Waxwing Farm: Young urbanites-turned-farmers reveal the reality of owning a farm

Categories: Interview

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Photo courtesy of WaxwingFarm.com
Waxwing Farm: a small CSA and market farm in Webster, Minn.
If you've ever been to Fulton Farmers Market you might have met Anna Racer and Pete Skold selling vegetables from underneath a tarpaulin. This young couple are the owners of Waxwing Farm, a small CSA and market farm in Webster, Minnesota.

The popularity of farmers markets, CSAs, and the local food movement in general over the past few years might make Anna and Pete's occupation seem pretty hip. But what's the reality of two city kids in their 20s deciding they want to ditch urban life to start their own farm?

We caught up with Racer and Skold to talk about their farming philosophy, rural life, and the reality of starting your own farm.

When and how did you decide you wanted to operate your own farm?
Anna WWOOFed [a program linking volunteers to organic farms around the world] in Italy and France while she was in school and got a taste for farming. After graduating from the U, she interned at Foxtail Farm in Osceola, Wisconsin, for a season. After that season she got me into farming, and we both interned at A to Z produce and Bakery the next season. Working there gave us the confidence to feel like we could do it ourselves. Ted and Robbi at A to Z were our biggest advocates -- they made us feel like we had what it takes to be farmers and to be successful.

Both of you grew up in the Twin Cities and moved to Webster to start your farm. How have you found the experience of adjusting to rural life?
We're both pretty independent and like doing things for ourselves. After spending many summers leading wilderness trips, we knew that we wanted to settle down but still have some open space. That being said, one of the main reasons we moved to this area is because there is more of a younger, engaged community nearby (in Northfield) that we wanted to be a part of. Stockholm, Wisconsin, is a beautiful area, but it was a little bit too isolated for us. Webster strikes a really nice balance for all of our needs -- rural, but close enough to markets and a vibrant community.

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Photo courtesy of WaxwingFarm.com
Tomatoes from Waxwing Farm

What, if anything, do you miss about living in the city?
We miss being close to our friends and family in the city. Being near the lakes and parks, just the overall feel of living in Minneapolis, because it's a great place to live. If we were going to live in any city, it would be Minneapolis.

What's the biggest surprise or challenge you've encountered as a result of starting the farm?
On our farm it seems like the surprises and challenges are never-ending. There's always a problem that needs to be solved, and as soon as you deal with one thing, another comes up. We knew that getting into it, but that's what we like about farming. We are always learning and trying different ways to figure things out. One morning you can be diagnosing the latest pest problem in the field and that afternoon you can be trying to fix a tractor.

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Photo courtesy of WaxwingFarm.com
Pete Skold and Anna Racer of Waxwing Farm

What's your farming philosophy, and what kinds of food do you grow or raise?
We try to grow in a way that is as low-impact as possible. We use cover crops and manure from our animals to generate fertility and improve our soil. We don't use any synthetic chemicals. We do our best to be good stewards of our land.

As far as crops go, we value diversity, growing as many different things as we can. We plant about 40 different crops and more than 200 different varieties. Vegetables are our staple, but we're always trying other things. Now that we have our own place, we'll be planting an orchard. We're hoping to do more grains and dry goods in the future -- dry beans, oats for oatmeal, corn for cornmeal, wheat for flour -- the list goes on. We love having animals. Right now we have chickens and pigs, but we're talking about sheep and possibly a dairy cow in the future. We also have bees to help with pollination and for a little bit of honey. We want to provide as many different products as we can grow to our customers and ourselves.

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Photo courtesy of WaxwingFarm.com
Greenhouse at Waxwing Farm

Speaking of customers, where and how do you sell those products?
We have a CSA with weekly and biweekly options. The CSA runs for 18 weeks, and we offer home delivery, drop-site delivery, and on-farm pickup. The CSA is full for this year, but we have a waiting list for next year. We also go to the Fulton Farmers Market every Saturday, 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. We sell occasionally to some local restaurants. Both Cafe Levain and Patisserie 46 buy some produce from us (mostly just salad mix right now). We offer a few egg shares to our CSA members, and we raise pigs for them too. This year some are buying a half hog, but most will just get individual cuts.

We spend a little bit of time marketing -- website, Facebook, fairs, etc -- but most of our business has spread by word of mouth. We like having a relationship with all of our customers, and it's even better when they have a connection to each other (besides our produce).

What does a typical day look like for you?
Our daily schedule changes with the seasons but is always bookended with animal chores -- feeding, watering, and moving on to fresh ground. After chores we spend the morning on whatever task is at hand -- seeding and transplanting in the spring, weeding and harvesting in the summer and fall, getting things put away before the winter. We usually take a long lunch before heading back out in the afternoon for more of the same. Of course, we do other jobs as they are needed -- tractor maintenance, building, greenhouse work, etc. We usually come inside as the sun sets to make dinner and fall into bed.

What advice would you give to someone thinking about starting their own farm?
The most helpful thing for us was to work on other farms before we decided to jump into it on our own. The more time you can devote to learning from others, the more ready you'll be to do it on your own. There are so many farms out there, and each one does it differently. By learning from a lot of them, you'll be able to find the practices that you like and want to implement on your own farm. We also took Farm Beginnings through the Land Stewardship Project, which taught us a lot about business and marketing. Growing crops or raising animals is only half the battle -- you still have to be able to market your product and manage your finances. Farm Beginnings provided us with a lot of great tools to be successful in running the business end of our operation.

Waxwing Farm is in Webster, Minnesota. You can find more information about their CSA on the Waxwing Farm website, and you can find them selling produce at Fulton Farmers Market every Saturday from 8.30 a.m. to 1.00 p.m. throughout the summer.



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