waves and Jimmy's rap on my shoulder. And the number of caring community members in the sports boosters who spent the game flipping burgers to raise money to keep the sports programs strong. And the game itself is more amazing to me as I watch those boys fly through the air and run with powerful abandon to the end zone. And I feel proud of this community I live in. These folks invest in the kids- the football players and parents spend Saturday mornings playing flag football with the kids as young as second grade.
And so on any given Friday night, you can find and witness some of what is right about rural places. Go Wolverines! #1 ranked 9-man team in Minnesota!


Scarcity and Abundance

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There's been enough scarcity to go around these days. Remember those pictures of the lush corn crop in late June? And that story about The First Cutting of Hay? Well, it was the only cutting. The corn died and the hay crop didn't grow (but is still hunkering in!). No hay to sell and the corn yield will be well below the bill paying level, yet enough not to trigger crop insurance payments (maybe 50 bushels an acre).

Here's what a few hundred acres of dead corn looks like in August 2012.

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The soil is turning to dust and on our farm the clay soil cracks are so deep, you can't see the bottoms. I turned the camera flash on this crack- hoping to see how deep it went. The soils are losing all their structure and becoming fine dust. I suspect this is what they felt like going into the dust bowl years

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And not just farming is impacted by this long, dry spell we are having in our township. I say our township, because the weather has been spotty and erratic. Some farms 7-8 miles away had a crucial July rain that saved their crops. Hell- some of them are getting bumper crops just 15 miles away.

The wetlands are drying up. There is 50 feet of dry pond bottom at the place the kids and I used to put in the canoe. The picture below is the slough at the corner of our section. That pond is completely dried up- the duck nesting house standing in cracked mud.

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And we pretty much got skunked with the garden in 2012. Mike fell on April 13 and by the time he was on his feet it was too late to plant. And yet.... and yet. We are experiencing great abundance of produce thanks to good, caring and kind neighbors. I'm spending all day today putting up a cornucopia of tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini, squash, onions, green and yellow bean, peppers, this 12# head of cabbage. Deb, Bruce, Dorothy, Dianne, Simon and Jo and all of you who have dropped off veggies for us this year-- thank you for sharing your summer's labor with us. We hope to return the favor for years to come.

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And so in parting, this summer has seen a scarcity of rain and abundance of neighborliness and produce.

And it somehow fits with the goodness I saw in town yesterday. The Red Cross blood mobile spent a few short hours in our little town of 400 people yesterday afternoon. About 10% of the town's population showed up to give blood- the farmers, truckers, teacher, mom, post master, carpenter, and senior citizens. We've lost so many people from this town and county. And yet.... and yet- here they all are on a nice late summer day, giving back, giving generously, giving from the heart (and vein).

On Farm Accidents

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"Glad you planted spuds before you try falling off the roof. Boy you did it up good. Our well wishes." (one of my favorite Get Well notes)

First class mail is alive and kicking in Big Stone County, MN. Just try falling off the roof of one of the farm buildings and watch your mailbox get packed with well wishes. Just to clarify, it wasn't me that did the falling but my much loved and needed farmer-husband, Mike.

Friday, April 13th Mike tumbled off the new chicken shed and onto concrete- resulting in broken ribs and cutting open his elbow to the bone. As the story goes, he wouldn't have been hurt as badly if he hadn't tried to avoid falling on good dog Sunny. After driving himself to the clinic/hospital he began to deteriorated - slowly at first and then accelerating until he landed in the hospital the following week.

There's a reason that Farming is among the world's MOST DANGEROUS job. Farming ranks #4 (between SWAT officer and Structured Metal Workers) in this book that young Earnest brought home from the elementary school library.

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All of this falling off roofs makes one realize how quickly life can change. And it reminds me to be grateful for all those we hold dear--from moment to moment.

It is also a lesson in the shortcomings of rugged individualism and the annoying stoicism of men of Scandinavian descent (and I bet we could add Germanic descent to that as well). Nearly a week after the accident, but before Mike was hospitalized we had the biggest fight in our 17 year marriage- toe to toe- in each others' faces. He was determined that he (wounded and sick) and I (inexperienced and annoyed) would put the bale fork on the John Deere 4440 and feed the cattle before we went into the clinic. I was equally determined that we should "just say YES!" to one of the dozen plus people who had offered to help us feed the cattle.

"You D#$m stubborn Norwegian! You can't be doing this in your shape!" "We have to do this now! And you need to learn to do this- NOW!" "Why in the middle of a crisis?" A number of other choice words about each others' priorities, capabilities and character ensued.

And in the way of these things, we were both absolutely right. Mike was right in that we got the bale fork on and I moved three 2,000 pound bales of hay into the pasture for the cattle and, in all honesty, with a sense of pride in the accomplishment. And I was right- in that he immediately thereafter landed himself in the hospital for 8 days and 3 surgeries. He's damn lucky to have that arm and probably his life. Without current medical interventions, I'd be a farm widow today.

I can joke now, but it's been a hard few weeks. After Mike's first two surgeries, the surgeon came out to the waiting room and escorted me down the hall to a private room. He closed the door behind me and gave me the news- not looking so good, gonna need another surgery in two days. After Mike's third surgery, the surgeon came to talk to me and didn't close the door. I knew then that we had turned the corner. And I was giddy with relief. When Mike was brought to his room after recovery, I said "Great news! No more surgeries! " "Then my arm is closed up?" "No- that's a ways out. You'll have a month of IV antibiotics ahead of you."

I cried with relief. It was the first time I'd cried at all. And Mike cried- tears of loss. Loss for an entire year of farming. Loss of the cattle he was on his way to buy. Loss of the expansion of our grazing lands to the adjoining USFWS prairie. Loss of a whole lot of plans, dreams, and investments of time and energy. April, May and June are cruel months for a farmer to be kept out of farming.

I'll just say this one last thing. My husband is a good, caring, hard working man of very few words. His daily word allotment is 40 words- so he uses them sparingly. A couple nights after he was home and trying to get his beaten up body comfortable in bed, he whispered so quietly I could have missed it, "thank you for taking care of me dear." And I'll say the same thing to many of you out there reading this.

Thank you for taking care of us dears.

Thank you for working the fields, feeding the cattle, hauling chicken feed, patching the coop. Thank you for relighting the wood boiler and filling it up anonymously. Thank you for your prayers, hotdishes, cookies, bars, and rolls. Thank you for the loads of laundry washed, dried and folded and for the loving care of our kids. Thanks to my boss and colleagues at the U for support and reminders of the priorities of life. Thank you for the cards and the kindnesses you've shown. They are sustaining and encouraging us. It is a blessing you know--this day and those around us. For these gifts, Let us be truly grateful.

About this Archive

This page is an archive of recent entries in the Local Foods category.

Inner Apocalypt is the previous category.

On Being Mindful is the next category.

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