What a pleasure to kick off Earth Month with a feature of a favorite new local farm in the Upper Peninsula! We’ll admit right off the bat that we are more than a little biased, since this farm is founded and run by actual KCW family—Val’s sister Sara and her partner Andy, both of whom are reviving a generational legacy with a new venture they call Mother Farmer.
While both Sara and Andy come from farming families, starting their own farm came as somewhat of a surprise. But what started with a garden in their Chicago backyard (built by KCW’s own Roaster Nate!) turned into a passion that eventually led them to look for their own piece of ground to raise food for a community.
Keep reading for more of the story behind the U.P.’s newest regenerative organic farm and a peek into what Mother Farmer has in store for 2022.
KCW: What brought you from a home garden in Chicago to a full-scale organic farm in the Upper Peninsula?
Mother Farmer: We had been talking for years about starting our own farm. Sara was the first to bring up the idea, but Andy (who had been working in urban agriculture for several years) was a bit hesitant at first. But more and more, we just didn’t see ourselves staying in the city and we wanted the farm life.
What inspired us to finally take the plunge to start our own farm is the regenerative agriculture movement. We were super inspired by movies like “The Biggest Little Farm” and “Kiss the Ground,” as well as farmers like Richard Perkins of Ridgedale Permaculture in Sweden, Connor Crickmore of Neversink Farm in New York, and Gabe Brown of Brown’s Ranch in North Dakota. Farms like these are proving that you can farm successfully and sustainably even on a large scale.
In 2020, we finally decided to go for it. We looked at farms all over the U.P. but like the saying goes, when you find the right place, you just know. I remember turning onto Old M28, where our farm is located, and feeling a deep connection (and a sense of relief)—it just felt right. We purchased our farm in May of 2021 and built our first production plot last year.
Obviously, farming the U.P. has its unique challenges. What makes it worth it to grow food here?
We love the community, the people, and the abundance nature has to offer here. We’re both outdoorsy people, and there is just so much to do up here that you’re never bored. We also love feeling like we’re doing something positive for our family, friends, community, and the Earth.
Where does the name Mother Farmer come from?
We were having a really hard time deciding on a name--Sara wanted something sassy while Andy wanted something more spiritual and nature-related. We kept going back and forth until Nate said, “How about Mother Farmer?” It was the perfect tongue-in-cheek name that we were looking for!
Give us a look inside a farmer’s life—the challenges, the rewards, the surprises.
There have been so many surprises along the way because you just don’t know what you’re in for until you really get to building. I think the most positive surprise for us has been the kindness and support of our neighbors. We were in town talking to someone about our farm when an older gentleman that had walked in spun around and exclaimed, “Are you the vegetable farmers?! My wife is going to be so excited to hear that I met you!” As a farmer, you hope to feed your community, so to hear how excited this gentleman was for our produce was a special moment for me.
Being that we are a new business, we are very conscious of keeping costs down, so we’re doing a lot of the work the hard way: by hand. Almost immediately, neighbors began coming by offering tools or equipment to help us, which was so heartwarming.
During the really large snowfalls this past winter, we had to get up in the middle of the night to clear tunnels. One morning, when I was exhausted from the night before, I stared out the window wishing I could wiggle my nose and the snow would magically be shoveled. At that moment, I looked down our driveway to see our neighbor coming down with his snowblower tractor. The universe knew what I needed.
Our biggest challenge so far has been dealing with a lot of flooding issues this spring. We had such a mild winter the year we viewed the farm that we didn’t notice any drainage issues, but this spring has been a rough one. The good thing is that our no-till regenerative farming practices help build soil health and structure, which means we should be able to remedy the flooding quickly.
Tell us about some of the magical moments in farming life that you've experienced.
Andy: One moment for me was when my Grandma Darlene came to the farm to help us plant garlic. She grew up on a vegetable farm and has been a gardener her whole life. Bonding with her in my adult years over farming and gardening has been really special to me. To have her out to our farm as we’re getting started was really a great moment.
Sara: Another moment for me happened on a sunny day in February, when I saw that the spinach, kale, and collards that we planted back in October had survived the winter. We have two unheated high tunnels that we planted out in October, and then we covered the growing beds with row cover (light cloth that helps keep the plants even more insulated). We spent all winter making sure these tunnels survived every snow and ice storm, so when we uncovered the beds and life was still happening it felt good, like all the hard work paid off.
Can you share anything about what Mother Farmer has in store for the coming months?
We’re so excited to officially launch the business this year! We’re planting a little bit of everything at first to see what sells, and you’ll be able to find our produce at the Downtown Houghton Farmers Market on Tuesdays and the Depot Park Farmers and Artisans Market in Ironwood on Fridays, as well as our on-site farm stand. We’re also hoping to build out an additional growing plot to double our production and, for a little personal fun, we’re starting our first beehive, which should be interesting.
We have some big long-term plans to expand both produce and seed production. We’re so excited for seed production because we are going to focus on plants and varieties that are particularly well adapted to our unique climate in the U.P. We also want to expand into agrotourism to make Mother Farmer a unique gathering place for family, friends, and community.