Green Zebras, Mexico Midgets, and Wapsipinicon Peaches all have something in common—and it’s not just their bizarre names.
Each is a type of heritage tomato.
And they’re all raised by Raechel Murphy, who, along with her husband, Matt, own Chosen Valley Heritage Farm.
Like the farm they grow on, these heritage tomato varieties have unique qualities. The Wapsipinicon Peach is yellow and covered in a light fuzz, but its sweet flavor, low acid, and slight tartness make it the perfect snacking tomato. Green Zebras are striped. Mexico Midgets are the size of a cherry.
And the Chosen Valley Heritage Farm—located southeast of Marion and nestled against the North Branch Root River near the Richard J. Dorer Memorial Hardwood Forest—features heritage tomatoes and heritage breed chickens and heirloom seeds.
Raechel makes decorative soaps. Creates heirloom seed jewelry. Hopes to get some Nigerian Dwarf Goats.
Their historic limestone-foundation barn and rare limestone silo are perched in the valley and protect the farm, and the surrounding foliage presents a colorful vista in the fall. When strangers visit, they might be greeted by Millie, a Maremma Sheepdog, barking a warning to keep them away from the chickens she guards.
Murphy came to farming later in life. The 1991 John Marshall grad started with a few urban chickens maybe a decade ago while still living in Rochester. In 2016, she and Matt, who owns Kathy’s Pub in downtown Rochester, bought the property and christened it Chosen Valley Heritage Farm.
“Chosen Valley is the name this area of Minnesota is known by,” says Murphy. “And since I raise heritage chickens and heirloom vegetables, I added the Heritage.”
Today, Raechel is captivated by preserving biodiversity through harvesting not only vegetables, but also sustainable heirloom seeds. The mother of three (ages 20, 16, and 12) works at Seed Savers Exchange, a Decorah, Iowa-based project started in 1975 that collects seeds for heirloom plant varieties that might otherwise be lost.
Murphy’s own garden is dotted with white mesh bags. Some serve to collect the drying wind-borne seeds left behind a vegetable’s spent blooms while others protect perfect blooms, ones that have both female (pistil) and male (stamen) reproductive structures, from accidental cross pollination by insects.
The heirloom seed collecting appeals to Murphy because it helps vegetables adapt to the specific regional climate and soil in her garden, she says. Within seven generations of gathering and replanting seeds, the plants they grow gain a resilience based on the way they adapt to their specific environment.
Murphy’s many heirloom vegetables share a picturesque garden bearing such varieties as Scarlet Runner Beans and Gills Golden Pippen Acorn Squash. The arbors—constructed from wire hog panels and zip ties—create more square footage in the garden for vining plants that might otherwise cover large patches of ground. The orange blooms of edible Nasturtium are dotted among Murphy’s bountiful strawberry patches, asparagus stands, and potato plots.
Vegetables that aren’t eaten or saved for seed might be fed to Murphy’s flock of 25 heritage breed chickens, which lay eggs ranging in color from brown to pastel green and include eight different varieties.
Murphy hopes to pass on traditions, knowledge, and skills through the generations. Her soap making, canning, and drying all work to preserve a way of life that many have forgotten. She continues building her farm gradually and plans to include a fenced pasture for a miniature pony, a hive of bees, and even ducks, turkeys, and Nigerian Dwarf Goats. She’d also like to restore her historic barn to create a gathering space to host weddings and homesteading classes.
Raechel sat down with us—well, walked around the farm, actually—to answer a few questions.
How did you get started farming?
“Believe it or not, I did not always know I wanted my own farm. I don’t know if I can pinpoint the moment when I realized this was my ‘where I was meant to be,’ and where my passion lay. I know I was in my thirties, and it began with a desire to have chickens. I also remember watching the documentary ‘Food, Inc.’ I think these two things were the beginning of an awakening of something that was written in my DNA.”
What’s your favorite breed of heritage chicken to raise?
“My Swedish Flower Hens. They are considered a landrace breed, which basically means they have never been bred to be uniform and have naturally adapted to their environment. The only thing they share in appearance is their ‘flowers’—the white tips of their feathers which are said to look like flowers in a field. They are extremely hardy birds and less prone to disease.”
Do any of your chickens stand out as individuals?
“While I love all my chickens, my favorite girl was my sweet Blanche. She was part of my original flock of six. There is a pecking order in the coop. For a while, Nellie was queen bee in the coop. Let’s just say, Nellie was a bully. She picked on everyone, didn’t want to share treats, and was just all-around not pleasant to her flock mates. One day, I noticed there seemed to be a shift in the atmosphere of the chicken coop … I don’t know how Blanche wrestled Nellie off her throne, but it was to the benefit of everyone in the coop. Blanche ruled the roost for nine years... She died last fall, and I miss her dearly.”
Why is it important to pass on farm traditions knowledge and skills?
“My grandmothers, my aunts, and my mom have modeled this in our family for as long as I can remember. These are the women that taught me love of the land, and a wonder and appreciation of nature. How to cook, bake, garden, can and preserve food, crochet, knit, sew, and so many other things. I value each of these skills, but what I value most is the time spent together learning each of these things with them. I will always carry these memories with me … to me, these things are not just skills, or lessons, they are connections. Not just connections to the women I have had the good fortune to have in my life, but connections to the ancestors I have never met before.”