It was a striking mixture of old meets new. The solar panels atop the roof of the giant new-looking two-story pole shed contrasted dramatically with the depression-era house which was dwarfed in size by the shed and looked as if it had piecemealed together over the years. Now, it was the home of the Schwen family who owns and operates Heartbeet Farm near Zumbro Falls, MN.
I wanted to discover if small, family-owned farms were still a viable option amidst today's modern industrial machine. Sure enough, I was about to find out. Plus, what can be more worthy than a person committed to providing the food so many of us take for granted.
When I pulled up, Rebecca was sitting outside the house with her nearly two-year-old daughter Rita, playing barefoot nearby. Rebecca's husband, Joe, and their two older children were off on errands. We exchanged pleasantries and I was happy that Rebecca was eager to share her story. We walked while we talked and I was able to take in the scenery.
[S]: What brought you here to life as a farm family?
[R]: We've had our farm here for, let's see, eight years and my husband and I have been married for 11 years. The first three years of our marriage we lived in Upstate New York and ran a community farm. We saved our money, came back to Minnesota and bought this place. My husband, Joe, grew up on a farm seven miles from here called The Earthen Path Organic Farm which is home to The Oak Center General Store. His dad was producing organic vegetables early on in the organic farming movement, so growing organically and ecologically sustainable is the way Joe grew up.
Farming became an interest of mine while I was in college and I wanted to work on a farm after I graduated, so I moved to Minnesota from South Carolina and that's when I met Joe. He was working for his dad at the time. We hit if off right away and were married a year after we met.
[S]: Why Minnesota?
[R]: I graduated from college in December instead of May and I wanted to find a farm right away and Joe's dad's farm was the only one with a job opening in December since he has a year round thing going on. So, I came here.
[S]: What was your degree?
[R]: French. I was a French major.
[S]: What did you plan on doing with your French major?
[R]: Well, I wasn't sure. But, I studied abroad in France and then worked as a nanny in Switzerland for about a year-and-a-half and it was in Europe where I fell in love with food. There was an attention to food, and especially to small regional foods such as cheeses, that led me to the ideology that food from a certain place was special and had value. When I moved back to the U.S. in 2002, I wanted to find something similar to what I'd experienced in Europe and found that in the new local foods movement.
After leaving Europe, I finished my studies at Clemson University where I started working at the student farm. I loved the hands-on aspect of it and got to be exposed to people doing that for a living. Still, I continued with my French major because it was easy for me and I had the credits. So while it may not seem like it, French was an avenue to what I do now.
[S]: Were you raised on a farm?
[R]: No. My dad was and still is a pastor in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. Growing up, we lived in small towns. My mom stayed home and raised all of us. Through her, I saw motherhood modeled very well. Even though I wasn't raised on a farm I always had this vision that my home would be this center of Industry somehow. I didn't want my home to simply be a place where people would come and go, but that it be the center of things and when I fell into farming I realized that's what that can look like.
[S]: Was the cost of land a difficult hurdle to overcome?
[R]: Well, it was at first. We thought we'd only be able to afford bare land, but this place had a house - which is a piece of crap. In fact, it doesn't even have a septic system because it was grandfathered in. The house is livable and it allowed us to afford this place. It's sort of an odd property; it's a little hilly and it's wet in the very middle. We put in a culvert to facilitate a pond forming. It did have all the out buildings we needed and that was really awesome. We had to get a loan and all that scary stuff when we first signed, but it was worth it. We paid the farm off with just vegetable sales.
[S]: You paid off your farm selling vegetables?
[S]: That is amazing!
[R]: Yeah, honestly it's awkward telling people about money but we paid it off with our hard work and I like to tell people because it's a positive thing. We lived on very little and thankfully we were able to borrow some equipment from Joe's dad and use his greenhouse that first year. We had no greenhouse, no tractor; we had nothing. Now, we've been able to do that sort of thing for my sister's farm just north of here and another farm, a former employee's a few miles down the road.
[S]: Where do you sell your produce?
[R]: We sell cooperatively to the Twin Cities which is our primary market. We used to do farmer's markets, but we've phased that back in order to focus on wholesale. We have very strict quality standards and are very particular about our practices, so we've been able to establish a good reputation as growers.
[S]: How many acres do you have?
[R]: So, we own 40 acres and we rent four acres down the road to help facilitate crop rotation. We've carved out probably seven acres worth of vegetable plots in our 40 that are flat enough to grow vegetables.
Our operation is fairly diverse. We have a small beef herd and a dairy cow that we milk by hand for our own use. We also have Percheron draft horses. Joe grew up having draft horses as that was part of his dad's philosophy to avoid the use of fossil fuels. For the first two years, we used draft horses since the equipment was less expensive and we could borrow, buy, or fix what we needed. Up until two years ago, we used them for our potato crop exclusively. The horses would plant, cultivate and harvest the potato crop which was pretty cool.
Now, we've transitioned to two big tractors and three little cultivating tractors, two of which are solar-electric for light-duty cultivating. We just got solar panels up on our new washing, packing, sorting, and storage building that Joe has been working on this year. We do a lot of root vegetable storage, so hopefully, this one will be big enough. After it's finished, the next project is going to be to build housing for employees and then after that to rebuild our house.
[S]: So, your house is last on the list?
[S]: Are your employees seasonal?
[R]: We have about two employees every season. One gal started March 1st and she'll go all the way through November and another girl will start this month and go through the end of the summer.
[S]: What are the challenges you face as a modern farm family?
[R]: I guess I'd have to spend some time thinking about what's different about modern-farm life compared to old-time farm life.
[S]: Perhaps they're different because a small family farm is not the norm anymore?
[R]: This is totally off the cuff, but our modern-day doesn't really value doing without or sacrificing, broadly speaking. Whereas a hundred years ago it was the way people lived and the way they made things work; they went without.
[S]: How about your relationship with the weather? That might be one thing you have in common with farmers a hundred years ago.
[R]: Just the other day Joe was saying that his day is stressful enough to coordinate without the weather playing into it. We're mystified how they could have ever farmed without a weather app. My husband doesn't have a smartphone, but I do, and so he's always checking the radar and the forecast constantly. He can make the most of his day that way. I don't know how they did it in the old days when they didn't have the forecasting that we have now.
[S]: Is there anything you dread when you wake up in the morning?
[R]: Well, in the winter our house is super duper cold. It's freezing when we get up in the morning, so that's dreadful. The main thing that comes to mind, and I'm not sure if I want you to record this, but since we don't have a septic system we have a composting toilet in the house and we have an outhouse outside. I don't really like the outhouse because you have to walk all the way out there and there's usually little people hanging on my legs, so we generally use the composting toilet. Every few days you have to carry it out and dump it. I dread the days when that bucket has to be dumped first thing in the morning. I think, what is wrong with us that don't we have a septic system yet? Some people aren't willing to sacrifice, but I guess we are. I suppose there are lots of people around the world who don't have indoor plumbing like that. We've done it for years.
[S]: Describe some of the other sacrifices you've made to pursue farming?
[R]: The sacrifices that we have made have been challenging. We've hardly ever taken a vacation in the 11 years that we've been married, though we're working towards that. We've made other personal sacrifices to get here which has been hard sometimes, yet at other times I'm incredibly proud of it. It's also challenging in the way that you're tied down to a farm especially with the animals and when we have to get the greenhouse started in February. Plus, our old house is heated with wood so someone has to be house-sitting for us so the pipes don't freeze. We're pretty tied down.
[S]: What keeps you awake at night?
[R]: Well, we usually sleep pretty well unless a neighbor comes over and tells us the cows are out; which, has happened.
I think like lately what's kept me awake so to speak, is wondering if my husband is working so hard that he is going to regret something in the end. That sounds dire, perhaps, but he's working very hard to provide for us in a very traditional sense. The years go by so quickly and I hope his workload can be lightened soon so that he can enjoy life, too. Of course, farming is his calling and it's great to see your partner fulfilled in that, but I also know that he doesn't want to work six days a week from dawn to dusk.
I don't work directly in the gardens anymore which has been really different for me. I did after my first and second children were born, but the third one tipped the scales for me as to what I could keep up with. I do all the office stuff for the three farms and I try to run the house so my husband can function at a high level.
[S]: So, your focus is on raising kids?
[R]: Yeah and we homeschool. I'm trying to fit that in; some days are better than others. Our seven-year-old is my only official student yet. He's like Huck Finn: outside all the time.
It was actually really hard for me to make that transition from being a full-time farmer to being a full-time mom. I really struggled with whether I was contributing enough because Joe was still out here doing everything that I'd always done with him. We even planned from the beginning that I would be able to dedicate the attention needed to the kids when that time came.
Sometimes, I still struggle with not participating directly in the daytime stuff; that somehow, I've sold out on my dream. I know that's silly because I have my family and I have my kids and I am participating in the bigger picture. Still, I struggle accepting that what I'm doing is enough. At least if I say it out loud I can hear the words and realize I don't believe them.
I believe I'm at peace with it, and I'm grateful that I can dedicate all the time and energy needed towards my kids. Life is pretty stressful when you're trying to be productive out in the garden and dragging a little one along that needs a snack or a nap.
In the last couple months, I've started working with Young Living Essential Oils. That's sort of a side project of mine. It feels really good to have my own thing that I'm pursuing. Essential oils are something we've been doing for a few years to stay healthy and now I'm telling other people about staying healthy. Besides eating vegetables.
[S]: What did you want to be when you grew up?
[R]: I wanted to be a mom and now that I am one it's the hardest thing I've ever done and it's way harder than I thought it was going to be.
[S]: What's harder farming or motherhood?
[R]: Motherhood, in my opinion. Recently, I was chatting with another mom and she asked if I missed being out with Joe in the field working all the time and I responded that mostly what I miss is accomplishing anything with efficiency. Not that long ago, our employee volunteered to watch our kids and I was able to work with Joe for about two hours - just the two of us. It was so fun talking about goals and dreams for the next 10 years of our life. We've seen so many dreams come to fruition here in this place. Now, we're all about what's next.
To be honest, this interview with Rebecca shook me up a little bit. At first, I thought it was because deep down I want to be a farmer, but then I realized it's because I'm not sure there is anything I want enough to make the sort of sacrifices Rebecca and her husband have made. No indoor plumbing for 9 years (and counting), going without, forgoing vacation, and more. I mean, it really made me realize how superficially committed I am to things, comparably speaking. Their example has made me rethink a thing or two.
Rebecca and Joe are truly remarkable as they live life where dreams meet the land.