Every living thing needs a home — even ginger, tomatoes, and garlic. And southeastern Minnesota farmer Melissa Driscoll sees written contracts as handy and efficient vehicles for getting her produce to their final destination.
An extensive use of forward contracts isn’t just good for business — it gives Driscoll the kind of peace of mind she strives for on her diverse, seven-acre, organic operation near the community of Kenyon. She and her husband, Jay Hambidge, purchased the farm in 2010 after taking the Land Stewardship Project’s Farm Beginnings course, where they learned how to do the kind of big-picture planning that can put ecological health on the same level as productivity and financial viability. Just as importantly, an LSP follow-up course the couple took a few years ago, Journeyperson, helped clarify how important it is to prioritize the physical and mental health of the farmers themselves. As she sees it, she got into farming committed to doing it in a regenerative, sustainable manner, and that sustainability should extend all the way from beneath the soil to the people who are doing the work. If you are doing farming out of the mainstream, why should one take on the mainstream way of working oneself into the ground?
“When I first started farming, I just thought I could work myself to the bone and it wouldn’t matter,” Driscoll, who’s 57, says. “The work will always be there, but you might not be there to do it unless you take care of yourself.”
Pecking Away at a Passion
Which came first, the chicken or the egg? For Driscoll, it was definitely the chicken(s). When she was around 10-years-old, her great-uncle Charlie showed up at her family’s house near Afton, Minn., with 25 hens and a rooster, along with a simple message: “These are for Melissa.” Her parents built a coop and Melissa went on to show chickens at the Washington County Fair and Minnesota State Fair. This launched a lifelong fascination with chickens, birds, and how food can be produced in a way that contributes to a healthy environment for avian species and wildlife in general. The farming side of that passion was fed by her mother, the late Cynthia Brackett Driscoll, a master gardener who wrote extensively on organic practices. Melissa went on to get a master’s degree in conservation biology, with a sustainable agriculture systems minor, and over the years has done research on, among other things, the impact rotational grazing has on grassland songbirds. She raised chickens on various farms and got experience in the retail side of the food business by working at a food co-op. Driscoll also worked at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources for 15 years, during which she tried, with mixed results, to convince conservation officials that farming and a healthy ecosystem can play nice with each other. In short, whatever work she did, she tried to not separate farming from nature.
“My passion is the place between ecology and agriculture,” she says. “I think you can have biodiversity and farming in the same place.”
Driscoll is in the midst of her 13th season operating Seven Songs Organic Farm, which, in a way, is the place where that passion is being realized. Besides a restored native prairie, it’s home to numerous farming enterprises — she raises eggs, as well as garlic, heirloom tomatoes, and a variety of herbs. Driscoll also produces a popular jarred product called Escape Garlic Scape Pesto. But perhaps the farm is best known for the ginger it grows, and for two years she trained members of the Hmong American Farmers Association how to raise the crop.
“They kind of trained me; we kind of trained each other,” she says with a laugh.
Customers for the farm’s products include food co-ops and distributors such as Co-op Partners Warehouse and TC Farm, as well as specialty businesses that make products such as teas and kimchee. The eggs are delivered to Twin Cities customers on a weekly basis by Hambidge.
Listening to the Knees
Driscoll says Farm Beginnings gave her the kind of business planning and goalsetting expertise she needed to run a diversified, organic farm. It also connected her with established and beginning farmers who were pursuing alternative production and marketing strategies. But Driscoll admits that once she finished the class and she and Hambidge bought the farm, they figured that pure sweat equity would be the road to success. And that strategy worked — for awhile.
Half-a-dozen years ago, she and Hambidge took LSP’s follow-up course to Farm Beginnings, Journeyperson, “as a way to check in after putting in years of grunt work,” Driscoll says. The Journeyperson course is designed to support people who have several years of managing a farm under their belt, and are working to take their operation to the next level. It provides advanced farm business planning and a mentorship connection with an established farmer, as well as guidance on balancing farm, family, and personal needs. Driscoll says the course came at a good time, both personally and professionally. Hambidge concedes that he isn’t as passionate about farming as Driscoll, so having an opportunity to check in on each other’s goals and motivations was invaluable.
“I felt like Journeyperson helped refocus Jay and I as a couple,” recalls Driscoll. “I’m more of the farming person and he does support me when I ask him, he’s very supportive. But it’s not his dream and we need to communicate about what I want to do compared to what he wants to do.”
The course reinforced that Driscoll likes to work hard outdoors raising food, and wants to spend less time doing things like processing pesto in a windowless commercial kitchen. But the perspectives she gained via Journeyperson also helped the farmer realize she had to pace herself if her business was to be viable in the long term.
During the fall of 2021, she was building a greenhouse when she had an epiphany: if she didn’t take care of her body, that body wouldn’t be able to take care of the farm. It turned out going up and down the ladder all day was trashing her knees, to the point that in order to climb the stairs in her house at the end of the day, she was forced to crawl on all fours. These days, before she steps outside the house in the morning, the farmer spends time doing knee exercises. It may mean getting out in the garden plots a little later, but she believes it’s worth it if she’s to continue farming in the future.
Journeyperson also helped her look at each part of the farm and identify weak links, even when she has an emotional attachment to an enterprise. Driscoll likes to do the weak link analysis during the winter when she has more time to execute a kind of “thought experiment” that mixes a little math with a lot of contemplation. For example, for years Seven Songs grew two rows of raspberries in a hoop house.
“I love raspberries. Yum! And people buy ‘em,” she says. But then the spotted wing drosophila fly made an appearance. Driscoll ended up spending a lot of time picking around the damaged fruit and came to the realization that there was a better use for some relatively expensive growing facility real estate. It wasn’t easy, but she decided to rip out the raspberry bushes.
“I can make more money on tomatoes and ginger,” she concluded.
But it’s not just the physical nature of farming that can be stressful. Selling a wide variety of products to various customers is nerve-wracking, what with orders to fill, transportation headaches to deal with, and struggles with juggling supply and demand. The fear of the unknown can wear on a body, as in, it’s unknown if everything I am raising will have a profitable market. But, like her physical wellbeing, Driscoll has taken an approach to marketing that she feels keeps her life financially and emotionally stable. At one point, she sold much of her production through farmers’ markets, and was good at it — she loved chatting up customers and getting direct feedback about the quality of her products. But she tired of the early morning set-ups and the situations where she didn’t always sell everything she had hauled into town. So she started focusing on wholesaling what she raised.
After a bad experience where she had ramped up garlic production for a restaurant that dropped her as a supplier, Driscoll turned to utilizing written contracts for marketing. Sitting at her dining room table on a summer afternoon, she pulls out one of the contracts; in this case it’s for providing herbs to a tea maker. It stipulates how much the farm will provide, the price, and delivery dates. If there is some sort of disaster that prevents Seven Songs from delivering on the contract, it’s Driscoll’s responsibility to tell the buyer as soon as possible. “That’s my out — I just have to communicate well,” she says.
One buyer of ginger has good cash flow in the spring, a time when Driscoll’s income is low, so that business has agreed to pay her early for product that won’t be delivered until later in the season.
“So I’m planting the seed, growing the plant, picking the fruit of that plant or digging it or whatever,” she says. “And then it’s finally going to the place I’ve agreed upon with the people, at the price we’ve agreed upon, at the time we’ve agreed upon. Mostly, it just works so well to know what I’m growing already has a home.”
After putting away the contract, Driscoll gives a tour of a packing shed and greenhouse area that’s part of a classic refurbished red barn. It’s clear the area was designed to be efficient and to minimize unnecessary labor as much as possible: carts and drying racks are on wheels for easy movement, and tables and wash basins are set up at comfortable heights. She climbs the stairs to the airy hayloft where south-facing windows look out onto surrounding farmland. The former forage storage area has been remodeled in a way that it’s an efficient place to process garlic. Just as importantly, it appears to be a pleasant place to work. That’s important not just for Driscoll and Hambidge — community is critical to the couple and they often invite customers and friends over for work parties at the farm. Driscoll also networks with other farmers and neighbors in the area, and she’s part of the Cannon River chapter of the Sustainable Farming Association, which gets together for monthly socials.
After all, she wonders out loud, what good is it to do a type of farming that’s called regenerative, “if we’re not regenerating us?”
This profile was originally published in the No. 1, 2023, Land Stewardship Letter.