Mother Earth Living

The Age of Agrarian: Sustainable Farming in Northern Minnesota

A couple's farm feeds their bodies—and their souls.
By Margaret A. Haapoja
July/August 2010
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Public health nurse Laurie Benge and college instructor Brad Jones' agrarian lifestyle has expanded over time to include growing or raising almost all of their food.
Photo By Steve Foss

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Married 17 years ago on the bank of the Swan River just below their farmhouse, Laurie Benge and Brad Jones had very different ideas about how they would live on their 72-acre farm, a former Finnish homestead in northern Minnesota. Laurie envisioned hot summer days spent floating down the Swan. Brad wanted cows.

Over the years, they’ve done both, but tilling, planting and harvesting have become their activities of choice. Using the Swan’s waters for irrigation, they tend a diverse and thriving farm that allows them to eat almost completely off the grid. Golden heads of wheat wave along their driveway, and their garden bursts with corn, pumpkins, zucchini and winter squash. Dill weaves in and out of the cucumbers, and borage, zinnias and cosmos mingle with carrots, beets, onions and tomatoes. Purple heads of cabbage and cauliflower nestle next to spiraling cones of Romanesco broccoli. Cows graze, and chickens roost.

“Time spent in the garden is my peace,” she says. “Even baling hay has become so much a part of our summer ritual that I feel comforted by the routine. And now I find myself feeling sorry for the people just sitting on the beach on the Fourth of July with nothing to do.”

Brad and Laurie’s farm is a natural outgrowth of their desire to eat as much local food as possible. “If we want to eat something, we figure out if we can grow it,” Brad says.

The couple raises beef cattle, pigs and chickens, and they grow a diverse set of crops, including corn, barley, oats and wheat, which Laurie makes into bread. They use their bounty to barter with their neighbors, trading barley for pork, straw for beer, wheat for honey and maple syrup for wild rice. Their root cellar’s shelves sag under jars of Laurie’s homemade tomato sauce, ketchup, salsa, pickles and sauerkraut and bushels of beans, potatoes, onions, squash and pumpkins. The couple is beholden to the grocery store only for dairy, coffee, chocolate and some fruit.

“There’s something about making a meal where you go out to the garden and come right in and eat it—you feel like there’s just got to be so much more in that food,” Laurie says. “I believe that food in its freshest, most basic form has to be the best for our bodies and souls.”

Diversification has been the key to Brad and Laurie’s farming success. The couple rotates crops to increase production and keep pests down. They use all their resources: Garden scraps feed the cattle and chickens that provide the manure to fertilize the grain fields, which are planted to help rejuvenate the hay fields, which feed the cattle.

“It really does all fit together,” Laurie says. She recalls feeling guilty about not salvaging some cabbage and broccoli at the end of a season, “except we were flinging them over the fence to the cows, who were all lined up as happy as could be.”

Carrot trick

Laurie stores only the best carrots for winter because they keep the longest.
1. Cut off the greens.
2. In a large crock or bucket, stand the best carrots upright and sift damp sand over them.
3. Continue layering the carrots in a similar manner until you reach the top of the container.
4. Keep the sand damp throughout the winter.

Grow like crazy!

Laurie Benge and Brad Jones both hold regular jobs while growing enough organic produce to feed several families. They promise that growing organic food isn’t as hard as it looks if you follow this good, basic advice.

• Fertilize with composted cow manure for more vigorous, disease and pest-resistant plants.
• Divide your garden into quarters and develop a system of rotating crops from season to season, either clockwise or lengthwise. This will help prevent pest and disease problems.
• Till your garden late in the fall to help control weeds and pests.
• Get the kids to help hand-pick potato bugs.

Laurie and Brad's favorite crops

• ‘Cha-Cha’ and ‘Sunshine’ kabocha winter squash (Johnny’s, Jung)
sweet, delicious flesh and mild skin

• ‘Costata Romanesco’ zucchini (Johnny’s)
heirloom, great producer of blossoms for cooking

• ‘Flying Saucer’ pattypan squash (Johnny’s)
small, flat squash

• ‘Early Blood Turnip’ beets (SSE)
hard-to-find heirloom

• ‘Diva’ cucumbers (Johnny’s)
seedless, crisp, sweet, tender and early

• ‘Rocky’ cucumbers (Johnny’s)
good for harvesting baby cukes

• ‘Bolero’ carrots (Johnny’s, Jung)
sweeten with storage

• ‘Trinity’ sweet corn (Johnny’s, Jung)
sugar-enhanced, germinates well early in cool soil

• ‘Veronica’ Romanesco broccoli (Johnny’s)
interesting spiraling lime green heads with mild, nutty flavor

• ‘Kakai’ pumpkin (Johnny’s)
fabulous hull-less seeds, excellent for roasting

• ‘Baby Bear’ pumpkin (Johnny’s)
small fruit good for pie and roasted seeds

• ‘Long Island Cheese’ pumpkin (Johnny’s)
flat, tan heirloom with nice orange flesh

• ‘Hillbilly Potato Leaf’ tomato (SSE)
mottled yellow and red heirloom, highly productive

• ‘Dr. Wyche’s Yellow’ tomatoes (SSE)
yellow-orange heirloom, meaty and rich, highly productive

• ‘Moonglow’ tomatoes (SSE)
medium, bright orange, tastetest winner, heirloom

•‘Federle’ tomatoes (SSE)
long, paste, heirloom tomato

• ‘Matt’s Wild Cherry’ tomatoes (Johnny’s)
amazingly flavored heirloom

• ‘Graffiiti’ cauliflower (Johnny’s, Jung)

• ‘Outredgeous’ lettuce (Johnny’s)
bright red lettuce with ruffled edges

• ‘Tendersweet’ cabbage (Johnny’s)
midseason, stands well without splitting

• ‘Yukon Gold’ yellow-fleshed potato (Johnny’s, Jung)
excellent for storage 

Seed Sources

Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Seed Savers Exchange (SSE)

J. W. Jung Seed Company

Margaret A. Haapoja, a master gardener, lives on Little Sand Lake in Minnesota.

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