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The MOSES Board of Directors are pleased to announce the farmers of Food Farm, John and Jane Fisher-Merritt and their son Janaki as the 2010 MOSES Organic Farmer of the year.
Innovations in organic farming or livestock management, energy efficiency on the farm, enhancement of farm resources and providing inspiration to farmers and consumers are the criteria for the MOSES Farmer of the Year, and the Fisher-Merritts shine in all of these categories. For many years the Fisher-Merritts have brought fresh organic vegetables and poultry products to the greater community of Duluth, Minnesota and beyond.
Food Farm is 200 acres with 7.5 acres of vegetables and 8.5 acres of cover crops annually. The cover crops double as pasture for their chickens (both meat and laying hens) and turkeys, with the symbiotic relationship of livestock and soils enhanced by their rotational grazing. The Fisher-Merritts recognize the multiple benefits of the activities performed in a functioning organic system, understanding that building organic matter not only improves soil biology, but also improves weed, pest and disease management. The excitement of continually learning about and accessing nature’s tools to produce high quality foods is ever present when talking with the Fisher-Merritts.
The Fisher-Merritts approach their farm as a living organism, operating the farm in a way that resembles the Natural World. Their goal is to require fewer and fewer inputs as time goes by; to fine-tune their operation to the point that it becomes a self-sustaining entity.
John and Jane started their vegetable farming career on rented land in the state of Oregon in 1973. They wanted to make farming their career, and decided northern Minnesota was the place where they could afford to buy their own piece of land, which they did in 1975. After struggling with early frosts and swarms of biting bugs for 13 years they moved to their present farm in 1988. In their words “since then, it’s been downhill all the way up.” When John and Jane launched their organic CSA seventeen years ago, few residents of their northern area had ever heard of such a thing.
As the middle of three sons, Janaki managed to get tractor grease on himself before he could even walk. John and Jane are currently in the midst of navigating the sale of the farm to Janaki and his wife, Annie Dugan. In doing this, they want to provide a retirement income for themselves and a financing package that Janaki and Annie can afford. Janaki has the job of maintaining soil fertility and each year has been tweaking their successful crop rotations and cover crops to make the farm even more sustainable. Their valued farming partner, David Hanlon, has been an integral part of the farm for the past 16 years He handles the transplants in the spring and manages several unheated hoop houses used for extended season production. John and Jane handle other management tasks that need attention year ‘round including maintaining contact with their certifying agency, bookkeeping, CSA customer relations, and managing wholesale accounts. The five farmers act as a team, bouncing ideas off of each other, making this a farm where everyone shares in the management and success.
John, Jane and Janaki have participated as mentors in the MOSES Farmer-to-Farmer mentoring program for all three years of the program. Their mentees have greatly appreciated the time, patience, knowledge and experience of the Fisher- Merritts, and have reported that time spent with them has been invaluable in setting up their own farms. Food Farm sees itself as a farm incubator, helping others through on-farm internships, offering use of land as payment for intern’s labor and sharing names from their customer waiting list to new farmers for their own CSA operations. Each person at Food Farm has his or her own specialty, and the mentees have had the benefit of each Food Farmer’s experience, making this a well-rounded education for all. As a testament to their mentoring prowess, many of their interns have started their own successful farms, in which farming is a major part of their income.
Farming near Duluth, MN, (northern Minnesota for those who don’t know), with its short season offers many challenges to the vegetable grower. Food Farm made the decision to concentrate on crops that can grow well in their region with minimal energy inputs. They have numerous home-made and purchased high tunnels to extend their season, with cover cropping in these houses an integral part of maintaining high yields of quality food. A heated greenhouse is used to start their transplants in soil blocks. Many years of continual experimentation have resulted in a system of succession plantings serving both their high tunnel and field production needs for lettuce, brassicas, tomatoes and more. Poorly drained soil has been improved through a series of ditches, with excellent results.
Potatoes, carrots, onions and squash are the cornerstones of their winter sales with cabbage, parsnips, beets and rutabagas included for diversity. These out-of-season sales are made possible by their unique “root cellar.” This 24 by 32 foot building is the basement to Jane’s art studio, which provides the roof of the root cellar with extra insulation. The top two feet of the root cellar walls are insulated with 2 inch Styrofoam. Also, at the 2-foot level the soil around the entire periphery of the root cellar is insulated with 2 inch Styrofoam to a distance of 8 feet from the building. This prevents the soil around the root cellar from getting too hot in summer or too cold in winter, maintaining a temperature of about 45 degrees. A computerized temperature monitor/ventilation control system maintains three different temperatures in the root cellar: 34-37 degrees in the carrot room and 38-41 degrees in the potato room by bringing in cold outside air; and 48-50 degrees in the squash room by turning on a small electric heater when needed. The cost of maintaining proper storage of these vegetables through a long Minnesota winter and providing walk-in cooler space in summer is less than $200 annually. A conventional cooler of the same size would use around $500 worth of electricity per month! This root cellar was paid for in large part with no-interest loans from their CSA members and cost about the same as building a new walk-in cooler of the same size. The Fisher-Merritts have developed a method for maintaining the ideal humidity through the storage season, providing crisp, tasty and nutritious local foods until spring! They have hosted numerous field days encouraging others to use this low tech/high tech method for winter storage. The design and building of this root cellar was done in the same way as many of the other Food Farm activities: a challenge was identified and an environmentally friendly and longterm solution was found.
Colorado potato beetle has been a significant issue for Food Farm, since many tons of potatoes are grown and stored yearly. In 2002, Janaki was awarded a SARE grant to demonstrate Colorado potato beetle control using crop rotation. He learned that when the beetles come out of hibernation in the spring it takes them a while to develop flying muscles. This knowledge led Janaki to a plan of rotating fields ½ mile apart, so that the beetles will have to walk through the woods to reach the next year’s potato plantings. In 2009 no pesticides of any kind were used for Colorado potato beetle control.
Dipel is used to control cabbage moths on the brassica family crops, and row covers are used early in the season to control root maggots. Water and perches are made available around the edges of fields to attract birds, and 20 bluebird houses are posted at proper intervals around the entire front forty acres. There are two ponds, one used for irrigation and one for wildlife. Each year, more and more frogs (8 species at the last count) are heard in the spring and summer, with their pleasing song a result of a diverse and healthy ecosystem.
Vegetable producers need to be very conscious of soil building, since many crops in the rotation are heavy feeders and numerous plantings in one season can drain soil nutrients. At Food Farm, clovers interseeded with grass are used for poultry pasture in fields, which will be planted in brassicas after July 15th the following year. The clover is killed by spading beds, with clover left between the beds for living mulch, resulting in easy weed control. Other late plantings may follow rye or winter wheat and vetch. Berseem or Crimson clover and oats are grown on fields, which will be planted early and in high tunnels. Buckwheat may be planted between an early crop and a winter cover for weed control. Janaki uses a tined weeder for weed control whenever possible, to prepare stale beds for carrot and brassica plantings, in potato fields up to 8 inches tall, in brassicas up to 6 inches tall or to scratch a seeding of clover into a wheat or rye winter cover crop in the spring. A flame weeder is used the day before carrots emerge in order to minimize hand weeding. Rye or wheat winter cover crops are blown directly into a chopper box for use as tomato mulch, bypassing the rake, baler, and all that heavy lifting. No synthetic mulches are used, even for the red bell peppers produced each year. The Fisher-Merritts have begun to save seed from year to year for specific varieties of peas, squash and tomatoes, carefully choosing fruit that perform well in their specific ecosystem.
Poultry are an integral part of the farm, both to provide meat and egg products for CSA members as well as providing the benefits of grazing cover crops as part of the rotation. Weed and insect control also benefit from the moveable turkey and chicken houses, lessening the weed seed bank and insect eggs for when the field is rotated back to row crop vegetables. Grazing is an integral part of feeding the soil microbes and encouraging a vibrant and symbiotic system both above and below ground.
Approximately 75% of Food Farm’s sales are to CSA members, and the remaining 25% of sales are to restaurants and the Whole foods Co-op in Duluth. They have been selling produce to the Co-op since 1976.
The Fisher-Merritts farm in a way that allows each of them to explore interests other than farming, enhancing their community with art and culture. Working in her studio surrounded by the farm’s lush gardens Jane uses batik andshibori resist-dye processes on cloth to create framed and wearable art. She also produces a line she calls Recharged Discards which includes up-cycled funky fashion wallets and handbags fabricated from fused plastic bags. Annie and Janaki founded the Free Range Film Festival six years ago as a fresh venue for independent films in their barn. They have expanded to include live music performances and events which make a significant cultural contribution to the region. The Fisher-Merritts are active members of the Land Stewardship Project and the Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota, and contribute time to community development in Carlton County.
Living within the “Great Harmony” is the goal of the farmers at Food Farm. Sustainability and innovation are hallmarks of this farm. With their farm slogan “Always in the Vegetative State” they bring humor as well as the recognition that vegetables can be provided locally in all types of climates, with ingenuity and the attitude that it can be done. John rejects the conventional thinking that organic agriculture cannot feed the world. His knowledge of soil science leads him to believe that ultimately, organic agriculture is the only way to meet the food needs of the Earth’s human population. Current conventional applications of chemical fertilizers, especially nitrogen, tends to artificially stimulate microbial activity which burns up organic matter, thus destroying topsoil and leading to sterile nonproductive conditions. What will happen when there is no longer sufficient natural gas to turn into anhydrous ammonia? If we farm within the Great Harmony, using leguminous cover crops to capture nitrogen from the air, building organic matter, and fostering biological diversity in our soils, agricultural production can continue as long as the sun shines.
Each year the Fisher-Merritts are amazed by how the soil can continually improve with crop yield and quality increasing as well. Food Farm is a place where all creation is respected, especially the diversity of soil life. While he understands that producing crops is a big challenge due to weeds and pests, and that predators are sometimes a threat, John’s attitude is that even though you don’t want the fox to eat the chickens, you can learn to peacefully coexist. Protect your flocks from foxes and they will balance their own population based on the availability of mice.