The Age of Agrarian: Sustainable Farming in Northern Minnesota

A couple's farm feeds their bodies—and their souls.

| July/August 2010

  • Laurie and Brad provide produce to three families via their community-supported agriculture program. Laurie also cofounded a volunteer community garden project caled Plant-to-Plate, which grows 1,000 to 2,000 pounds of produce for the local food bank each year.
    Photo By Steve Foss
  • "Veronica" Romanesco broccoli has a taste similar to nutty cauliflower.
    Photo By Steve Foss
  • Cows produce all the organic fertilizer the couple needs.
    Photo By Steve Foss
  • Laurie enjoys the hops-covered porch with pal Buddy.
    Photo By Steve Foss
  • 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
  • In 4-H records she recently found, Laurie at age 10 said her goal was to eat more whole grain. Today, her favorite kitchen activity is baking bread using flour she and Brad grind from their own wheat.
    Photo By Steve Foss
  • Laurie and Brad grind their own wheat into flour, which they bake into bread together.
    Photo By Steve Foss
  • A rooster struts his stuff on Laurie and Brad's farm. Chickens provide eggs and eat bugs.
    Photo By Steve Foss
  • Laurie and Brad celebrate another ample harvest.
    Photo By Steve Foss

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.”






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