Left to right: Sustainable Food Production graduates Noelle Harden, Kelsey Wulf with a goat kid, and Jessie Borkenhagen with a lamb at Northcroft Farm.
by Kelsey Wulf
Sustainable Food Production program graduate
After attending the Deep Roots event in Watson in September, several of us SFP alumn camped out along the Chippewa River for the evening. In our company were two young fellows who expressed an interest in the SFP program.
I don’t remember what question was asked in particular, but good company and the cozy fire had me feeling even more loquacious than usual. I launched into a long off-the-cuff dissertation about why I love the SFP program so much. I reconstruct what I said to the best of my recollection in this post.
The SFP program teaches sustainable farming by providing a holistic understanding of what farming is. This is taught in a dynamic fashion.
Say you want to make cheese
Let’s say you’ve got a mind to make your own cheese.
Doctor Sue Wika will teach you how to make that cheese: what ingredients you need, what temperature it takes, how many times you should stir that glob around, and how you should season and age it so it will keep all through the winter, or it eat almost immediately because it is so tasty.
Emily McCune’s cheesemaking.
Then Doctor Tom Prieve swings in to break everything down so you really understand the science of what happens when you make that cheese.
He’ll zoom into the cheese-making process and explain exactly what is happening with the lipase and fats so when you are making that cheese it isn’t a bunch of steps and instructions for their own sake. As you make that chevre or feta, you’ll come to understand why doing Step 1 gets you to step 2.
Then Kent Solberg comes into play.
To have great cheese, you must have great animals
You want cheese? Well you had better have some animals that are going to provide you milk. Do you want goat’s milk cheese? Cow’s milk? Here is what you need to know to raise a dairy animal. They are going to need excellent forage. You are nothing if you’re not a good grass farmer. How are you going to sustain those dairy cows on grass and sunshine? By being a darn good grass farmer.
Solberg teaches you how to identify what forage is in your pasture and makes you memorize when and where they grow so hopefully you will have some good pasture stockpiled for when you hit that dry spell and growing slump in August. You’ll learn how to move those animals across the land using different fence techniques. Wear good gloves, for you will be installing fencing. You learn to move those cows before they eat that grass shorter than four inches down otherwise you are going to end up losing the growth nodes on the grass blades so it will take that grass longer to recover.
At some point Prieve swoops back in to take you down into the fascinating microscopic world of soil biology. Not only are you going to end up with excellent forage, you are stimulating the soil, feeding it, making it better and providing excellent habitat for wildlife in the process.
Visiting dairy goat and cattle farms
Now that you have a rough idea of what goes into making cheese from the ground up (literally), we’d better make sure you actually understand what it takes to make a living off crafting artisan cheeses. Load up in the vans, we’re going to go visit some farmers who are doing just that.
Marv Hoffman of Fruitful Seasons (right) discusses milk processing and cheese production with SFP students.
We’ll visit a few different farms with goats or cattle or any other number of critters. You are going to talk with the people who are truly out there doing it. They aren’t going to sugar coat it for you. They will tell you if they are making money from their cheese enterprise. They will tell you about what they have had to sacrifice to make it work.
They will tell you about how their business is not just a business but a way of life and an integral part of their family. They will tell you that it is hard. They will tell you that it is worth it. You’ll hear how they lost a calf last year and what they could have done better and will do better next time. You’ll get to meet the new calves that are out grazing and playing alongside their mamas.
Managing farms, planning businesses
Still think you want to make artisan cheese? All right! Enter Ryan Pesch.
Ryan Pesch is going to teach you Farm Marketing and Management. Bust out your pens and keyboards, for it is time to write up a business plan and get some things straight. How much, realistically, is it going to cost you to start making this cheese? What do you need to buy? How are you going to buy it? What are your goals for your business? Is there anyone out there who is actually going to buy this cheese from you?
Now you’ve got your business plan. You’ve got your animals. You’ve got your cheese aging in the cave or basement or wherever. Now what? Are you going to eat that cheese all by yourself? I can personally tuck in quite a bit of cheese, but you’ve received such a stellar education in SFP you’ve got more cheese than you or your friends can eat so it’s time to share it with the world.
Pesch is going to teach you how to market your farm: how to get your name out in the community, where you might want to sell your cheese, how to be profitable. Wait a minute: aren’t there some rules and regulations you need to follow in order to make and sell cheese? Ah, yes: Wika already covered that a semester ago in the Value-Added Agriculture class.
By now you should be full of knowledge, but also slightly exhausted and overwhelmed. How on Earth are you supposed to get started? What about land? Resources? Support? Again, no need to worry. You’ve been through the muck, mud and manure with your classmates and they aren’t going anywhere. You’ve made a new family for yourself among other start up farmers. Not only do you have your SFP brothers and sisters, but thanks to all those field trips, you have a wide network and community of experienced farmers with resources and know-how that they are more than willing to share.
Next comes your internship
You are armed with knowledge, a strong supportive community, and you still feel pretty confident you want to make delicious artisanal cheeses. Before you toss out your training wheels and tear off on a Harley, it’s time to intern on a farm.
Luckily for you, dozens of farmers are begging your professors to provide interns, so you have your pick of the farm you want to work on.
Emily McCune’s finished feta.
I didn’t even cover half the information and knowledge you will need to produce, market, and sell (or eat!) that cheese. Again, don’t worry. The SFP program covers it. And what your professors didn’t cover, they’ll explain to you over the phone or in person when you visit years after you graduate.
Cheese is just one example of the amazing interconnected and holistic education students gain in the SFP program. I can discuss fiber, feed, vegetables, farmers markets, CSAs, family milk cow economics, sociology of agriculture, chickens (eggs, meat, feathers, in rotation behind your grazing animals), fermentation, diversified systems, processing, and on, and on, and on.
Want to keep going? Alas, I’ve got goat’s milk in the fridge and cheese to make. Find yourself another SFP grad and strike up a conversation. I guarantee you they can go on for as long as me and longer.
I didn’t even get to talking about our instructor Mark Boen and his wealth of knowledge in running a 2000+ member CSA based out of Fergus Falls! Like I said, talk to an SFP grad and you can go down that road of naturally improving your soil, farm machinery, cover cropping, the importance of worms, planting, harvesting….