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The Sisters Who Farm as Neighbours – Rebecca’s Story

Joe and I own and operate Heartbeet Farm, an organic vegetable farm in Southeast Minnesota. On 40 acres, we grow and sell more than a dozen varieties of vegetables to local stores and restaurants. We also raise beef, pork, and eggs, plus many other foods for our family. Our four children range in age from 3 to 11 and we started our farm in 2009. You can follow our family farm life on Instagram. Kate: What inspired/motivated you to begin gardening? Rebecca: I connect my love of growing food to the time I spent abroad in France and Switzerland during my college years (early 00s). Exposure to tons of local farmers’ markets, very specific regional specialties like cheeses and wines, etc., and the time and attention given to mealtimes was so refreshing compared to the standard American approach to food. The local food movement in the US was just gaining traction and when I returned to the States and discovered my university had a student-run organic vegetable farm, I jumped at the chance to work there for the final two years of my studies. Though I was a French major, my passion was in the gardens and I looked for a job on an organic farm somewhere after I graduated. That’s when I met my husband, who grew up doing organic market gardening and was continuing that career path. I love to cook, I love to think about food, read cookbooks, and plan meals. I also love to make and do things from scratch in all areas…so growing food fits into that! K: What is your primary goal in gardening? R: Our farm is our sole income, with the majority selling vegetables directly to stores and restaurants. I also have a small “family garden” where I like to grow a variety of things we don’t produce commercially on our farm anymore, plus herbs and a few flowers for our home. K: Do you or did you have a garden mentor? R: My husband is my garden mentor. 🙂 He’s a natural green thumb and has 40 years of experience! K: What does your garden look like space wise? R: We have about 7 acres in vegetables, and my personal garden is about 1,500 square feet. K: When do you start getting excited for the coming season? R: Late February or early March….We start the greenhouse up in late February and that’s always an exciting time of year, but March is when winter gets old and I get eager to get back out there! I suffered through many years of burnout when we were first starting up our farm, so the novelty of a slow and quiet winter “snowed in” hasn’t entirely lost its charm on me! K: What are must grows in your garden? R: Personally, some of my favorites are heirloom tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, dino kale, baby bok choi, hakurei turnips, sugar snap peas, and tons of fresh culinary herbs – cilantro, dill, basil, thyme, parsley, and more! But there are lots more things that aren’t on that list that I still LOVE to grow. I also appreciate all the fruit we’ve gotten going over the years – tons of apples, pears, a decent amount of blueberries, and we’re bringing raspberries and strawberries back this year! K: What is your garden zone and what is your growing season like? R: Zone 4b; our last frost is May 15 and the first frost is around September 30. Our summers are very sunny and quite warm with temperatures in the 80s and even 90s *F for stretches. We can grow a lot of good produce here! K: What would you tell someone who was starting a garden in your same climate? R: Be sure to take advantage of the early season cool-weather-loving veggies that can really survive cold nights. We have a decently long growing season but be sure to get everything in the ground as soon as you can depending on its growing needs so you can make the most of it. We also use low tunnels and floating row covers as ways to give a little help on warmth to extend the season a little bit. K: How much food (rough percentage) do you grow yourself?  R: Maybe half? We also milk a cow and raise pork, beef, chickens, and eggs. I still buy a LOT of groceries haha. K: Do you have any livestock on your homestead? R: We have a milk cow or two, about 10 heads of beef we’re raising at any given time, a dozen pigs or so, and 7 horses. K: Anything else you’d like to add? R: Growing food is immensely satisfying work! K: What was the gardening scene like growing up in your family? R: I am the oldest and have distinct memories of our vegetable gardens when I was little. But after the 4th, 5th, and 6th kids came along my parent’s gardening kind of petered out. K: What is the most challenging part of market gardening with families? R: There are many…farming is hard. It has gotten smoother as we’ve become more established, have better systems and equipment, and hired more staff! But one challenge is balancing family life and the workload on my husband during the summer. He’s stressed out and tired a lot. This makes for a rockier time in our marriage relationship which after 15 years we’re still trying to figure out. Before our 3rd child was born I worked pretty much full time with him on the farm; life was nuts but we were closer. Now our home runs more smoothly with me dedicated to the kids and household needs, plus running the office. But sometimes I miss working alongside my husband every day. K: What are crops that only one of you grow? R: Oh there are random things that one of the farms grows, beets and carrots at Hannah’s, but we have a winter’s long supply of onions and cabbage to share from. Lots of exchange of surplus produce between our farms! K: What sort of things happen in winter on your farm? Is it much slower? R: Winter is for planning and projects! We also sell storage crops through the winter so we deliver produce year-round. Building projects around the farm, mechanical projects, cutting firewood, or general improvement projects around the property. But it is way, way slower! The family goes snowboarding, we travel to visit family, we eat dinner together every single night (not always the case in the summer). K: What’s a crop you tried to grow large scale and failed? R: We have tried a huge variety of things but slowly narrowed it down to a handful that grow well dependably for us (thus the need for my personal garden with more variety 🙂 We have faced some disease issues with certain crops like carrots, beets, and broccoli so those got kicked off the list! K: Do you preserve a lot of food you grow? R: I don’t think I preserve a lot compared to you but I definitely take a good stab at it! I mostly freeze things, like greens, peppers, and peeled tomatoes. I also like to make “value-added” stuff like roasted cherry tomatoes, and lots of different styles of “pesto”- regular basil, basil with mint and parsley, nettle pesto, and my new favorite – Zhoug, which is a middle-eastern cilantro/parsley “pesto.” I freeze those in small jars. I like to make sauerkraut and other veggie ferments too. K: What are your biggest crops? R: Potatoes, onions, and heirloom tomatoes. K: I know many farming families have to sell more of their biggest high value crops than they would like because they need the income. Things like berries and nice cuts of beef come to mind- do your families have crops like this? R: Not really anymore but we never get the “first fruits.” Those are always sold and we eat the rejects (we call them “us-eats”) or the surplus. This means I usually only have ground beef in the freezer, no fancy cuts, because my beef comes from our cull cows. And I might have to wait a week or two for the tomatoes to come on heavy before any come inside the house for us to eat. The fruit we grow we keep for ourselves so that is a real luxury! K: How do you keep some semblance of sanity in summer while farming for a living?  R: Oof that’s a hard one…letting go of the need for sanity might be more like it! Just kidding. But honestly, lowering my expectations for certain things is helpful….dinner will be late…kids will go to bed late and be dirtier than I’d like them to be when they go to bed (and my standards are pretty low there already). If the farm gets super busy and I get more involved to help out, the house will suffer, we will eat more “convenience meals,” my husband will have his mind completely focused on farm things instead of family things. I try to remember that the small moments amongst the crazy days are what we’re doing it for in the first place – farm walks with daddy at the end of the day that end up with berry picking for pleasure (aka berry eating) or a visit to the barnyard and some horseback riding…we’re creating a life and a lifestyle with the choice to farm and even though it’s hard, the rewards are found within. K: How did you break into the restaurant/store supplying scene?  R: My father-in-law was part of the original organic farming movement in the 80s and had been delivering produce on a small scale to natural food stores in our area for years. When we got our farm up and running, his farm had slowed down a lot and we were able to come in just in time to re-kindle some of those relationships. We really had to prove ourselves though, and we did that with an obsessive level of quality control as well as frequent communication with our buyers. We have grown in this scene by word of mouth via chefs and by being persistent to get into other stores. We grew only one crop for years for this one chain of stores in order to get our foot in the door and it worked! They finally buy more from us. K: Hiccups? R: We’ve continued to learn the best ways to handle produce post-harvest in order to have the best quality and shelf life. Sometimes learned the hard way! We lost plenty of product while we worked out the kinks of baby salad greens, for example. K: What do you grow personally? R: Speciality stuff – salad greens like radicchio, arugula, other lettuces, Asian veggies (baby bok choy and Napa cabbage), peas, radishes, Hakurei turnips, herbs, shishito peppers, Asian eggplant, cherry tomatoes…probably more. Basically, special stuff we don’t grow for the farm! K: How do you water 7 acres of vegetables? R: We use drip irrigation and our own well. K: Are you organic? If you are certified what hurdles did you have to jump? If you are not, what are some barriers? R: Yes, we’ve been certified organic since about 2015. It’s a big pain to keep all the records they require and a hassle to fill it all out on the paperwork they require but we didn’t change any of our practices. It’s not cheap either but we couldn’t compete in Minneapolis with all the other farms that are certified, so it’s a necessary business expense for us. K: Do you employ seasonal workers? And how do you find them? R: Yes. We’ve advertised online on various sites, attra.org, beginningfarmers.org, etc. We have also been successful in finding employees in the older homeschool families at our church! K: What’s it like living/farming next-door to your sister? Raising kids next door to each other?  R: I think it’s better than I even expected, especially now that we both have kids that are old enough to go back-and-forth and play with minimal supervision. I also think that the value of having a close friend who really “gets it” as far as your lifestyle, your husband’s work, the seasonality of…...

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