Annual Local Farm Tour
Being the new Community Outreach and Education Specialist here at Harmony Co-op is a bounty of new knowledge and experiences. I was privileged to go on a farm tour with Marketing and Outreach Coordinator Rachel Munson and assistant produce manager Brent Irwin this past month, and I’m pretty sure I spent most of the time with eyes wide and mouth open in awe. I knew intellectually that farming is incredibly hard work; seeing it in person gave me an entirely new level of appreciation for the food I eat, the land it comes from, and the people who grow it. Being able to meet the faces behind two of Harmony’s biggest local producers was not only useful from a business perspective, but thought-provoking and a lot of fun.
Our first stop was Clearwater Woodcraft in Leonard, better known as “Ivan’s farm.” Ivan and his family have over a thousand acres and raise cows and hogs as well as an enormous bounty of produce. We arrived on a beautiful sunny morning and parked in the driveway, checking out the farm store (baskets of enormous bright tomatoes, peppers, and jugs of maple syrup among the offerings) while we waited for our host. Ivan and his family are Mennonites; while they do not eschew modern conveniences as much as the Amish, bicycles are the main form of transit on the farm and horses pull much of their farm equipment. As we drove down the path with Ivan on his bicycle leading the way, we passed a whole hog and cow hung up awaiting butchering—an immediate reminder of where the clean, packaged pork chops and steaks we buy come from.
First, Ivan brought us to the tomatoes. Anyone who has eaten one of Ivan’s tomatoes is immediately awed, and seeing an entire high tunnel full of tomato vines is even more impressive. The delicious fruits take an incredible amount of hard work; from the pulley system allowing them to be raised and lowered as needed, to the cardboard bee boxes for pollination assistance. During early spring when there’s still a danger of frost and snow, Ivan wakes up at two or three in the morning every day to go out and check the wood stoves that heat the high tunnels. We saw the eggplants and bell peppers next, then picked our way through electric cattle fencing and the occasional cow pie to see the field crops. (Ivan not only rotates the crops to keep nutrients in the soil, but rotates where the cattle are housed for maximum benefit. Not only do the cows provide fertilizer, they also trample the grass into the soil, enriching it further.) We saw several kinds of corn, cabbage, potatoes, basil, dill, and the biggest onions I have ever seen (the size of a baby’s head; when I remarked in surprise, Ivan said nonchalantly “Oh, I’ve seen plenty bigger”). One could spend entire days just exploring the crops—the couple of hours we spent at Clearwater Woodcraft flew by in what seemed like minutes.
Merry Gardens in Bagley was the next stop on our itinerary. Owners Jill Pederson and Randy Olson both grew up on farms and loved the lifestyle, the animals, and the relationship to the land; this, coupled with their passion for sustainability, led them to buy Merry Gardens and start their own organic farm. Lily the dog and Marvin the cat accompanied us on our tour, which started in the high tunnel where we found juicy golden cherry tomatoes and “parcel”, a hybrid of parsley and celery with the best qualities of each. They also grow Thai and lemon basil, lettuces, cabbage, broccoli, brightly-colored cauliflower, and much more; the Easter egg radishes were another happy
surprise for me, bright pink and the size of my fist.
Merry Gardens raises two kinds of heritage pigs: red wattles and mangalitsas, the latter covered in wiry white hair. Both breeds are highly sought after by chefs; free-range mangalitsas fed on acorns, like Merry Gardens pigs, can command a high price at restaurants. Moses the red wattle boar came when called, accustomed to treats and a good back scratch, as did the mangalitsas, Faith and Gracie. While some people may have second thoughts about befriending one’s future dinner, Jill and Randy are passionate about having “happy pigs”—raised and butchered as humanely and ethically as possible. The pigs are fed with Merry Gardens’ own organic produce, and the manure goes right back into the soil to fertilize it. Like the hog and cow hung up awaiting processing at Ivan’s farm, the little pigs frolicking in the mud are a good reminder to appreciate where one’s food comes from at every stage. We finished our visit with a pitcher of lemonade and a platter of Jill’s homemade rhubarb muffins (with homegrown rhubarb, of course).
While we all had a fun time getting outside on a beautiful summer day, meeting new people, and eating cherry tomatoes fresh off the vine, the most valuable part of the experience for me was being able to see where our food comes from—both in the literal sense and in the hard work, planning, and values of the people who grow it. It brings so much more meaning to food other than how it tastes. Eating a good tomato is great, but talking to the person who grew it, seeing the vines it grew on, smelling the dirt and hearing the hum of the bees that pollinate it—that is something very special indeed. We at Harmony Co-op are very lucky indeed to have local producers like Ivan, Jill and Randy, and all the others, and I would strongly encourage everyone who can to take the opportunity to visit a local farm.