Field Trip: Loon Organics

If there is one thing that many of the Twin Cities’ top restaurants have in common, it is serving up seasonal plates that celebrate the beauty and simplicity of ingredients being carefully and responsibly grown nearby. The name you hear again and again when talking to restaurants and chefs about their wonderful produce is Loon Organics. While touring the family operated farm last fall I couldn't help notice this same simplicity and beauty in the hands of farmers Laura and Adam's son Eli as he chowed down on a freshly picked carrot. Un-peeled and a little dirty, but packed with rich organic flavor.

Loon Organics is a 40-acre certified organic farm located 60 minutes west of Minneapolis, MN, co-owned and operated by Laura Frerichs and Adam Cullip and their 4-year old son, Eli. Their mission is to nourish mind body and soul, and they have been doing so successfully for the past 12 years.  Beginning at the Gardens of Eagan Incubator Farm in 2005, they purchased farmland in 2008 and have established a passionate and devoted 200-member CSA over the past 10 years. Loon has around 7-8 acres of certified organic vegetable production that provides for the CSA, local retailers, farm-to-table restaurants, and the Mill City Farmers Market in Minneapolis.

2016 CSA shares are still available now, but if you don't have a chance to sign up you can buy their amazing produce each weekend this summer at their booth at the Mill City Farmers Market in downtown Minneapolis.

Loon Organics
23229 200th St. 
Hutchinson, MN 55350

photography by Claire Campbell.

Owners and operators Laura Frerichs and Adam Cullip.

Owners and operators Laura Frerichs and Adam Cullip.

What did you do before you started farming? 
In 2003, I was a year out of college with a Cultural Anthropology degree, working several office jobs and volunteering with a start-up public health non-profit in Minneapolis.  I had been exposed to a burgeoning CSA and local foods movement around Grinnell, IA where I went to school and was curious about the basic act of growing food, gardening, and sustainable agriculture.  I was lucky to get a job at Gardens of Eagan that Spring of 2003 and get my hands dirty.  I met Adam the night before I headed out to Gardens of Eagan for my first day of farm work and we began dating while I was working on the farm.  He was in graduate school at the U of MN for Public Health, but grew up doing plumbing and heating work with his dad.  He had a plethora of jobs in and after college: handyman, plumber, barista, bookmobile driver, bike mechanic, sound technician, canvasser, among others.  He would come out to the farm to visit and we were both blown away at seeing a really productive, successful organic vegetable farm in action. We went to Baja, Mexico and Southern California that winter to work on and visit some farms, and that spring Adam dropped out of Grad School to pursue farm jobs.  We lived in Minneapolis and commuted out of the city to work on on some great vegetable farms like Riverbend, Gardens of Eagan, and Natural Harvest (now La Finca).  The winter of 2004-2005 we went to Brasil and worked for 2 months on a biodynamic dairy, fruit, and vegetable farm.

Tell us about your operation - how long has it been in existence and on what kind of scale? Has the business changed scale since its initial inception?

We began Loon Organics in 2005 on 1.5 acres of rented land from Gardens of Eagan.  We were very eager to farm but didn’t have the capital or knowledge to buy a farm and start out on our own. Martin and Atina set up an “incubator” situation for us, where we were able to rent organic farmland, rent space in their greenhouse and cooler, and we also rented housing on the farm from them. Our first year we just needed to get some experience ourselves growing and calling the shots, so we did a small local farmers market and sold a few crops wholesale to the Northfield Food Co-op and Valley Natural Foods in Burnsville.  Both Adam and I continued to work at Gardens of Eagan part-time and had off-farm jobs. We were farming our plots on a very part-time basis but we got great experience and launched a small CSA in 2006, as well as got a spot at the first season of the brand-new Mill City Farmers Market in Minneapolis. 

We spent four years renting land at Gardens of Eagan and growing and maximizing our production on about 2 acres of land.  From our first years at Gardens of Eagan, we also realized that we loved farming and wanted to continue on this path on our own farm one day.  We found our current 40-acre farm in Hutchinson, MN (60 miles west of Minneapolis) in 2008 and moved here in the fall of 2008 with the goal of quitting our off-farm jobs and farming full-time for the 2009 season.  We had 125 CSA shares in 2009 plus our farmers market booth and now were both farming full-time along with employing 3 full-time seasonal employees. A huge coincidence for us was that our Hutchinson farm was already certified organic and had been operating as a small CSA farm locally, so there was a good core group of people here to support us right away and we could start farming organically immediately (not waiting 3 years to transition conventional farm land).  

We plowed most of our fields on the new farm that first year in 2009 that Spring and tripled our CSA.  It was a ballsy move in hindsight, but we didn’t really know any better.  We had a pretty good year in spite of the huge learning curve of being on new land, managing employees and a larger CSA, and just barely kept ourselves from having to get off-farm jobs that winter.  It’s been a constant building process since then, slowly adding, improving, and getting more efficient as the years go on.  We now in our 11th season farming and the 7th season on this farm with a 200-member CSA, our spot at the Mill City Farmers Market, and some select wholesale to farm-to-table restaurants, food co-ops, and the Harvest for the Hungry program where we can donate extra produce to our local food shelves and get reimbursed for it. 


Can you tell us about the land you are farming on and your operating facilities?
We are in the Prairie Pothole region of Minnesota, where the Big Woods ends and the Prairie Begins. We’re about a mile from the Crow River and this area was originally home to the Dakota people. Our farm was homesteaded in the 1860’s and from what we know from neighbors, operated as a traditional diversified farm in the same family for about a century. The 40-acre parcel that we own and farm was split off from the neighboring farmland due to a wetland in the back of the farm which prevented the new farm owners from farming ‘fencerow-to-fencerow’. That wetland saved this 40-acre parcel intact. The wetland and very low/poor drainage areas we do not farm and it provides us habitat for beneficial insects and animals, as well as beautifying and diversifying our farm site.

There is a 100-year old dairy barn on site that we have converted and expanded for part of our packing and washing facilities.  The original grainery has been re-modeled and supported, half is storage/garage area for our equipment and the other half is converted into housing for our seasonal employees with a summer kitchen for them. We added two tiny houses that Adam built for employee housing as well and have upgraded a shop for Adam to work in during winter and store equipment. There is a greenhouse for bedding plant starts and three unheated hoop houses (over 10,000 sq. ft) where we grow spring and fall greens, and summer tomatoes and peppers, and we successfully grew spinach all last winter. Our family lives in the original farm-house, also over 100-years old on the farm site. Like most old farm houses and farm buildings, everything is a work in progress but the improvements we’ve made over the past seven years are starting to feel noticeable and tangible now.  We are around 60 miles west of Minneapolis.

How many people work or volunteer on the farm?
We have a great team that help us run this farm.  This season we have had 2-3 full-time employees living and working on the farm: our farm manager, Lars Hermanson, his wife Liz was here for two months before she started a teaching job in Alaska, and Bree Lloyd. Then we have 3-4 part-time people, Katharine, Jenny, Kelly, and Liza that work with us primarily on harvest and pack days, and many of those gals have been with us for a couple of years at least. A group of five women do work shares with us, working for four hours in exchange for their CSA box each week, and we get tons of weeding done and big harvests of onions, garlic, squash, etc.  It’s like having a crop mob here every week. The work-shares have all been with us for several years now too. My mom, Jacquie Frerichs, helps us nearly full-time with child care for our 4-year old son, Eli, and that is a crucial part of our farm team and frees up Adam and I to be full-time farmers and managers. There are a lot of hands that do this work, and we are grateful for their help. 


Can you describe your approach to growing?
 Our mission is to nourish mind, body, and soil.  We are a certified organic farm and aim to leave the soil in better condition than we found it through organic and responsible land stewardship.  We grow the most flavorful, fresh, high-quality food that we can for ourselves and our eaters.  We also strive to nourish innovation, curiosity, and a deep educational experience on the farm.  While we are a production farm, we dedicate our time and energy educating our employees, as many of them aspire to be farmers or at least increase their knowledge, and we have a structured educational plan and bi-weekly farm talks that we put on with our friends, Nick and Joan Olson at Prairie Drifter Farm in Litchfield, MN.

What are the biggest challenges you’ll face or are currently facing this year?  
We have a wonderful crew this year, but all of our full-time employees will be moving on to other endeavors at the end of our season.  Finding and retaining quality employees that have previous farm experience and are passionate, committed, and hard-working is a constant challenge for a seasonal business such as ours.  We are at the point in our business when we need quality, experienced people on our team that can take on responsibility and management.  This work is detail-oriented, extremely diverse and dynamic, and needs to be done quickly and efficiently.  It takes a number of years to develop those skills and the work certainly doesn’t appeal to everyone.

 


What are you most proud of this season?
We expanded our infrastructure (pack shed, cooler, delivery vehicle), improved our employee dwellings, and added a 3rd hoop house. That expansion plus making a commitment to pay our employees a decent hourly wage and raising our prices to support their wage increase, has helped our farm take it to the next level of operation this year. It has been exciting to see the quality and quantity of produce that we can put out with the right tools and people, I think it is our best growing season yet.  Adam also converted his third tractor from gasoline powered to an electric engine running on electric batteries, thus making over half our tractor fleet quiet and oil-free.  We hope to add a solar array in the next year or two to power the tractors completely from the sun and off-grid.

How can people support what you’re doing?
People can buy produce from us through our CSA program and at our Mill City Farmers Market booth. This is the best way to support us as you are buying directly from us. We also sell select produce items through Harvest Moon Co-op in Long Lake, MN, and our produce is on the menu at several restaurants: Spoonriver, The Bachelor Farmer (specifically featured in their Sunday night dinners), 320 Northeast, and Zella’s in Hutchinson. We open spots to our CSA in early January, and folks can e-mail us to get a reminder when new spots become open to registration. I teach an Organic Gardening class for free through Community Ed. in Hutchinson every March or April. Both Adam and I will often do workshops and presentations at the local organic farming conferences throughout the winter months.

 

Farmer and machinery geek, Adam Cullip has recently converted three tractors to run off solar electricity. 

Farmer and machinery geek, Adam Cullip has recently converted three tractors to run off solar electricity. 

What qualities do you think it takes to be a farmer?
Curiosity, intelligence, hard-work, a strong back, attention to detail, pragmatic idealism, and previous farm experience is a must. Our life is rich in many ways, from bountiful produce to a beautiful place to work and raise our family, however it’s not an easy way to make an income. Thriftiness is essential.
 

What’s next for Loon?
Continuing to build and grow our farm team, including expanding organic, diversified agriculture in our local area!
We have a wonderful community of like-minded, creative farmers out here and our vision is to transform this area into a vibrant, supportive place for more sustainable farmers to start up and join us here. The farmland here is amazingly fertile, we are close to the Twin Cities, and our local communities are more and more interested in what we are doing every year. We are interested in how we can make land more accessible and affordable to this next generation of farmers--we need them!  

On the production side, we will be exploring more four-season growing, extending our season into 10 months of the year to provide hoop house greens during the winter months. Last winter, we ate spinach from our unheated hoop house every month through the winter, and we’d love to expand and offer that to our CSA and farmers market folks.