Andy Cotter and Irene Genelin bring an eclectic background to farming. He studied mechanical engineering in college and she was a French major. They met while competing as elite unicyclists and were national champions in the pairs competition (think ice dancing on one wheel), as well as individual world champions in various categories.
They also share a passion for good food as well as stewardship of the land and community; for the past several years the couple has used an 85-acre farm as a way to combine these interests. Their operation, York Farm, is located just outside of Hutchinson, west of the Twin Cities. Sixty-five acres are enrolled in a permanent government wetland restoration program. The rest of the farm is home to an innovative certified organic fruit enterprise that features everything from table grapes, strawberries, apples, plums and pears to currants, gooseberries, apricots and even arctic kiwi (yes, kiwi can grow in Minnesota).
The farm has been in Andy’s family since 1971, and he and Irene started out raising vegetables. But in 2013 they decided to zero in on fruit production. Part of that decision resulted from their experience taking the Land Stewardship Project’s Farm Beginnings course during the winter of 2011-2012. This is a 12-month program that helps beginning farmers clarify their goals and strengths, establish a strong enterprise plan and start building their operations. The classes are led by established farmers and are followed by a series of on-farm workshops throughout Minnesota and western Wisconsin.
After graduating from Farm Beginnings, Irene and Andy also took Journeyperson, LSP’s follow-up course for farmers who want to take the next steps and learn more about holistic decision making while working with a farmer-mentor. These classes helped Andy and Irene better focus on their strengths, rather than make the mistake of taking on every new enterprise idea that seemed possible.
Today, they provide fruit as “add-on shares” for two area Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms and sell to several restaurants, including the Birchwood Cafe. This has has been a bit of 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 (most of those went to Birchwood). In fact, York Farm will be one of the farms providing food for the Land Stewardship Project BOOST dinner at the Birchwood on Thursday, Sept. 22.
Andy and Irene see a lot of potential in the organic fruit market and are busy ramping up production. They’re also excited about another venture they’ve recently launched: hosting weddings and other events in their picturesque, 90-year-old dairy barn.
Irene and Andy recently sat down in their kitchen with me to chat about starting up and running a cutting-edge organic fruit farm, the importance of community in their decision making and how seeing the world on one wheel prepared them for a career on a Minnesota farm. Here’s an excerpt of that interview:
BD: Both of you had some experience farming, why did you feel you needed to take Farm Beginnings and Journeyperson?
IG: I thought it would be a good experience to meet other people and have a chance to think through the farming operation and what we might be able to do. And then once we started going through the program, we were impressed with all the different kinds of farmers who came in to talk about their operations. For example, even if we never want to raise cattle, we could learn something from the way a cattle farmer used holistic decision making to manage their farm. You can always glean something from hearing from other people about how they do things on their farm.
It was also a great way of creating this comfortable community and getting some encouragement to keep moving forward. 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. When you come into a whole new experience, how do you get started?
BD: You started out doing a vegetable CSA as well as raising fruit. Why did you decide to focus on fruit alone?
AC: When you try to do both, the fruit suffers, because the fruit takes years and vegetables are the needy child that gets all your attention right away, because that’s where your immediate money is. So it’s hard to focus long-term, when you need to focus short term as well.
IG: And it’s our nature to get excited about things, so we were growing quite a few different crops. And then through some help from mentors and fellow farming friends, we narrowed in our focus. We have an almost two-year-old daughter [Ani] as well, so when I was pregnant some of our friends came together and helped us think through our financial plan, and talked about our farm and gave us their frank opinions on what they thought we should focus on if we wanted to be profitable.
AC: We call it the intervention [laughs]. We also know that if we can grow it, we can sell it. I’m not saying people are lining up at the end of our driveway, but we kind of get to pick our market a little bit when it comes to organic fruit. There are really not that many organic fruit farms in Minnesota because it’s so hard, it takes four or five years to get production established. You screw up on a carrot planting and you’re like, “We’ll just do another one.” But you plant a hundred trees, and they die because of deer, rabbits or something else after the third year, you just lost three years and all that investment of taking care of them. And you haven’t realized anything yet income-wise. Everything’s magnified over a longer period of time.”
BD: You must do a lot of long-range planning.
IG: Andy’s Mister Math Man so he’s done a lot of great spreadsheets looking at our records from the last few years: what our trees and other plants have produced and then kind of projecting out ideally in five years or 10 years this is what they’d make profit-wise.
AC: There are a lot of ways to make money on this farm—we just need to pick the right ones and make them work. So we’re just trying to buckle down. That’s why we have our top crops, and focus on them first, and then we’ll focus on secondary crops. And then we have an experimental area where we test out new varieties.
BD: Is stewardship of the land and being a positive member of the community important to you when you do all this planning?
AC: There’s a lot of different ways to change the world. I’d say one of the easier ways is what you buy, using your pocketbook. And so the way we’re trying to save the world is just having this place here and feeding people the right food, letting them see that there’s another way to farm, getting them to understand that sometimes the way Big Ag does things isn’t really the best.
And 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. It hasn’t quite worked out that way but we tell anybody we can that, “Hey, come out here. We’d love to have you.” It takes time, but we already have a group here that can help out. The pros are it’s good soil. The cons are it’s dominated by Big Ag, and they don’t really give up their land easily.
BD: Okay, I’ve got to ask, does being a unicycling champion prepare you for a career in farming?
AC: We used to be so much into unicycling that we would compete internationally. We also used to organize or run unicycle tours. I’ve been to 30 countries, from Vietnam to above the Arctic Circle, and the majority of those trips were for unicycling directly.
There are all sorts of ways it’s helped us in farming. For one thing, it’s a tight-knit community and you build up social capital with other people who are into unicycling. That has put us in touch with people who are willing to help us out when we need it.
Also, unicycling helped in that we both became world champion multiple times, and it gives you the focus, it gives you the drive. There are some people who are more talented unicyclists than me for sure, but that made me work harder to overcome that. Sometimes when things aren’t going well, you just have to stay with it and stay focused. Most farmers at least one time during the year will start dreaming of doing something else, but you have to just persevere through it.
BD: You’ve done a lot to preserve and reclaim the natural environment, as well as to remodel buildings on this farm. Do you consider aesthetics when developing farming goals?
AC: When we set land aside in the wetland preserve, we cut all the tiles and I joke with people that I’m surprised we didn’t go to jail for that. But we don’t need all the land for an intensive fruit enterprise. I also say it’s our modern day moat in the respect that we have our farming area and this huge buffer around it to protect us from spraying.
One of our goals is to have Beauty 360, so everywhere you look around the farm is beautiful. You can do Beauty 180 pretty easily but it’s harder to finally get to that 360. In Farm Beginnings, Audrey Arner of Moonstone Farm talked about having Beauty 360 and it was like, “Yeah, now that’s something.” So you take bits and pieces from every farm or every person you talk to, and you combine them. And that’s where it comes back to.
BD: So how many degrees are you at?
AC: 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 of beauty is. My opinion is we have a long way to go, but I’m also much more picky than most people.
If you want to live old, there are the top things that you do—eating well, of course, is a good thing. But another one is you have to have purpose and you have to have community. Those are really important. If you don’t have that when you’re getting older, you’re hastening your way to the grave. So that’s why this whole farm is set up this way. And that’s why there’s a 50-year plan too. It’s like if you want to stay on the farm for 50 years, you better start thinking about it now.
BD: What will York Farm look like in 50 years?
AC: I think it will look good. When I’m doing this stuff I always think, “I can’t wait for the next people to take it over.” I’m trying to make it as really nice as I can for them. That’s the way it should be, because people before me—my parents and the previous owners—did things like plant trees. I mean that’s really nice of them. So I want to pass that on. I want to make sure that when the next people come that everything is in really good shape.
Brian DeVore is the editor of the Land Stewardship Letter.