CARPIO, N.D. — North Dakota is famous for its variety of some 20 commercial crops. Now, you can add peanuts and cotton.
Well — on a very small but commercial scale.
Baker and his wife, Ilene, own “North Star Farms,” an entity that produces and markets organic produce. Baker also is the editor of the Kenmare News. His wife, Ilene, directs human resources for First Western Bank and Trust in Minot.
Baker, 61, started a fascination with gardening when he grew up at Hazelton, N.D. His mother drove a school bus and — with her children — maintained a large garden. Baker enjoyed helping, growing potatoes, onions, cabbage, beets and other crops. HIs father initially farmed but took a career working for Kimberly-Clark in flax straw processing, a business that has since migrated north to Canada.
Out of high school in 1977, Baker worked a few years and joined the Army National Guard. Using the GI Bill and other incentives, he went to the University of North Dakota, where he graduated in journalism in 1989.
Initially, he worked at the Emmons County Record at Linton, N.D., in his home area, and then went on to various community papers.
In 2000, he worked at the Minot Daily News. He served as senior news editor and weekend editor and covered agriculture. In 2002, he and Ilene bought a fixer-upper home in Carpio, a town of about 170 people, about 26 miles northwest of Minot. The place had a nice yard to grow vegetables. When the town tore down a decrepit house, they acquired two other lots with a dream to build a greenhouse.
In 2005 they started selling garlic, onions, peas and carrots in local farmers markets.
On assignment for the newspaper, Baker accompanied local producers to the Natural Products Expo West, at Anaheim, Calif. The 80,000 people that were gathered to study organics convinced him that organics had a future.
In 2006, Baker spent a year on active duty at MacDill Air Force Base at Tampa Bay, Fla., and noodled about starting a greenhouse. In 2006, he became certified organic through International Certification Services Inc., of Medina, N.D.
The family qualified for a $20,000 grant from the Dakota College at Bottineau to build a greenhouse. Unable to find labor in the oil boom, the family built it over three years, completing it May 28, 2011. Three days later it was flooded by the Des Lacs River (the same day Minot was evacuated because of Souris River flooding).
They were able to use the greenhouse in 2012. In 2013, Baker retired from the National Guard. In 2014, he started at the Kenmare News.
In 2005, Baker had started growing peanuts.
“I just have to grow something unusual every year,” Baker said. “That’s just how I am.”
In North Dakota, you ideally start them in plastic cells in a greenhouse, like a tomato.
“Think of it like a potato,” he said. The peanut pods grow under the soil, similar to how a potato produces. The plants grow from 1 foot to 18 inches tall.
“Things turned out pretty well, which surprised the hell out of me,” he said. “We’ve been growing them ever since.”
In recent years he’s grown as many as 1,300 peanut plants a year. His biggest total yield has been 51 pounds. He produces primarily for family use. He shells them by hand and puts them in a pan and bakes them in the oven. They’re a novelty item.
“I joke that I have to have fresh, roasted peanuts for the World Series,” he said. “I do that for myself, but I do get it to my customers.”
If peanuts worked, why not cotton?
In January 2008, he got hold of some cotton seeds. He started them in the window sill and took them outside when it got warm enough. They grew to one foot. But the 160-day maturity variety simply went dormant.
“I was kind of naïve,” he recalled. But he consulted with professors at the University of California, Davis, who were very helpful.
In 2011, he tried cotton again, this time with a 120-day variety. He acquired “red foliated” cotton from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange at Mineral, Va. This time the plants grew up to 3 feet. When they get to maturity, the bolls pop open and produce cotton.
He kept growing them and keeping back the seeds.
“The people in the cotton and peanut industry don’t want to talk to me,” he said, laughing. Curiously, he made contact with the Peanut Bureau of Canada. (“They actually have some peanut growers in the Niagara region of Ontario,” he said. That’s farther south than Carpio, about the latitude of Sioux Falls, S.D.)
“I’ll admit cotton is not a 48-degree latitude crop,” Baker said. “You’re not going to get the yields you get in Georgia, but growing something is better than growing nothing. It’s more about saving seed, building seed stock. It works well in a crop rotation — drought tolerant and competes with weeds fairly well.”
There are no pests, so far.
The Northern Prairie Farmers Market operates on Saturdays in Minot, in season. He charges $16 a pound for the peanuts. That’s more than people typically pay, but he notes that they’re certified organic and grown locally.
The potted cotton plants go for $5. “They have a very attractive blossom that’s often used in wedding arrangements in the Deep South,” he said. “A pretty, fuchsia flower.”
He’s collected only 4 pounds of cotton bolls.
For now, he keeps the cotton in big jars.
People keep asking what he’s going to do with it. “I’m going to keep saving it. Maybe I’ll get a card and card it out,” he said, of the mechanical process of disentangling the fibers, so they might be spun.
If he could actually make something out of cotton grown in North Dakota, that would be something, right?
Yup, he’d thought about that.