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Farmers get creative with crops in off-season

VERGAS, Minn. -- It's not always easy being a local farmer, but they seem to find a way to make the gig work. Whether it's getting creative and harvesting local, seasonal crops or building a deep-winter greenhouse, they stay busy.

Ryan Pesch's winter greenhouse is just one of his many building projects on his farm. He's able to heat it with multiple different methods, including solar power, to keep the temperature between 40 and 85 degrees to grow winter greens for CSA boxes. Kaysey Price/Tribune
Ryan Pesch's winter greenhouse is just one of his many building projects on his farm. He's able to heat it with multiple different methods, including solar power, to keep the temperature between 40 and 85 degrees to grow winter greens for CSA boxes. Kaysey Price/Forum News Service

VERGAS, Minn. - It's not always easy being a local farmer, but they seem to find a way to make the gig work. Whether it's getting creative and harvesting local, seasonal crops or building a deep-winter greenhouse, they stay busy.

Adam Bickell, who has a farm in Vergas, tends to go the seasonal crop route, harvesting wild chanterelles, wild rice, and maple syrup to deliver to local restaurants like the Brew.

"The chanterelles grow so much around here - we get pounds and pounds," said Bickell.

As for the maple syrup, he's making it his goal to get more to distribute.

"You have to be creative," he said, referring to harvesting and selling whatever he can get his hands on seasonally. He also has chickens and butchers pigs, a little bit of everything to stay in business.

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As for Ryan Pesch, the owner of Lida Farm, which sits just south of Vergas, the answer to staying competitive came from up above: solar-powered heat - among other ways of keeping his deep-winter greenhouse warm enough to grow crops.

"I've got too many ways of heating this," said Pesch, referring to the back-up propane tanks, which kick in and keep the plants warm if there is a stretch of no sun in the winter.

Back in 2013, Pesch and a few friends built the greenhouse into a hill and up against Pesch's house, which also cuts down on the cost of keeping the building in the range of 40 to 85 degrees all year round - but he says the purpose isn't to "reproduce summer," meaning he doesn't use the space to grow tomatoes or other summer plants in the winter.

"Here we are in the winter months, you know what folks, we shouldn't even really be eating tomatoes," said Pesch, adding that it's possible to grow summer plants like tomatoes in his greenhouse, but they just wouldn't be getting the sunlight they need to grow properly.

Instead, he grows a lot of winter greens for his winter community-supported agriculture boxes: lettuces, mustards, asian greens, pea chutes, baby kale, etc.

Then, he supplements the CSA boxes with storage crops, like carrots, turnips, rutabagas, onions, garlic, radish crops, and beets - and he says it works. In fact, he's selling about 14 crop shares in the winter, compared to about 90 in the summer.

"More people are eating a wider variety of greens than they used to," said Pesch, referring to the growing popularity of the winter green mixes.

Doing delivery

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But he doesn't just do the CSA boxes, he also sells at the Farmers' Market in Detroit Lakes, and he has produce stands and various locations.

"It's kind of a mixed bag," said Pesch, referring to where he sells his produce.

He's sold to restaurants off and on and still sells to Pelican Rapids schools.

"I mean, I'm already dropping kids off," he said.

Larry Heitkamp, owner of Yellow Rose Organic, is another area farmer who does a lot of delivering.

"We're doing pastured eggs and we've got chickens," said Heitkamp, adding that he delivers to Central Market, but he goes farther, too.

"I go to Fargo every week, so I might as well (drop off eggs)," he said, adding that he can't sell chickens across state lines yet, since they aren't state and federally inspected; however, the eggs are still able to cross the border.

But the chickens are still state-certified organic.

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"Our chickens are out in nature getting what they need to survive and stay healthy, instead of locked in a barn under low-light situations," said Heitkamp, adding that the situation doesn't change once it starts to snow. "The egg production drops a little bit (in the winter), but they're healthy."

He estimated he owns about 1,000 free-range birds.

"There's no fencing or anything. We don't even close the coops up at night because we've got the dogs (to keep them rounded up)," he said.

Challenges

But it's hard to keep count, Heitkamp said, since there are predators, like coyotes and eagles, that threaten the birds.

"A bird gets off by itself a little too far and you lose it," said Heitkamp, adding that the added risk in doing things the organic way makes it difficult to compete with the commercial farmers.

Heitkamp also sells potatoes, but he said even that business is tough to keep up in.

"Being an organic farmer, we don't put any chemicals on that inhibit sprouting," he said, "so we have to shut down earlier than commercial farmers."

And without chemicals there is also the risk of crop diseases, but they're finding ways to fight them off naturally.

"We control disease with nutrients and micronutrients," said Heitkamp, adding, "I'm working with my crop advisor, and we're talking about how to get the potatoes more nutrient dense."

He says being nutrient dense actually wards off the diseases, bugs, and weeds, whereas, adding chemicals can actually inhibit the plant's ability to take up nutrients from the soil.

But it's still a struggle.

"People don't really understand that we're out here doing this hand-to-mouth," said Heitkamp. "Anybody that's trying to do this farming on a small scale is working full time somewhere else."

Which proved true for Heitkamp, Pesch, and Bickell.

"I farm - and my day job I work with spreadsheets," said Pesch.

Heitkamp drives truck full time to support Yellow Rose Organic; and Bickell does a little bit of everything: cooking and catering as well as egg delivery for Heitkamp's farm.

"You have to compete with the corporations, and the corporations are strictly looking at the end result. They aren't looking at how nutrient dense (their crops are)," said Heitkamp.

But he keeps at the organic growing, like many local farmers, because he's passionate about it - and admittedly a little stubborn.

"I believe in it. I believe it's a better way of life," said Heitkamp.

Inside of Pesch's deep-winter greenhouse, it's warm enough to grow winter greens, but outside, snow is piled along the walls in the midst of a harsh winter. Kaysey Price/Tribune
Inside of Pesch's deep-winter greenhouse, it's warm enough to grow winter greens, but outside, snow is piled along the walls in the midst of a harsh winter. Kaysey Price/Forum News Service

Related Topics: FARMINGCROPS
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