On a sunny (remember sun?) spring afternoon a few weeks ago, Karola and Rick Dalen were giving me a tour of their Northern Harvest Farm near the northeast Minnesota community of Wrenshall when they stopped in front of a large bunker-like structure with earth piled up on three sides. It turns out that this 80 x 30 foot behemoth served as a community root cellar decades ago, back when Wrenshall farmers grew a lot of cabbages and other vegetables for Duluth-Superior. The Dalens are doing their best to prove that those days when the Lake Superior region was more self-sufficient in food are not just agronomic history.
“There is definitely the consumer demand for local food,” says Karola. “We’ve seen farmers almost hide from customers because they were being harassed by the high demand.”
This is the fourth year the Dalens have raised vegetables for a living in the Duluth-Superior area. The young couple — both are 28 — say the growing demand for local food translates directly into a need for more beginning farmers to raise that food. That’s why they are excited an initiative that helped them get their own operation off the ground, Farm Beginnings, is now being launched in the region. The Dalens had to travel six hours round-trip twice a month to take the Farm Beginnings course in southern Minnesota during the winter of 2004-2005. But beginning this fall, the course will be offered in Cloquet by the nonprofit Lake Superior Sustainable Farming Association.
“If we commuted six hours to take the class and still thought it was worth it, then it’s worth bringing up here,” says Karola.
Lake Superior Farm Beginnings is the latest version of the Land Stewardship Project’s popular farmer development initiative. During the past 11 years, Farm Beginnings has provided seminars, skills sessions and on-farm educational programs to people of all ages from throughout the Midwest who are looking to adopt innovative farming systems that are profitable and good for the environment. As of 2008, over 300 people have completed Farm Beginnings courses in southeast Minnesota and western Minnesota, and 60 percent of the graduates are farming, making it one of the most successful beginning farmer initiatives in the country (Farm Beginnings is also offered in Nebraska, North Dakota and Illinois). Farm Beginnings graduates are involved in various innovative farming enterprises, including organic fruits and vegetables, grass-based livestock, Community Supported Agriculture and specialty products.
Now it’s the Lake Superior region’s turn to begin developing the next generation of farmers, says Cree Bradley, who is facilitating the program in the area. As with other Farm Beginnings initiatives, at the core of the Lake Superior program will be a series of classroom sessions led by established farmers and other agricultural professionals from the area. Farm Beginnings participants learn goal setting, financial planning, business plan creation, alternative marketing and innovative production techniques. The students are also exposed to real-world farming through a series of on-farm educational sessions and mentorship experiences.
Bradley says the time is right for a beginning farmer training program in the area — an informal food assessment of the region done a few years ago confirmed what the Dalens and other farmers have been experiencing firsthand: there is a huge demand for local food.
“That’s when we realized, wow, we have much more demand than supply here,” recalls Bradley, adding that Farm Beginnings, with its emphasis on sound business planning and innovative marketing, is a good fit for people who want to produce food for local markets. “Farm Beginnings graduates in other parts of Minnesota have done a great job of satisfying the growing demand for local food.”
(To get an idea of just how much local food is grown in the Duluth-Superior region, check out the Lake Superior SFA’s 2008 Local Farm Products Directory. For a flavor of how much demand there is for that local food, check out the Harvest Festival in Duluth’s Bayfront Park Sept. 6-7; the crowds are impressive.)
Farm Beginnings is useful for people who have extensive farming backgrounds, as well as those who have little or no agricultural experience, according to Bradley. The Dalens fall into the latter category: they took the class after learning about sustainable agriculture as students at the University of Minnesota-Duluth.
After graduating from Farm Beginnings, the couple worked with John and Jane Fisher-Merritt on Food Farm, a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)/wholesale vegetable operation with a long history in the Wrenshall area. Like other CSA operations, Food Farm sells shares to consumers before the season begins. In return, the shareholders get a weekly delivery of produce during the growing season.
The Fisher-Merritts loaned the Dalens equipment and shared their expertise, and allowed the couple to set up a mini-CSA on Food Farm land. In 2006, the Dalens bought 33 acres near Food Farm and moved Northern Harvest Farm to the new location. Today, they have 56 members in the CSA. The operation, which is certified organic, also sells vegetables to Whole Foods Co-op and Chester Creek Cafe, both in Duluth. Future plans include growing the CSA to around 100 members and starting an apple orchard.
Since they did not come from farming, or even small business, backgrounds, the Dalens say the Farm Beginnings course’s emphasis on whole farm planning and good financial management was key as their own operation sprouted and grew.
“It was good to focus on where do you want to go with your life, rather than just where do you want to go with your business,” says Rick. “It puts you in the driver’s seat. It gives you the leverage to problem solve.”
And if Lake Superior Farm Beginnings takes off and begins producing competing farms (at least two other Farm Beginnings graduates are already farming in the region), the Dalens believe their Farm Beginnings training may become even more valuable in the future. When they took the class they learned a lot about marketing, but so far the owners of Northern Harvest have not had to practice much salesmanship in the traditional sense, given the high demand for local food.
“In 10 years there may be 15 CSAs in the area and we may have to change our marketing strategy,” Karola says with a laugh.
The deadline to register for the Lake Superior Farm Beginnings course is Aug. 15, and classes begin Oct. 25. For more information, contact Cree Bradley at 218-834-0846 or firstname.lastname@example.org. More information is also available on the Lake Superior SFA website. Farm Beginnings classes further south in Minnesota (Goodhue and Paynesville) will also begin in October, and the deadline for registration is Aug. 28. For details, see the Farm Beginnings website.