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Published May 19, 2014, 09:46 AM

Small farms, big roles

The Census of Agriculture shows, for the most part, farms are becoming bigger and fewer. But the census also shows farms still vary in size: Small ones are growing in number and those of modest size continue to play a huge role. Agweek kicks off a series profiling small farms operated by people whose main sources of income are off-farm jobs.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

The Census of Agriculture shows, for the most part, farms are becoming bigger and fewer. But the census also shows farms still vary in size: Small ones are growing in number and those of modest size continue to play a huge role.

Agweek kicks off a series profiling small farms operated by people whose main sources of income are off-farm jobs.

CARPIO, N.D. — Marvin Baker tells a story about a peach tree in his backyard in Carpio, N.D.

“I got into an argument with a person at a (South Dakota) nursery that sold peach trees. They told me, ‘You can’t grow peaches in North Dakota.’ It (the argument) went on for probably an hour. Finally, I took a $50 bill from my wallet and slapped it on the counter and said, ‘Just sell me the peach tree.’ So they sold it to me and it’s been growing for five years now.”

That’s the kind of persistence and unconventional thinking that Baker puts into practice with North Star Farms, a certified organic farm that he and his wife, Ilene, operate in Carpio, a town of 150 people, 27 miles northwest of Minot, northwest North Dakota’s largest city.

Marvin Baker, a 55-year-old veteran journalist, also is editor of the Kenmare (N.D.) News. Kenmare is a town of 1,100, about 23 miles northwest of Carpio.

Baker says experience has taught him to balance his two careers.

“Over time, through trial and error, I’ve become more efficient. I’ve learned what I need to do when I need to do it,” he says.

The organic business raises a wide variety of fruit, vegetables, flowers, herbs, onions and tomatoes, among other products. North Star Farms is especially proud of its garlic.

The business also is experimenting with cotton. Baker tried growing cotton in 2008, too, and “it failed miserably,” he says. Since then, however, the business has added a greenhouse “and I think it (cotton) will be successful.”

North Star Farms doesn’t have a market for the potential cotton crop. Rather, “People have told me through the years that you can’t grow cotton in North Dakota. I want to see if plants will grow to maturity,” Baker says.

North Star Farms once grew tobacco, too, but quit the crop in 2008. Baker used naturally occurring nicotine in the plants to keep away insects. Residue from tobacco plants is natural but isn’t considered organic.

“So, I had to stop growing (it) or put my certification in jeopardy,” Baker says.

CSA, farmers market

The Bakers sell their produce through community-supported agriculture (CSA) and a farmers market in Minot. In a CSA, families or individuals buy a “share” of a garden and receive regular shipments of produce from it.

This will be the third straight year that North Star Farms will supply 63 families with certified organic produce grown on three acres.

“I could probably squeeze 70 out of it, but I’m getting too old to work that hard,” Baker says.

About 85 percent of sales are in Minot, with the rest at the Minot Air Force Base. Most customers are elderly and health conscious or young and receptive to organic food, Baker says.

Baker grew up in Hazelton, N.D., and worked on farms and at the local grain elevator when he was young. His career in journalism has included service at a number of weekly and daily newspapers across North Dakota and with the North Dakota National Guard, from which he’s now retired.

“I love journalism. I’ve been doing it a long time. It comes easy now,” he says.

Baker, who says he thought of having a farm business most of his adult life, bought property in Carpio because the cost of living there is considerably lower than in Minot. The Bakers began their operation in 2004 to help supply family and friends with fresh, naturally grown produce. They expanded in 2005 and again in 2007.

This will be the fourth year North Star has operated its passive solar greenhouse, which uses sunlight to heat the interior. The business also uses a high tunnel that allows North Star Farms to extend its growing season. High tunnels are low-cost, plastic-covered buildings in which crops begin growing sooner in the spring and continue growing longer in the fall.

North Star Farms, 40 miles south of the Canadian border, typically can raise crops outside from the middle of May to the middle of September. It can grow crops inside from the end of March until the end of November.

The Entrepreneurial Center for Horticulture at Dakota College in Bottineau gave North Star Farms a $20,000 grant in 2009 to build the greenhouse.

Help wanted

North Star Farms’ sales are strong and growing, but finding employees to help meet that demand is challenging, Baker says.

“Our customer base continues to grow. I wish we could hire more employees,” he says.

North Star Farms competes for workers with western North Dakota’s high-paying oil patch. Though the business has had additional workers in the past, Baker currently is its only employee. He hopes to hire help shortly, however. Ilene Baker, an accountant, has an off-farm job but remains involved in North Star Farms’ finances.

Marvin Baker says he enjoys “every aspect of the operation.”

“My only regret is, I don’t have more land. If I did, I could raise more produce. The demand is incredible,” he says.

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