Bluff Valley gives young farmers a place to grow
Access to land is the biggest obstacle for startup growers.
WABASHA, MINNESOTA — Lauren Barry knew she would enjoy working outdoors after studying ecology at Washington University in St. Louis.
After two years of interning on farms, she knew she had found her vocation.
In 2014, Barry established Dancing Gnome Farms. However, she faced one small obstacle.
She didn’t own any land.
“Land access is a huge struggle for young farmers,” Barry said.
That same year, David and Catherine Schmidt bought 160 acres of bluff farmland in Wabasha County.
Barry uses five of those acres for a vegetable garden that provides her community supported agriculture operation. Barry is one of four young growers using the Schmidts’ land to grow their agricultural businesses.
“We got the land, but we needed the farmers,” Catherine Schmidt said.
The couple has been able to put more work into the land now that they’re retired. David was the city administrator in Wabasha and Catherine worked for Mayo Clinic in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Despite having more time to devote to their property, the couple said they’re not interested in nor able to put in the work to make all the land productive.
The Schmidts grow some vegetables, keep bees, cultivate native pollinator plants and raise sheep on portions of the land.
The couple’s main goal when they purchased the land was to do something sustainable with it. They also wanted to do something to make the property viable financially, create opportunities for people who need them and build a community.
That sense of community was evident during a Thursday lunch break after the morning harvest and between rain showers. Farm owners and seasonal workers sat together chatting about their shared love and interest in nature.
They share a large meal and talk about what they see is in season, rare flora and fauna they've spotted or heard were seen nearby.
“That’s why I like lunch,” Catherine said while listening to the conversation. “It’s very educational.”
Home for the gnome
An above-ground pool, work outdoors, a bit of summer pay and other perks brought back Barry’s seasonal help.
“Our benefits package is very popsicle-based,” Barry said.
Barry tries to get the most she can from the 5 acres of bluffland she farms. She is growing more than 40 varieties of vegetables on the land she rents from the Schmidts. Nearby, a hoop house and greenhouse help get the crops started early.
This is the fourth growing season Barry has had her operation there. The farm is certified organic and Barry, the Schmidts and the other farmers on the land use sustainable practices such as no-till planting.
In addition to supplying her CSA subscribers with boxes of fresh produce, Barry also sells her vegetables at the farmers markets in the Twin Cities and Wabasha. Dancing Gnome is also employing seven seasonal workers through the summer.
Barry said Dancing Gnome customers appreciate seeing social media posts and CSA subscribers get updates about the farm.
“It’s a real special thing when you feel connected to where your food or your flowers or whatever come from,” Barry said. “It turns it into a whole experience.”
A growing community
Along with Dancing Gnome, a farm-to-table flower truck, Dancing River Blooms, grows flowers on the land. Each Saturday, Dancing River Blooms alternates between Wabasha and Lake City farmers markets selling fresh-cut flowers. Liv Charlton, owner of Windy Ridge Market Garden, is in her second season farming on the land.
Not all the flowers make it onto a truck. Bluff Valley Farms hosts a pick-your-own flower picking every weekend. From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. both Saturday and Sunday, people can select, cut and take home flowers from the Bluff Valley Farms garden.
However, if you were looking for sunflowers the first week of July, you would have been out of luck. The deer beat the customers to them.
Pest management is an ongoing task at the farm. The Schmidts erected higher fences and new barriers to keep deer out of the flower gardens.
“There’s no moat,” Catherine said. “Yet.”
Charlton plans to save money to purchase land of her own.
“It’s kind of a long-term goal to have our own (land),” Charlton said.
She and her partner, Connor Dunn, have purchased some land in Winona County. For now, at Bluff Valley Farms, she has access to the support, facilities to continue to produce certified organic produce and a community of farmers in one spot.
If you go
What: Pick your own flowers at Bluff Valley Farms
When: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays
Where: 17023 658th St., Wabasha, Minnesota