The unlikely farmer
Cree Bradley never thought this was where she'd end up: working her own farm, perched on a hill high above Lake Superior. Pulling weeds and picking beans on a hot, humid August afternoon.
"I didn't come from a farm family, it's not in my blood," Bradley said. Neither is living on the North Shore. She's a western girl at heart, born on the North Dakota plains. She came to Minnesota in 1999 to attend the University of Minnesota Duluth. One of her professors guided her into work with non-profits that connected local farmers to markets. Though her work wasn't usually hands-on, she often offered to help out with farm work.
She found the work meditative and calming. "While pruning a raspberry bush I could get lost in my own thoughts, I could solve my problems," Bradley said. "Life was good when I was pruning a raspberry bush." An idea started to take root: the allure of a farmer's life.
After graduating, she married Jason Bradley and they began looking for jobs both in Minnesota and out West. They came up empty. Then they found a piece of land on the crest of a hill above Lake Superior, just north of Two Harbors off County Road 3. "Jason told me, 'Cree, you're going to love this piece of land, the hills will remind you of places out west,'" Bradley said. They bought the land and made plans for farming it.
"The evening we closed on the farm we got a call from the Rocky Mountain Farming Union out west, offering me a job," Cree said.
Cree's father offered to take care of the Two Harbors property while the Bradleys headed west for a year. "Within a couple of months we knew we would be back," Cree said. They wanted the challenge of making a living out of the North Shore's clay soil and unpredictable climate.
They named the 25-acre property Chelsea Morning Farm. They started small, but with an advanced business strategy based on Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA. In a CSA, members who want food from the farm buy shares, paying farmers up front during the spring growing season. A CSA gives farmers a crucial boost early in the growing season, when most expenses are incurred but farmers have the least income to pay them off. "That's what will kill farmers, cash flow," Cree said. Then, from July to October, CSA members receive weekly crates of produce in return for their earlier support.
Though it may solve cash flow problems, "a CSA is actually a somewhat high-risk business strategy for a farm," Cree said. "There's an expectation there. If you can't provide food for your members, or if your food sucks, then your reputation is on the line."
They started small with 10 members. "A glorified backyard garden," Cree calls it. Five years later, they have 75 members, 25 crops and 100s of varieties of those crops. Cree estimates they feed about 120 families, with many memberships split between two couples. Each membership is designed to feed four people.
They supplement vegetable deliveries with apples and berries from other local producers. There's also optional maple syrup, herring, and pastured pork shares for members to buy, provided through partnerships with other area producers.
Those extra shares are part of the Bradley's commitment to supporting the rest of the farming community they live in. They offer their CSA as a "marketing hub" to other farmers they know. "The great thing about a CSA is there's no middle man," Cree said. That saves money for producers and consumers.
The CSA is not certified organic but they grow in accordance to organic standards. That means no chemical fertilizers, insecticides or herbicides. Cree says official organic certification isn't worth the hassle for such a small operation "Our members don't demand that we certify," Cree said. If they sold in a different market, such as the Whole Foods Co-op, or if members started demanding official certification, the Bradleys would seek it out.
Cree says members seem to appreciate developing a personal relationship with the people who feed them. The Bradleys provide a weekly newsletter, the Chelsea Morning Thymes, to their members. It explains what's in the delivery each week and includes the Bradley's personal stories and recipes.
Asked if she ever wakes up and wishes she hadn't chosen the farming life, Bradley nodded. "This year's been really challenging," she said. Relentless rain in June wasn't just a nuisance, it put their whole growing season in jeopardy. The heavy clay soil became a "holding tank" for water. The Bradleys were forced to plant seeds and transplants in puddles. They lost more than half of some crops and were set back weeks from the regular growing schedule. "The only thing that flourished was weeds," Cree said.
Last year they'd had an exceptional harvest, loading up their CSA members with overflowing baskets of crops week after week. After that successful season, they expanded, adding 25 members. The poor weather early this season meant they had to deliver skimpier crates than the year before. "We hold the anxiety of farming very close to our hearts," Cree said. "We want to be good stewards of the land, we really care about our members and want them to receive food -- a lot of food."
Things started looking up with the arrival of a warm, dry July. "We saw immediate recovery," Cree said. The fields still have a few empty patches or areas choked with weeds, but they're getting back on track toward a good harvest.
The Bradleys haven't had to advertise much for their CSA. "We just put up about eight posters between Two Harbors and Duluth," Cree said with a laugh. "It's all word of mouth." Their CSA is full, and there's a waiting list. "We would love to feed all those people but we want to grow slowly," Cree said. "CSAs in the Northland are pretty much all full. Demand for local food is huge," she said. "We could have an addition of hundreds of farmers in the area." There just aren't enough farmers to provide the sustainable, natural food consumers are demanding, she said.
The growing local food movement makes sense, Cree said. "Everyone eats. And somewhere in the world there are farmers growing food and, unfortunately, in some cases it's corporations that are growing that food," Cree said. "Farming is the heritage of this country and it's one of the viable ways to provide jobs. But instead, family farms are being bought out by ag-business. Family farmers are retiring and one of their main concern is, where is the next generation? Who's going to take over the farms?"