Sogn Farm Project
Here’s a link to a youtube video of a bit of plowing I did today. Enjoy!
After months of work by (mostly) Rina and Sam, the culmination of the Corn Patch Project took place on Saturday, October 13th. A pleasantly warm but overcast day greeted scores of huskers who arrived through the afternoon to husk and braid the corn, share a potluck supper and finally, enjoying the hard work of so many folks who helped fix the barn, dance! Thanks to Rina for spearheading, thanks to all the huskers, thanks to the local breweries (Indeed and Excelsior) for the fine beer we enjoyed, thanks to the musicians (who were those folks? I’d never met a number of them – some fine old-time tunes!). Thanks to the neighbors who stopped by and the kids who . . . had a good time!
In short, it was a rousing success start to finish. You’d have to go a long way to fine a more picturesque and enjoyable event.
Here’s the latest update on our as-yet-unnamed farm. We have three projects, one news report and two upcoming events.
The tillable acreage is home to three efforts this season. The largest portion is in alfalfa for the second year of organic transition. The alfalfa is being sold to Thousand Hills Cattle Company where, in time it turns into hamburgers and steaks. You can find Thousand Hills products at the Wedge, and many other places.
Next, Kelli Tennyson is growing vegetables on a couple of acres and selling them at the Linden Hills Farmers Market and to Harvest for the Hungry. She calls her effort “Broadfork Farm“. Kelli’s growing all sorts of things but so far the kale, beets and watermelon have been particularly wonderful.
Finally, Rina Rossi is leading a project to grow corn for chicken feed – for real! Rina and a number of her friends keep chickens in South Minneapolis so they’re growing about an acre of corn to feed to their birds this winter. This project will culminate in a shucking bee and barn dance! You can find Rina on Facebook at “The Corn Patch at Bob and Julie’s Farm”.
This summer’s crazy weather included a storm that dumped 10 inches of rain on the farm in just a few hours. It made a mess of many things and completely blew out our culvert – so we no longer have an easy way to cross the stream. You can see pictures at this earlier post. Our little farm office is nearly complete: we have electricity, hot and cold water with real floors and everything. Thanks to all the skilled friends who’ve helped.
We have two events planned for this fall:
Fall Farm Day September 8th
Come visit the farm, see our progress and, if you like, lend a hand building steps, setting up a hop trellis, fixing the barn floor, clearing the flooded creekbed, fixing washouts or beginning preparations for a controlled burn. Food, drink and good company provided. Overnight camping if you like.
Corn Husking and Square Dance October 13th
Help with the harvest then enjoy the hoedown! More information when I have it.
Last night Cannon Falls got 10 inches of rain. The farm took a bit of a beating as you can see from the photos. We lost our culvert completely: a 6-foot diameter corrugated steel pipe was washed 120 yards downstream around an S curve, and a 4-foot diameter 40-foot long culvert wound up at a 45 degree angle, 100 yards downstream. We lost a number a trees and have a cleanup job ahead of us.
Makes me think about resilience in the face of weather extremes. Climate change?
Next to a barn, a tractor is probably the most evocative symbol of “farm” in America. When I visited Issacson Implement in Nerstrand the other day (good folks, BTW), I saw this little number. The price, I think, was $280,000. Nearly as much as we paid for our whole farm!
Obviously, it makes no sense for us to buy a tractor like this – and clearly there are tractors more appropriate to our farm – but it does prompt me to think a bit about the nature and scale of different kinds of farms. Nowadays, it’s common for a farmer in Minnesota to ‘run’ 1000 or more acres – some owned, some rented. And many of these farmers – at least around Sogn – seem to be growing mostly corn and soybeans. The number of anhydrous ammonia trailers on the roads earlier this spring suggest that most of what is grown is conventional: i.e. using chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. These have to be, then, high-dollar operations for which 400hp 4WD tractors are just tools of the trade. Makes quite a contrast to our little farm – and the farms of some of the folks I’m getting to know.
I’ve started to think of various kinds of farms on two axes of a grid: high dollar to low dollar (both investment and cash flow), and low to high diversity (for example, corn and soy rotation versus small farms that do poultry and eggs plus veggies and/or fruits for CSA and/or farmers markets).
Now, if you want to do a large conventional corn and bean (or dairy, or confinement beef, pork or poultry) operation, you can get lots of help from the University’s Farm Business Management program or the Center for Farm Financial Mangement (e.g. this report). These folks have worked with thousands of farmers over the years and can help design a business plan, or tell you if your costs are too high, production too low, interest expense too high and so on: they can tell you a lot about how to run certain kinds of farm businesses because, in part, they’ve seen lots of other farmers doing almost exactly the same thing.
But what about your small-scale diversified, sustainable or even organic farm? Where is the business model? How can someone running that sort of operation benchmark their operation or write a business plan? For these folks (and that includes our little farm) I can’t seem to locate any established benchmarks, and there seem to be few people who know the business side well enough to review the operation, business plan etc.
This has at least two important effects. First, small diversified farmers appear to lack some useful tools that could help them run their businesses. Second, these same farmers often lack the information they need to finance their operations – in part because lenders or investors don’t have tools to evaluate a small diversified farm’s business plan.
Now many of the small-scale early-stage farmers I’ve met recently are up to their necks in work already and record keeping and accounting – especially for their complex and diversified operations – are not top priorities. This leads to my query-du-jour: would gathering information about successful medium-sized, somewhat diversified farms (that is, in my suggested ‘sweet spot’, of which examples are rumored to exist in SE Minnesota and likely elsewhere) be a useful first step in establishing models and benchmarks to help farmers, lenders and, potentially, investors better understand and evaluate well-run sustainable farms?
What do you think? Would this be a worthwhile project? Or is this information available somewhere and I’ve overlooked it? Suggestions, comments or advice will be most welcome!
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This work-in-progress has benefited from conversations with many wise people. I don’t know if they’d like to see their names here so, for now, I’ll just acknowledge their organizations: The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, The Land Stewardship Project, Moonstone Farm, The First National Bank of Plainview, The Carrot Project, Renewing the Countryside, University of Vermont Extension, Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) and Featherstone Farm.
This week another milestone in our farm project was passed: the culvert for crossing the creek is now complete. This will make all the difference in the world to the function of the farm as the largest fields and hillside are now easily accessible from the farmyard.
Remember the heaps of rubble? Remember all the fallen trees and logs in the creekbed? Remember the overgrown jungle by the creekside? How about the falling-down pole shed? I do. And I’m grateful for all the effort that went into clearing all that up so the culvert work could be done and . . . just look at it now.
As I walked the farm today I felt such gratitude for the amazing community which has helped us bring things so far. While walking, I talked with my farmer friend Kate Stout of North Creek Community Farmwho asked me what was our greatest success this year. I answered that the involvement, connection and fun of bringing together folks from our multiple communities had been the most satisfying part of the whole project – as indeed it has. Thank you to everyone who has made all this progress possible. The building, the culvert, the junk removed, the old barn cleaned and repaired – the list is astonishing.
As Thanksgiving approaches, I many reasons to be thankful including, especially, the unfolding dream of this farm.
I’m thinking about next year.
If you’ve been down to visit you may have noticed that our tillable acreage naturally falls into four or five fields as you can see in the aerial photo below. At the moment all but the smallest field are in alfalfa – good for organic transition. It’s now been over a year since prohibited chemicals were applied to the land but it will take two more seasons before we can attempt organic certification. We can leave the fields in alfalfa and take several cuttings of hay each year . . .
. . . or maybe try something [what might that be?] else.
What will the story of this farm be? What can grow beautifully here? In the next few years I’d like to have a number of experiments running on the land: different folks trying particular crops/approaches to see what works well. This year a Hmong farmer grew corn and squash. At the moment there is one person proposing to start a CSA on a portion of the land next year. My neighbor to the north has a vineyard and winery. He wants me to grow hops (and I have to say I’m intrigued by the notion – but it takes a lot of expensive infrastructure). Also on my mind are crops that can be dried for winter use: corn for cornmeal, beans for drying.
The soil is rich and deep with good mineral balance and plenty of organic matter. Should be good for many things (we had a soil test last spring). The tillable portions are identified in the USDA soil survey as Kennebec silt loam, Lindstrom silt loam and McPaul silt loam. You can check it out here (though it takes a few minutes to figure out the system – see below).
So how can we get several projects going? I wonder if there are folks (especially young farmers!) who would like to bring me proposals to take a field or a portion of a field and try something: CSA, hops, small grains, particular veggies – something they really want to do. I can provide the land, access to electricity and water, some on-site storage etc.. I don’t yet have a tractor or equipment, but that may change. With our land and infrastructure and their (your?) ideas and effort perhaps some beautiful thing(s) might grow.
NOTE: To use the USDA system, zoom in to Minnesota, then Goodhue County, then Warsaw township, then the farm by clicking repeatedly on the map – takes me 11 clicks. Once you have the farm filling the window, define an ‘Area of Interest’, AOI using the red polygon AOI tool on the map: click to mark the boundaries, double-click to finish. Then click the “Soil Map” tab on the top and you’ll get the details.
Thanks to Chad and Mike, Emery and Dennis! We have trusses up, a roof, basement stairs and interior walls. With some windows and doors we’ll be able to work on the interior no matter what happens with the weather . . . Up in the woods I’ve nearly completed the snowshoeing/mushroom trail. Also thinking about the next growing season, but more about that in the next post.
What an amazing weekend! In a complex two-day dance, folks from multiple communities came together at the farm to build, sheath and raise all the walls for the new farm office.
My heart was near to bursting as I watched people with different levels of skill, experience and physical strength working together in elegant cooperation: encouraging, respectful and playful. While having fun and enjoying friends old and new, I’m guessing a lot of folks learned things about building, wood, tools and more. Special thanks are due to the more experienced framers and carpenters who patiently helped the rest of us make meaningful contributions. The place glowed with a warm spirit that filled my heart – words can’t capture how it felt. I am enormously fortunate to know so many big-hearted folks and to get to share experiences like this.
Thank you, each and every one not only for the hard work and great results, but even more for the inspiring friendship, spirit, generosity, fun and music you brought to the Sogn Valley this weekend.