Changes down on the organic farm
The Lockharts story one of a highly educated couple with non-agricultural careers on the West Coast who chose to return to their native North Dakota to improve the quality of life for themselves and their daughter, Stella, now 10.
GARDNER, N.D. — In a fast and ever-changing world, Ross and Amber Lockhart are doing some things differently on their Heart and Soil organic farm in rural Gardner, N.D. But they remain committed to it, and enjoy it as much as ever.
"This is still what we want to be doing with our lives," Amber said.
Theirs is the story of a highly educated couple with non-agricultural careers on the West Coast who chose to return to their native North Dakota to improve the quality of life for themselves and their daughter, Stella, now 10.
And theirs is the story of a couple who's flexible when necessary without compromising their goals and beliefs.
"There's been a lot of challenges, a steep learning curve. But here we are in our eighth growing season and still plugging away at it," Ross said.
Heart and Soil was profiled in an Agweek article in the summer of 2015. At the time, the Lockharts operated their business, which they launched in 2012, on rented land in nearby Grandin, N.D. But in late 2016 they purchased a 13.5-acre farmstead near Gardner — "the end of a five-year search," Ross said — where they subsequently moved their business and have made their long-term home.
Heart and Soil is in the Red River Valley of eastern North Dakota and western Minnesota, an area where large farming operations dominate, complicating finding a small parcel of land suitable for an organic operation. "Finding a site was a huge victory for us," Ross said.
The farmstead didn't have a house when the Lockharts bought it, so they moved one onto it.
There have been other changes, too.
The Lockharts had operated a CSA, the abbreviation for community-supported agriculture, in addition to selling their organic products at farmers markets. In a CSA, individuals or families buy a share of a garden and receive a regular shipment of produce from it. But this spring, the Lockharts discontinued the CSA in an effort to make their overall operation more efficient.
"We really enjoying supplying food to our community, but it was very time-consuming," Amber said. "It (ending the CSA) was not something we did lightly. But we needed the time to work on the farm, and to spend more time with our family."
They continue to sell at farmers markets and though wholesale to restaurants, producing many kinds of organic fruit, vegetables and herbs, as well as organic eggs. They also do some direct delivery.
Two acres on the farmstead are under cultivation.
And in another change, Ross has resumed work as an internal auditor to bring in off-farm income and to obtain employer-provided health insurance for his family, a common practice among both organic and conventional farmers. He continues to work evenings and weekends on the farm as what he described with a smile as "special projects manager."
"It's so important to have that health insurance," he said.
Dealing with excess water, after a particularly wet 2019, is yet another change. The farmstead has a number of low spots, where water pools, and Ross created drainage trenches to remedy that.
You can go home again
Ross, 39, grew on a family farm near Grandin that raises wheat, soybeans and other mainstream crops using conventional farming practices. He graduated from high school in the late 1990s, a time when area ag in general was struggling. So his parents encouraged him to pursue options outside ag.
He studied political science and then international relations, earning a master's degree in the United Kingdom.
Amber, 40, grew up in Fargo, N.D., in a non-farming family. She and Ross met at Minnesota State University Moorhead across the Red River from Fargo. She has a master's degree in modernist literature. The farm's name, a play on "Heart and Soul," reflects her interest in words and language.
The couple lived for seven years on the West Coast. Ross worked as an internal auditor, Amber as a grant writer in the health and wellness industry.
But Ross still had interest in farming. That, combined with the couple's growing interest in healthy food and particularly the desire to give Stella a better quality of life led the family to return to North Dakota.
"We had careers. We had a house. And then we had Stella. That was really the turning point for us to reevaluate our lives," Ross said. " The decision to come back to North Dakota really came down to the life we wanted to give to our daughter and the environment in which she'll be raised. We knew it (rural North Dakota) has many benefits."
Being close to family was particularly important, Amber said.
The coronavirus pandemic is having an obvious and major impact on U.S. food consumption. Consumers in general are eating out less often and at home more often. Most organic food is consumed at home, so in theory, the pandemic should benefit the organic industry.
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The reality is more complicated, especially since Heart and Soil sells to restaurants. Yes, restaurant sales have slowed, but they're picking up as some of the restaurants are reopening, Ross said.
Another consideration: Farmers markets are a crucial source of sales for many organic operations, and the pandemic shut down many of them, at least temporarily. The Red River Market in Fargo, an important farmers market for Heart and Soil, resumed its weekly operation shortly before the Lockharts visited with Agweek.
"The crowd was thinner, but there was a lot of support to buy local produce. We had a good day," Ross said.
There's widespread agreement that the pandemic is hurting the U.S. economy. That could cause hard-pressed consumers to cut back on organic, which generally is more expensive than comparable conventionally raised foods.
Heart and Soil isn't raising or lowering its prices, Ross said, with Amber adding that "we keep an eye on what the market will bear."
In any case, there's been at least one benefit from the pandemic.
"We've seen a huge uptick in interest for local foods," reflecting supply-chain disruptions, Amber said. "I think that hit home for people — that we have a very fragile system and that it's a good thing to have food growing near you."
Heart and Soil operates a high tunnel. The low-cost, plastic-covered building allows the Lockharts to extend their growing season in spring and fall, particularly for tomatoes. Typically, high tunnels rely on solar power for heat, passive ventilation for air cooling and exchange, and irrigation for water. In contrast, so-called "low tunnels" are only a few feet high and provide temporary, early protection to plants.
The Lockharts plan to put up another high tunnel next year.
The biggest challenge in coming years will be "to grow smarter," or "tightening up what we grow now in a smaller space," Amber said. That reflects Ross's less-active role in daily operations.
"We're working on finding ways to make our farm long-term sustainable," both financially and environmentally, Ross. said
"And we're always working on ways to help our family's well-being. Finding the right balance between family and farm isn't easy, but we're trying," he said. "We really are committed to this."