Wheeling into the Future
By Brian DeVore
It’s not every day that you see the words “unicyclists” and “farming” used in the same sentence, but here we go: national and world champion unicyclists Andy Cotter and Irene Genelin launched a farming operation a half-a-dozen years ago. Now, this is the part of the story that cries out for a familiar trope like how peddling on one wheel has taught the couple the importance of “striking a balance” when it comes to the economically risky and physically demanding work of raising food. Indeed, Cotter and Genelin have had to walk a line between taking on as many enterprises as possible while focusing on ones that actually generate the kind of sustainable income and quality of life needed to survive and thrive.
“There are a lot of ways to make money on this farm,” says Cotter, 47, on a recent September morning while sitting in the couple’s house outside of Hutchinson, west of Minnesota’s Twin Cities. Surrounding the house is York Farm (www.yorkfarmmn.com); it consists of a dozen acres of certified organic grapes, strawberries, apples, plums, pears, currants, gooseberries, apricots and Arctic kiwi. A few hundred feet from the house is the picturesque headquarters of their latest enterprise: a remodeled, 90-year-old barn where Cotter and Genelin host weddings and other events. “We just need to pick the right ones and make them work,” he adds.
Genelin and Cotter say that the “make them work” part of the equation is made slightly easier by the fact that being a world champion at any sport requires the kind of drive and focus that comes in handy when things get tough out in the orchards, vineyards and fields. But perhaps the biggest benefit of devoting a few decades to a specialty endeavor like unicycling is that it drives home the importance of creating a support network of people who share the same general goals and know what it takes to achieve them.
“We were part of a close-knit community of unicyclists and to jump into something brand new is a hard transition, especially for me, because I was really good at this one thing: unicycling,” says Genelin, 31. “When you come into a whole new experience, how do you get started?”
The Community Advantage
One of the ways the couple recaptured that feeling of community they got through competitions, classes and conferences associated with unicycling was to take the Land Stewardship Project’s Farm Beginnings class. During the summer of 2011, Genelin interned on Loon Organics, a nearby Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) operation. During that experience, she not only learned the nuts and bolts of running a vegetable CSA, but also got her marketing feet wet selling at a major farmers’ market in Minneapolis. Loon Organics’ Laura Frerichs and Adam Cullip have hosted Farm Beginnings workshops and they suggested she and Cotter take the course. So the following winter they traveled to St. Joseph, Minn., roughly twice-a-month where farmers and others from the community gave presentations on goal setting, business planning and innovative marketing. Through the class, they also networked with other established farmers in the area.
“It was a great way of creating this comfortable community while getting some encouragement to keep moving forward,” says Genelin of Farm Beginnings. “Even if we never want to raise cattle, we could learn something from the way a cattle farmer used holistic decision making to manage.”
During the Farm Beginnings course, presenters talk a lot about “unfair advantages”—what class participants bring to an agricultural enterprise that might give them a leg-up. In the case of Cotter and Genelin, they have an 85-acre farm within an hour’s drive of a major metropolitan market. The land has been in Cotter’s family since 1971, and in 2002 he bought it as a place to live, not because he had a particular interest in raising food. “As a teenager I wanted nothing to do with this farm,” he says.
Cotter has a degree in mechanical engineering and computer science, and for the past 20 years has done IT work for General Mills. The company is in the Twin Cities, but Cotter is able to do most of his work remotely through telecommuting. The land had been a working farm, but Cotter has set aside 65 acres through government wetland easement programs, providing income from areas that were perennially wet and difficult to produce a crop from anyway.
But over the years, Cotter’s become more interested in farming, particularly if he can balance food production with environmental sustainability. The local food movement has provided new marketing opportunities that weren’t available when Cotter was growing up, and the Hutchinson area is home to numerous innovative farmers utilizing sustainable methods.
“We get together with other farmers in the Hutchinson area who are raising food for the local market and talk about a goal of adding a new farm every year,” says Cotter.
Genelin has a degree in French and when she joined Cotter on the land in 2008 (they had met through unicycling), she brought with her a love of cooking and healthy eating. Raising food seemed a natural fit.
With all of Genelin and Cotter’s advantages—access to good farmland, market accessibility, a network of colleagues—they say it was tempting for them to take on a number of enterprises when they started farming. And at first they did—launching a vegetable CSA and planting dozens of varieties of fruits, for example.
“It’s our nature to get excited about things, so we were growing quite a few different crops, and growing all sorts of types of things,” says Genelin.
But they began to question that business model as a long term strategy for their operation. The work that goes into caring for fruits that may not produce income for years down the road was often neglected in favor of the near-term work needed to get vegetables to their CSA members in any given week.
In addition, the couple’s family has grown—they have a 2-year-old daughter, Ani—and they needed to better focus on what could turn a consistent profit while balancing quality of life. Cotter and Genelin recalled what they had learned in Farm Beginnings about setting goals and monitoring one’s progress toward achieving them. They also were able to get support and advice from the network of area farmers they’d developed.
“When I was pregnant some of our friends came together and helped us think through our financial plan and gave us their frank opinions on what they thought we should focus on if we wanted to be profitable,” recalls Genelin.
“We call it the intervention,” Cotter adds with a laugh.
A few seasons after graduating from Farm Beginnings, Genelin and Cotter took Journeyperson, LSP’s follow-up course for people who are a couple of years into their farming enterprise and want to use holistic decision making to take it further down the road. As a part of the Journeyperson experience, Cotter and Genelin teamed up with mentors such as Anton Ptak and Rachel Henderson, Farm Beginnings graduates who operate Mary Dirty Face Farm, an innovative fruit operation in Menomonie, Wis. What Genelin and Cotter have learned is that there is not a lot of organic fruit produced in the Minnesota-Wisconsin region, providing a prime marketing niche. Being close to the Twin Cities meant they could take advantage of demand from restaurants and other businesses seeking local fresh fruit.
In the end, Cotter and Genelin decided to drop the vegetable CSA and focus on fruit, a decision that is showing signs of paying off. Today, they provide fruit as “add-on shares” for two area CSA farms and sell to several Twin Cities restaurants. In fact, 2016 has been a break-out year for York Farm in terms of marketing and production, with its table grapes and strawberries receiving rave reviews, and one tree alone yielding 450 pounds of Summercrisp pears.
They see a lot of potential in the organic fruit market and are busy trying to figure out how, yet again, to strike a balance: ramping up production while not getting ahead of their market demand. Around 20 percent of the family’s income comes from the farm presently, and their ultimate goal is to make it 100 percent. Doing that will require using some of the business planning and marketing skills they attained through Farm Beginnings, as well as Cotter’s spreadsheet acumen and Genelin’s knack for marketing.
One way they focus their energies is by ranking “top crops” and “secondary crops.” Top crops are those that Cotter and Genelin feel they can make $20,000 to $25,000 annually on. In that category currently are strawberries, apples, pears and table grapes. As Cotter provides a tour of York Farm’s vineyards, he talks excitedly about the local market potential for products such as table grapes. Although there’s been a lot of buzz in recent years around raising grapes in Minnesota for wine production, consumers don’t realize several varieties of table grapes can be grown in the region. He grabs a plump bunch of Bluebell grapes and explains that although the cold-hardy fruit is considered a juice and jelly grape, it’s surprisingly tasty when served fresh by itself. “Restaurants want them,” Cotter says.
Secondary fruits have potential, but the current market may be too underdeveloped to justify ramping up production. Kiwis, for example, can ripen after harvest, which is a nice characteristic. However, that does little good if they can’t be sold.
“People would actually have to learn a little more about them before there’s a big market,” Cotter says as he picks a grape-sized kiwi off an experimental bush and breaks it open to show the green, succulent flesh and shiny black seeds.
Bushels of Beauty
But balancing production and marketing isn’t York Farm’s only focus. Cotter and Genelin are also committed to environmental sustainability and being a positive presence in the community. One of the Farm Beginnings presenters, Audrey Arner of Moonstone Farm, introduced the idea of “Beauty 360”—making the land aesthetically pleasing no matter where one looks.
The couple has worked toward this in several ways—from reclaiming the wetland and planting native prairie to revamping farm buildings and, with the help of unicycling friends, painting murals on walls. Many of the “beauty” additions serve a practical purpose. The natural habitat provided by the wetland easement also buffers the farm from the pesticides sprayed on neighboring corn and soybean fields, for example.
“You can do Beauty 180 pretty easily, but it’s harder to finally get to that 360,” says Cotter. “I tell people we’re at 270. And some people say, ‘Oh, you’re already there.’ And others say, ‘You’ll get there someday.’ So it’s all about what their idea is. My opinion is we have a long way to go, but I’m also much more picky.”
Part of the farmers’ motivation is the desire to pay it forward. After all, Cotter’s parents set up basic infrastructure on the farm, and before that people planted trees on the land, trees that those early farmers had no hope of seeing mature.
“That’s really nice of them, so I want to pass that on,” says Cotter. “When I’m doing this stuff I always think, ‘I can’t wait for the next people to take it over.’ ”
— A version of this story appeared in the No. 3, 2016, edition of the Land Stewardship Letter. For more information on Farm Beginnings, see www.farmbeginnings.org. More information is also available by calling 320-269-2105 in western Minnesota or 507-523-3366 in southeastern Minnesota. For more on Farm Beginnings in other regions, click here.