Farmer Story: Born and Dyed in Minnesota

Libby London -  Born & Dyed in Minnesota  Founder,  Permaculture Research Institute Cold Climate  Community Outreach and Communications Director,  Sandbox Center for Regenerative Entrepreneurship  Co-Founder

Libby London - Born & Dyed in Minnesota Founder, Permaculture Research Institute Cold Climate Community Outreach and Communications Director, Sandbox Center for Regenerative Entrepreneurship Co-Founder

Born and Dyed in Minnesota
16501 Buchanan St NE, Ham Lake, Minnesota

The mission of Sandbox Center for Regenerative Entrepreneurship is to empower millennial food entrepreneurs to regenerate land, economy and community. What this looks like in practice is a shared piece of land where they are currently incubating seven businesses that range in scale and land demands. From a hops producer and a mushroom cultivator to a bike non-profit and a bunny farm, this collective offers space and time for young entrepreneurs to test their concept with the support of a community. Born & Dyed in Minnesota is one of the seven businesses located at Sandbox Center.

When I first drove in, Al, the 90-year-old landowner who still lives on the property with his wife, Betty, pulled up in a golf cart to greet me and ask me what I was doing there. I was busy explaining I was there for a blog called Tootie & Dotes when he cut me short to ask what my revenue stream was. I loved that. Right to the point.

"I like to hear what all you young people are up to these days, everyone is doing so many different things," he exclaimed and I couldn’t agree more.

We’ll be featuring Sandbox Center as a whole later on, but in the meantime, you can stay up to date by visiting them in person or online.

Can you tell us your name, age and where we are currently sitting?

My name is Libby London, I’m 24 years old and we are in Ham Lake, Minnesota at the Sandbox Center for Regenerative Entrepreneurship.

Can you tell me one interesting fact about this space?

This space has been within the same family for about 70 years. That is really nice because we know what has been happening, and even if they’re not the best practices, we know which has been really helpful in growing things.

Can you tell me about your operation?

I grow dye plants as well as herbs for tea and for culinary uses. We are in our second year of piloting out what grows well in our cold climate, knowing that our climate is shifting and what we can grow is really changing.

We are focusing on perennials and things that are drought tolerant and can capture and store water. Those factors have been really critical to the experiment this year.

I’ve really tried to not do a lot of watering so they’re not depending on me all the time, and granted it’s been a weird year, so I’m not sure if it’s the best way to test out water. But, I do know that things are really healthy considering the shift of how the season has been, which gives me a ton of hope for next year. Just knowing what plants work well especially in this super sandy soil.

The main barn where they were prepping for a hops picking festival. 

The main barn where they were prepping for a hops picking festival. 

How many people volunteer or work here?

I founded Born & Dyed in Minnesota last year with the support of a non-profit based in Minnesota called "Summer of Solutions" -  they help young people between the ages of 13-30 do work in the green economy. It’s kind of like job training, giving them experiential learning insight. For about 3 months young people will volunteer with folks in the green energy sector, transit or farming.

Last year I grew a little bit out here and in an urban space in the city, so I had tons of capacity to really think through good branding. We did a Kickstarter campaign last summer and I had eight volunteers who worked twice a week on a tiny plot and it was really intensive growing.

This summer we also had Summer of Solutions come out. Between 5-10 of them would come every Thursday and that was a huge success for both in getting high school kids out to rural Minnesota to see different operations and just know that its possible to have small micro businesses that are really niche exist in our shifting economic situation (laughs) which can be hopeful and hopeless at the same time.

This year I had less constant support, but I also needed less support because I knew the plants better. I also had a lot of friends that would help me on off days.

What are you most proud of this season?

I’m most proud of just doing it.

I think with Dye plants, it’s an educational thing; there’s not a huge market especially in our colder climate. Places like Northern California have this whole Fiber Shed movement and so I didn’t realize I’d be doing so much education.

Last year I just thought, 
oh, I’ll just grow a bunch and then sell it, but I realize it’s way more about education and combining art and farming because that’s really been drawing other people into the farm that wouldn’t have come out – a lot of knitters that are trying to combine that. So,  really thinking about place-making and having ways to just hang out and be in a place, especially this farm, has been really important. Having classes here is something I’m also really proud of and engaging those high schoolers went really well this year.

How can people support what you are doing?

I think taking classes is good. Asking questions. Coming out to the farm.

One question I have about natural dye growing is ways to really involve larger portions of the community. There is link between Permaculture farming and natural dye in a big way; I think there’s a lot there.

I think shifting ideologies about the value of local food can be an intense process for people. Natural dye farming is a way to learn about growing first and food second and I’m really excited about that. I want to think through that more next season and to use it more as a gateway or catalyst for other growing practices as well.

Indigo plant, grown for its beautiful dye. 

Indigo plant, grown for its beautiful dye. 

How did you become involved in this work?

I went to school for paper-making and art and I always loved making things and getting dirty and making something tangible. I started this work because right out of college, I worked at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts teaching paper making classes and youth programming. I had apprenticed for many years with a local paper making company called Cave Paper and they would use black walnuts and indigo for their paper. Every 6 months they would get this big bail of flax shipped in from Belgium and it was this beautiful golden bail that was really expensivebut it’s what they made all their paper from so it was really critical that they get that bail.

I kept thinking, I want to make a bail for them, like I want to grow that bail! So, that was last year’s challenge, ok, I’m going to grow flax. I was really coming at it from an art lens, just knowing that I was working at an art center and wondering where are these black walnuts coming from? Where was the flax coming from? And, then also doing Permaculture training as well, so it really felt connected in a lot of ways. I took a lot of sustainability classes during my time at the University of Minnesota, so I was really thinking through what made sense.

Growing the flax was really hard and really labor intensive because of the processing of it. You’re drying it, fermenting it, breaking it, pulling at individual strands, breaking it, beating it and then turning it into paper. And, so this grand idea I had to make bails of flax was totally ridiculous in a lot of ways because it was so labor intensive. Really seeing that and having to experience that helped launch me into, ok, what are more fun, tangible ways of doing natural dye instead of just paper making?” That’s where focusing on natural dyes that are cold climate made a lot of sense.

What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced this season?

It’s always hard to not live on a place where you’re farming. Not seeing it everyday, not noticing the little things happening is hard. I think market has been a big thing, too, because it’s kind of in this pilot between - what if I grew perennial herbs for teas and sell those at market which is fun, but it takes a lot of capacity and then this other side of the spectrum where it’s natural dyes and classes. So, I think doing more market outreach would make a lot of sense this year.

I think people are into it. They’re into doing projectstrying something out and seeing how they can do the full process themselves. So, that’s something I’d like to focus on more in the future. Growing your own art to build community is really critical in our regenerative system. That’s kind of the next 6 months phasing.

Hops growing on huge tamarack tree logs.

Hops growing on huge tamarack tree logs.

What do you think is missing from your community?

Hmm, I don’t know, I love my community. I think it’s a good community. I mean, there are a couple communities. One is the Sandbox Community, which consists of our farming members, and then a little larger community of young entrepreneurs.

I think in my greater Permaculture community there’s not a ton I would immediately say is missing, but I think demonstrating entrepreneurship and farming as critical to our economic system in Minnesota is a good thing for us to build towards. 

Sometimes, within the sustainable farming work we do, we forget to cross pollinate ideas with art and renewable energy. I’d like to see that grow and expand into permaculture design being vital to our local economies and farming being a way to support community based economic development.

We’re seeing more and more millennials, which is our audience here at Sandbox, have really 

diversified income streams, and are kind of of piecemealing their paid work together which mirrors many lifestyles of working artists.

I grew up in middle school and high school with all these mentors in my life.  I noticed that they’re teaching, they’re practicing, they’re doing some other day job and it feels super similar to the farming lifestyle that I’m seeing more and more which gives me a lot of hope.

Art is not necessarily the end result. I think that it’s bringing people in and it’s more about why we should shift our already existing systems from where it is. I don’t think art should just exist in a vacuum, nor do I think the local food economy should exist in a vacuum.

Chamomile fields forever. 

Chamomile fields forever. 

What are your sources of energy and inspiration?

I think... my community (laughs), my friends; I don’t think I could do any of this without friends. People that are looking for a new way of life are really inspiring.

People that are willing to just be really bold, wildly bold, and just take tons of risk because they know they have to. It’s this really visceral thing that is totally inspiring.

They’re not compromising at all, which I think is super inspiring and I’m seeing so much of it. Like these Mighty Axe Hops are succeeding at growing hops, they’re doing great, and so its super inspiring and gives me a lot of hope for where we’ll be in like 10 years in our state.

I feel like we’re really coming into another phase now in our shifting ideologies.

Setting up for a dye class later that day.

Setting up for a dye class later that day.

What do you think are the qualities it takes to be a farmer?

You have to be super dedicated and willing to take the time.  Know that it will take a long time.  But, a long time is relative to what you’re waiting for, too. So, we say all the time well, what better do we have to do? We do this because this is the best thing to do.

More specifically, being able to tinker with things, fix things, learn new things all the time is a big skill. You’ll be uncomfortable most of the time - hot, cold, wet, itchy, whatever. Willingness to be super scrappy, to work with what you have and to ask for help.