Les and his hogs have an excellent working arrangement.
Have you ever entered a hog pen and come out with clean shoes? It is possible, at least at Wheatstem Meadows farm. Les Miller, who owns and operates the farm along with his son Eric, specializes in pastured beef and pork. Even though Les grew up raising hogs, he still finds more to learn as he continually researches how to keep his livestock healthy, naturally. “Healthy food for healthy people,” he explains as he walks across the dry bed of wood chips to where his hogs are rooting in the shade of the barn.
Wheatstem Meadows Farm is located just north of the airport along North 60th Street. Les has worked in agricultural real estate for most of his career, and during that time he gradually pieced together the acres of his farm as they became available. One of the things he likes about his land is that it sits on a hill, which means that no other farms drain onto his. This allows him to control the nutrients in his soil using organic methods such as cover crops and composting.
When Les gets a load of fresh, new wood chips for his hogs’ home base, the old ones are moved to the compost pile. After aging, the compost is spread onto the gardens and pasture. The pasture is seeded with a blend of plants that Les has chosen based on their ability to balance the soil and give nutrients to the pigs as they are let out to graze it section by section. One of those plants is kale, and the pigs love it.
Preparing pasture and rotating the hogs through it section by section keeps the soil and the hogs healthy.
The pigs also enjoy some non-GMO feed, to which Les adds rosemary and garlic, which naturally control parasites in hogs. Les adds apple cider vinegar to their water to keep their digestion healthy. “It can decrease their feed needs by 30%,” Les says.
On the next hilltop, where the cows graze, Les points out the variety of plants growing in the pasture and explains how he encourages the good ones and discourages the invasive ones. It’s a lot of detail work, but he’s seen big improvements in the soil and the pasture during the time he’s owned the land. “We test our soils extensively, and we take Brix readings to test the dissolved solids in our plants, and tissue samples– it’s more than N-P-K, it’s the whole spectrum,” Les explains. “And there’s a new soil test called the Haney test, and that one tests the biological activity in the soil. Fungi, protozoa, bacteria… in healthy soil there should be the equivalent of three cows [by weight] of living creatures in the top twelve inches of an acre of soil.”
This breed of cows is known for high amounts of healthy fats, so the meat is pasture-raised but not too lean.
Besides cows, pigs, and all the microscopic life in the soil, ducks, geese, vegetables and flowers also grow on this farm. Many of the vegetables end up as food for the animals. Any land that is not in immediate use is planted with cover crops– Les has developed his own mix of eight crops that each add nutrients to balance the soil in some way. This way the soil is always improving and getting ready for its next task.
No land on the farm sits idle, and neither does any time. The biodiversity on the farm helps to keep nutrients in balance and pests under control, but caring for four different species of animals and dozens of plant varieties means that there is never a dull moment. On any given day, Les could be found purchasing a new bull, making sure a sow is caring for her new piglets, picking pumpkins, or planting kale for the pigs. Even with all the work on the farm, he finds time to keep reading and researching and sharing his knowledge with other farmers through professional organizations, such as Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture. But sometimes, you’ll find him walking through the hog pen, hanging out with the animals he cares so much about.
“I was blessed with a few roommates in college with celiac disease,” says April Smith of Heart of the City Bakery. That was her first experience with allergy-free baking, and her sensitivity for people with sensitivies has stuck with her for many years. Both April and her husband Clement have a background in foodservice, and they were often answering questions and trying to find alternatives for people with allergies, especially for those with allergies to gluten. “That was the need I saw in the community,” April says. What they created to fill that need was Heart of the City Bakery, a gluten-free bakery whose products are enjoyed by gluten-warriors and civilians alike.
April Smith and her daughter Laura putting the finishing touches on a gluten-free treat.
April explains more: “Everyone has an event, everyone has a party, everyone has a brother or a sister-in-law who can’t eat at their event. And every office has a few people that bring their own apple slices to the company party because they can’t eat the cupcakes. So we’re here for everyone who didn’t have a home before.”
Clement adds, “I think that’s what’s been missing from a lot of gluten-free products– they’ll make something gluten-free and then people will eat it because they have to, because they have no choice. But there’s enough competition now that you can’t just make something gluten free and it doesn’t matter what it tastes like. It has to be something that tastes good. And I think we make tasty and good product, and people know that and they appreciate that!”
Heart of the City offers free samples at their booth so you can taste for yourself.
“My favorite is probably the lemon tarts,” April says. “At least right now. My favorite last night was the Boston creme pie!” Many of the gluten-free goodies are also dairy free, egg free, or both. “We can make almost anything free of almost anything if you need, and we do custom orders all the time,” April says. She has developed most of these recipes on her own. “For about the past year and a half I’ve been baking passionately to develop plenty of gluten-free recipes in our pocket that we can just whip out and use at a moments notice.”
Another perspective that the Smith’s bring to their bakery is a passion for local ingredients. “In the past we actually hoped to open up a bistro with only locally-sourced ingredients, so we had already made connections with lots of local producers,” April explains. When they began to focus instead on fulfilling a need for gluten-free goodies, they knew they could still incorporate lots of locally-sourced ingredients. April notes, “We get our carrots from Mary’s Kitchen and Gardens, and our zucchini comes from whoever throws it at me first. We use buckwheat and sorghum since those are grown in the Midwest. Our nut of choice is sunflower seeds, and the sunflower seeds that we get are all harvested West River. Our flax is all harvested in Howard, South Dakota.”
About half of Heart of the City’s goods fulfill custom orders, such as for weddings and showers.
One recipe that uses many of these local ingredients is Heart of the City’s Morning Glories. “It’s almost a serving of vegetables, more than a serving of fruit, as well as coconut oil, flax seed, and chia seed and all with less than three teaspoons of sugar, which all comes from honey and applesauce.” Disguised as a dense muffin, it’s about the healthiest breakfast you can get. “I have several customers who come every week and bring home six for the week ahead so they can have one for breakfast every day,” April says.
Currently, about half of Heart of the City’s sales are at the market and about half are custom orders, mostly for special events. They work collaboratively with Brandy’s Custom Cakery in Parker, South Dakota. In fact, Heart of the City’s kitchen space is next to Brandy’s, and Clement did most of the work to get the space ready for use as a commercial kitchen. “It’s a cooperative event. On our side of the wall we do everything that’s gluten free and allergy sensitive. And then on the other side of the magic door, Brandy can do everything that’s wheat, and then she assembles it all into one coherent event. We box everything up separate and make sure it’s all safe.”
Collaboration has been essential to every step in Heart of the City’s process: sourcing the best ingredients, turning out unique and delicious recipes, and getting the goodies out to the people who will appreciate them most. April explains, “I see people who just talked to their doctor or an allergist or a nutritionist and have been told everything they could not eat. And food is such the center of everyone’s life, and the center of community, and that’s what communities were built around– searching for food. So they’ve just had their entire life denied them. And I get to be there to help pick up the pieces and tell them what they CAN eat.”
Heart of the City is a whole-family business. Clement notes that Laura is old enough to understand the business’s vision and mission, but Liam just likes to eat cupcakes!
Lee and Mary Storo work at their farm near Beresford, South Dakota.
“When you’re falling asleep on the way home from market, driving the car, it’s kind of a wake up call,” says Mary Storo, remembering back to the days when she and her husband Lee Storo both worked at other full time jobs while running Mary’s Kitchen and Gardens. As their produce business had grown, they had ended up working almost ninety hours a week each. Something had to give. “I think you just get to the point where you realize what’s really important,” Mary says. “And it was really more important to do this– to provide good food for people and to work with good, hard-working people.”
“We walked away from a certain amount of security. But our experience has been that there is a demand for this,” Lee adds.
Their transition to produce farming began years ago, “by accident,” according to Lee. “Innocently enough,” he says “my wife and I like to garden. And we had extra produce. So that’s where we started, and I’m not sure where it’s going to end!”
“I love to grow lots of different things, and I didn’t have enough children to eat everything!” Mary says. They gave lots of produce away to neighbors but also toyed with the idea of selling produce at farmers’ markets. “We decided to give it a whirl in Harrisburg, probably about six years ago, just once a week. And then we’ve gradually added and added,” Mary explains.
Mary’s Kitchen and Gardens now serves several regional farmers markets and also offers CSA (community supported agriculture) subscriptions. They sell produce, baked goods, canned goods, and farm fresh eggs. They are constantly researching. Mary explains, “The more you get into it, the more you realize all the things you need to be aware of if you want to follow all the best practices when you’re growing food and when you’re processing food.” The Storos don’t use any synthetic herbicides or pesticides in their gardens, so they’ve had to learn natural alternatives, such as strategic crop rotation. The Storos also use skills from many of their past jobs, especially from running a restaurant and managing a deli. “Organization and record-keeping is really important,” Mary emphasizes. Lee regularly uses his handyman and maintenance skills on the farm.
Some of the chemical-free produce at Mary’s Kitchen and Gardens.
As they’ve grown, the Storos have gained many long-term customers. Mary remembers, “Our first year in Harrisburg, I remember one family that we had. When they first started coming they just had the one little boy and he was probably two at the time, so they would bike down with their little boy in the back. So you just get to know them! And by the next summer they had another baby so they would bike over with their two kids. And now they’re still our CSA customers, so we see them every week and we’ve gotten to watch those kids change and grow.” For the Storos, watching kids grow up eating fresh, healthy food makes the labor of the garden worth it.
Much of the labor that goes into running a produce farm is weeding, especially since Lee and Mary follow organic principles. “If I had a penny for every weed I pulled…” Lee says with a laugh. Lee and Mary have also stayed busy putting up greenhouses, installing drip irrigation, and adding to the size of their gardens every year. Then there are vegetables to pick, pickles to can, eggs to gather, breads to bake, CSA subscriptions to deliver, and markets to attend. “You’d think that I’d have more time now that I just work on the farm, but the truth is, it just fills up all your time,” Lee says.
Lee and Mary now have over three acres in specialty crops. This year they added two high-tunnels, which will allow them to expand their season.
With their new high-tunnel greenhouses, this will be the first year that Lee and Mary can continue to harvest vegetables well into the fall. Even during the winter months, the Storos will still have farm fresh eggs and all the products that come from Mary’s kitchen. The off-season is also a time to plan for the next season and focus more on building up cooperative projects such as Dakota Fresh. Hopefully, after a spring, summer, and fall of hard work in the garden and on the road, the Storos can enjoy their first winter of being just self-employed. They might even have a chance to get totally caught up on sleep!
Canned goods and baked goods round out the offerings at the Mary’s Kitchen and Gardens booth.
Xeng’s Vegetables sells a variety of vegetables used in Asian cuisines.
If you didn’t know that sweet potato leaves are edible or how to prepare squash vines for cooking, don’t feel bad. Neither did vendor Storm Yang, who now sells these vegetables and more at her family’s farmers’ market stand, which is named Xeng’s Vegetables after her brother.
Storm and her siblings grew up in Minnesota, and they have always gardened as a family. Since they are of Hmong heritage, they ate lots of Asian dishes as well as typical midwestern fare in their home. A favorite dish of Storm’s has always been Hmong-style egg rolls. “It’s different than the Chinese egg rolls. We use meat, we use angel-hair noodles, we use egg, cabbage, and a sweet and sour dipping sauce.” Storm has always loved spicy food. Pointing to the tiny yellow peppers at her booth, she says with a laugh, “They’re hot, but they haven’t turned red yet. So they’ll only get hotter!”
So although Storm’s family has always cooked with Asian flair, when they decided to start a vegetable business specializing in Asian ingredients, they had a lot to learn. “Some things that were just weeds to me are food for others!” Storm says. She was surprised to learn about some of the plants that are used in other Asian cuisines. A few of the more unique vegetables they carry are sweet potato leaves, spinach vine, squash vine, bitter ball, and Thai eggplant. Some of the greens they grow and sell don’t even have names in English– but just because they’re difficult to pronounce doesn’t mean they’re difficult to prepare!
Asian greens including sweet potato leaves and winter squash vines.
Most of the vegetables at Xeng’s Vegetables are an easy addition to stir-fries. Just chop them up and sauté them in oil or with meat. Okra makes a great addition to soup, as it helps to thicken the broth. Spinach vine, also known as Malabar spinach, is not actually related to spinach; it grows well all through the summer and can be used in many of the same dishes.
Harvesting squash vines still allows for a squash harvest later in the season, so it’s a good way to get more yield out of a garden. Plus, they taste good! “It has it’s own unique taste,” Storm says. It doesn’t taste quite like any other green, nor does it taste like squash. It adds authentic flavor to Asian soups. Try this recipe: Winter Squash Leaves with Salted Coconut Milk.
Sweet potato leaves are also tender and delicious. They can be blanched, sautéed, or both, as shown in this video:
For Storm, expanding the family gardens has been a chance to explore. “For me, I like to try everything new, but some people like to stick with what they already have. But then there’s also a lot of people who are ready to try new things.” Of course, there are also many for whom these flavors are not new at all, and they will be especially glad to find a source for these authentic Asian ingredients.
A few hot peppers or bitter balls will go a long way in adding authentic Asian flavor in your kitchen.
“This is why I encourage other vendors to come down here,” says Monica Pluim of Jungle Beans Coffee as customers look over her selection of coffees and hot cocoas. “You get to meet so many people. The word of mouth down here is huge.” Monica’s business has existed as a wholesale coffee supplier for several years, and has grown into the fundraising space as well. Jungle Beans is small, but growing, and Monica also stays busy as a stay-at-home mom and a realtor. Now, she’s bringing their locally-roasted coffee and locally-made hot cocoa straight to consumers for the first time at the farmers’ market.
This is the public’s first chance to buy Jungle Beans’ coffee directly from Monica Pluim and her family.
“We get every kind of bean you can get,” Monica says. “We do Kenya, we do Colombia, we do Brazil, we do Guatemala, Sumatra, Ethiopia… so it’s rare to find a company that carries that whole array of beans. And we roast them here locally, specially roasted, and it’s all 100% Arabica, top quality.” Their beans are grown by farmers who are paid above fair-trade standards. Jungle Beans receives the raw beans, then custom roasts them twenty-five pounds at a time. Monica adds, “We have over forty-five different blends, varieties, and flavors. We always have our two top-selling ones, but we are hoping to get up to sixty different products this year.”
The whole business is just two people, Monica explains: “It’s me and my father, Mark Larsen. He’s my roaster. And he’s been trained; he’s had months of training!” With their industrial Diedrich coffee roaster, they are able to precisely control the time and temperature of the roast to bring out the best flavors of each bean. After roasting, they bag, label and box their coffee, using packaging from local companies as much as possible.
One of Mark Larsen’s jobs is to clean the roaster regularly– a process that takes several hours.
Then the coffee goes out to small businesses around the region. “We supply a lot of the Cappuccino Cabins in town, and we have quite a few customers in Montana,” Monica mentions as examples. Not many other companies operate quite like Jungle Beans. While other wholesale coffee companies offer coffee equipment and a line of standard coffees, that’s not Monica’s goal. “My goal is to be– not small– but to always be a specialty roaster,” she says, explaining how a restaurant can create its own custom blend that is served nowhere else and that is roasted to the restaurant’s exact specifications every time.
“The farmers’ market is a way for us to meet people and let them know that we are here.” Monica remarks. She especially hopes to connect with farmers’ market customers who might want to use Jungle Beans’ coffee and hot cocoa as a fundraiser for their group. The fundraising part of the business is Monica’s favorite, even though she hands over almost all of the profits to the schools and groups who do her fundraisers. She loves to see the success groups have by selling something that many people are buying anyway and that is of very high quality. Groups get to keep up to $5.40 of profit for each bag of coffee or hot cocoa they sell.
Groups can sell Jungle Beans’ most popular flavors as a fundraiser.
Some fundraising groups choose to have their very own labels put on each bag, which adds a personal touch. Monica has also set up a system on the Jungle Beans’ website for organizations to get continued fundraising orders throughout the year. “When I run out of Girl Scout Cookies, I want more, but you can’t get any more until they come back to your door. So this way people can keep getting coffee all year. Nothing against Girl Scout cookies– they’re great!”
O’Gorman’s high school choir is one local group who has been using Jungle Beans as a fundraiser for four years now. It’s been very successful and it has allowed the choir to go on tour. Not all fundraising groups have been local, though. “We have tons of schools in more hurting states like California and Texas want to do our fundraiser,” Monica explains. She loves to see her business helping to build playgrounds and fill libraries in underfunded districts. “When they hit their goal, it’s awesome!”
Although Monica stays busy with her two businesses, she enjoys the flexibility in each and the time she gets to spend with her children.
Some young friends enjoying their time at the Jungle Beans booth.
“These got a little zip to them,” Bill Smith explains to a customer who is looking over the selection of radishes at the Rosemont Valley Farm booth. A little zip is just what the customer is looking for, so Bill helps her to complete the purchase. Connecting the right products to the right customers is what brings a member of the Smith family to The Prairie Farmers’ Market every Saturday.
The Smith family has been farming outside of Montrose, South Dakota for decades. “It hasn’t always been our farm, but we’ve been there most of our lives,” Bill Smith says. He and two of his sons farm together. Most of their land is used to raise cattle. They’ve always had a vegetable garden for themselves, but this is the first year that they’ve sold vegetables directly to consumers. “My son Adam is the one who is most interested in seeing if we can make this go,” Bill explains. Adding variety to their family farm has been a challenge and an adventure.
“This is a little patch by the farm. Easy access to water,” Bill explains. “We had hoop buildings that we raised calves in, you know, and I just put the clear plastic on them instead of the opaque, so then we had a place to start vegetables early.”
The tricky part has been “having what the people want. Like a few weeks ago everyone was asking for carrots, and I didn’t have very many. Now I have lots of carrots but people aren’t buying them. So it’s all about matching what you grow and when to what you’re going to sell here.”
Planning ahead to match the selection of vegetables to customer demand is a challenge.
One thing is clear: many customers at The Prairie Farmers’ Market want vegetables produced according to organic principles. Bill and his sons don’t use synthetic pesticides or herbicides to grow their vegetables. “I did use an organic-approved spray for cabbage,” Bill says, speaking about the online research he’s done to find effective organic methods. Growing without conventional chemicals requires more research and weeding, but it’s something the Smith family and the Smiths’ customers value.
The Smiths also incorporate healthy practices in their cattle operation and other crops, but they aren’t currently certified organic. “We’re set so we could go organic, with the rotation that we do. I think we could do it, but you’ve got to have the market for it,” Bill Smith says. He emphasizes the influence that consumers and their buying habits have on farming decisions.
While what Bill grows is strongly influenced by what customers are looking for, he also enjoys the vegetables himself. “I don’t really have a favorite. I like most things and there’s nothing here I don’t eat. I guess I like the variety!”
Bill Smith enjoys the fresh vegetables just as much as his customers do.