The temperature hovers a few degrees above zero and fresh snow swirls around their feet as Bryan Crigler and Katelyn Foerster bend into a fierce wind and head into a stand of walnut trees on a recent January day. In contrast to the wild woods, neat rows of ironwood logs are leaning on wires amidst the trees, stacked tee-pee style like firewood too pretty to burn. In fact, these chunks of wood—there are some 3,000 in all—contain fuel of a different sort: every 40-inch log is riddled with some 50 holes, and each plugged tap contains the spawn for this year’s crop of shiitake mushrooms, patiently waiting out the winter snows.
While examining the woody row crop, Crigler reflects on one thing he learned while taking the Land Stewardship Project’s Farm Beginnings course in 2008-2009: when considering starting a farming operation, it’s best to consider one’s “unfair advantages.”
He and Foerster feel they have many: access to land, jobs they can work in the off-season, good communications skills, connections to established farmers as well as restaurants and other food retailers, a relative who designed a really cool farm logo for them—you get the picture.
“Our list keeps growing,” Crigler, 34, says.
And as he and Foerster, 25, consider their next steps in adding some permanence to their mushroom and Community Supported Agriculture operation, Herbal Turtle Farms, they will need to take advantage of as many of those advantages as possible.
Crigler says one of his original unfair advantages was that he was exposed to an alphabet soup of farming enterprises when he was younger. In the 1990s, Crigler’s father Jim bought approximately 200 acres of hardwood forest, hay ground and pasture in the back of one of the coulees that lie on the outskirts of Winona, in southeast Minnesota. Saint Mary’s University and a smattering of sprawling development are within a mile of the farm, but the land sits on a dead-end, isolated part of a road. Such a location provides a good balance of solitude and access to markets, says Crigler. The other advantage is that the farm has been home to numerous small enterprises over the years.
“I was exposed to a lot of things—chickens, mushrooms, turkeys, vegetable gardening, miniature goats, miniature donkeys, lamb, Scottish Highland cattle. You know—hobby farm,” says Crigler with a laugh.
Researching the Market
Crigler has a degree in communications from Winona State University and worked in telecommunication sales and corporate communication after graduation. Six years ago, he quit without a backup plan. “I decided I really wasn’t built for cubicle work and suits and ties,” recalls Crigler.
But he liked working the various enterprises on his family’s farm and started thinking seriously about making a career out of agriculture. Crigler talked to established farmers, co-op managers and chefs in the area, researching enterprises that would work well on the heavily wooded land, but which would not invade an already crowded market.
“Luckily we have a community where there’s people who are willing to share information—between co-op managers and chefs, as well as other farmers,” says Crigler. “I didn’t want to jump into a market that was over-saturated already, because it doesn’t help the farmers that are already here and it certainly doesn’t help us.”
One of the farmers he networked with was Heather Secrist, who owns and operates Suncrest Gardens Farm in nearby Cochrane, Wis. Secrist, a 2003 Farm Beginnings graduate, recommended that Crigler enroll in the class himself. The Farm Beginnings course, which LSP has been offering since 1997, has become a national model for providing wannabe farmers with training in innovative business planning, marketing and goal-setting, among other things. Farm Beginnings is also known for its use of established farmers and other agricultural professionals as class instructors.
Soon after he started the class in 2008, Crigler noticed that it emphasized not getting too hung-up on one type of farming enterprise. Rather, students are encouraged to take a broad look at the resources — also known as “advantages”— at their disposal, and to take a big picture view.
That was an important message for Crigler. He was originally very focused on marketing black walnuts from his family’s property. But it turns out selling walnuts for products like ice cream mixes has very low margins.
“Farm Beginnings gave me the ability to break down each enterprise and see if it was making money,” says Crigler. “That was valuable. It made it easier to figure out what to zero in on.”
Crigler’s interaction with Secrist altered the trajectory of Herbal Turtle Farms in another important way. At the time, Foerster was interning at Suncrest, and she and Crigler eventually became a couple.
Foerster has a degree in international relations from Winona State and much of her extended family is involved in corn and soybean farming in southwest Minnesota. But while interning at Suncrest, she got interested in the Community Supported Agriculture model. Also called CSA, it involves selling shares in a farm, usually a produce operation, before the growing season. In return, the farmer delivers produce to “members” on a weekly basis. It turned out to be a good fit for Herbal Turtle, although Foerster concedes that she and Crigler got into CSA vegetable farming a bit by accident. In 2009 she planted what she thought was just enough vegetables for their own use.
“It turns out I can’t raise vegetables for one family,” she says with a laugh. “I ended up planting 150 tomato plants. That’s when I knew we were in trouble.”
To deal with the excess, that year they sold shares to seven families in the area. Since then, the CSA enterprise has steadily grown to where this season there will be 60 shares. The couple may have stumbled into it by accident, but it turns out the CSA enterprise is a good way of guaranteeing income without investing huge amounts of resources into marketing during the season, something Foerster calls “small farm insurance.” It’s also a way for the farm to make deep connections with the local food community.
“I really just like the diversity of vegetables you can grow using that model and the connection to all the people you’re growing for,” says Foerster. “People are so excited about what we’re doing out here and interested in what’s happening on a day-to-day basis. And I think the fact that they are willing to share in the risk with us is huge.”
The shiitake mushroom business, on the other hand, is more of a solitary operation. Shiitakes require drilling holes in the logs—in this case they are waste ironwood pieces from a local logger—and planting spawn in the holes, which are plugged with wax. It takes up to a year for the first mushrooms to fruit. In the meantime, the logs—they weigh around 30 pounds each— must be soaked periodically (they use old livestock watering tanks).
“You have to be patient to be a mushroom farmer,” says Crigler. “It’s very labor intensive. We pick up maybe one log 10 times per season, times that by 3,000 logs, and we get pretty buff during the summer.”
Invasive fungi can be a problem, as well as drought conditions such as what the region experienced in 2012. But all the hard work and stress can pay off. Herbal Turtle can count on two to three fruitings per log from April to October, and each fruiting can generate a quarter-pound of mushrooms. High quality shiitakes can go for $16 a pound on the wholesale market.
They market to restaurants in the region, as well as food co-ops and the farmers’ markets in Winona and Rochester. Mushrooms are also offered as part of the CSA members’ shares.
“We charge a higher premium for our mushrooms, and we want to focus on the quality of the mushroom to make sure it’s justified, that a local chef would want to look at our mushrooms as compared to mushrooms shipped in from Oregon or China or wherever, and say this is clearly a superior mushroom, this is what I want to give to my clientele,” says Crigler. “We want something we can stand behind.”
The past two growing seasons, Herbal Turtle’s overall income has been pretty much evenly split between the CSA and the mushroom enterprise. Both Crigler and Foerster have off-farm jobs–he telecommutes as a high-tech recruiter and she cooks during the winter at the Blue Heron, a Winona café that showcases locally produced food, including produce and mushrooms produced on Herbal Turtle. Foerster sees her connection to the restaurant as yet one more advantage the farm has.
“It’s been really wonderful to see how chefs like to receive foods, what they want them to look like, what they do with them once they actually get them,” she says.
A Third Enterprise?
The couple is now looking for one more enterprise to add to the mix, one that will allow them to increase income without adding employees and that won’t “bump up against” other farming operations in the area as far as market share goes.
They also need an enterprise that’s somewhat “portable,” since someday they will face the prospect of having to move Herbal Turtle to a more permanent home, preferably to land they own.
For now, Crigler and Foerster are continuing to build their mushroom and CSA business, while generating income with their off-farm jobs to help them when it comes time to get that loan from the bank for farmland.
“If we go to a bank for a loan to buy our own farm, we can’t go with a dream,” says Crigler. “You have to show you have a steady, good income.”
Crigler and Foerster are also interested in enrolling in LSP’s Journeyperson Farm Training Course.
In other words, that list of “unfair advantages” is set to get even longer.