SAGINAW, Minn. — Emily Beaton stepped on the neck of a broadfork. It pierced the soil, and she rocked a bit back and forth. “This is human-scale farming,” she said. “We can do everything with our bodies.”
A broadfork and a garden rake are more accessible than a tractor, said John Beaton. “This gives power to the people with not that many resources,” he added.
The couple runs Fairhaven Farm, a Saginaw-based, small-scale operation producing organic veggies, herbs, fruits and a CSA (community supported agriculture) program.
Walking the gardening grounds of their 27 acres, a train of ducks hobbled by.
“We’ll use the eggs, but the primary purpose is to introduce fertility into the garden,” John said.
With the help of friends, they built a wood-burning boiler to heat their high tunnel, and their greenhouse has south-facing windows and is open to the earth. In it grew a fig tree, a peach tree, some lavender and rosemary.
A praying mantis clung to a leaf.
It was introduced with some ladybugs as a natural way to manage pests, too.
Greenhouse plants in the spring and fresh garden vegetables in the summer are Fairhaven’s two enterprises. The greenhouse allows for some security, but as with all farming, it’s simple, but complicated, John said.
“What you’re truly doing is learning to coax life from the soil. … You understand that you can create something that’s beautiful and that’s going to feed you and feed other people," he added.
Ryan and Julie Jagim of Duluth are among Fairhaven’s 50 CSA households, and they’ve been with John since the beginning. They recalled a change in John’s CSA shares when he met his now-wife and business partner.
“We laugh because all of a sudden, these little bouquets of flowers were in the shares. We’d go, ‘That isn’t typical John.’ … We knew there was another influence there,” Ryan said.
The connection with food, the earth and how we take care of one another, including the planet, is important to the Beatons, and their practices reflect that, he added.
Together, the Beatons exude enthusiasm and optimism for the future, Julie said.
“There are many people under the impression that in this geology and in this area, things don’t grow well. That really isn’t true, as we’ve experienced through them,” she added.
More than organic farming, they’re trying to ensure folks have a desire to follow and succeed on that path.
“This is something he’s doing for the greater good, for the community and for our whole region,” Ryan said.
John serves on the Lake Superior Sustainable Farming Association, the Duluth Young Farmers Coalition, and he helped launch a St. Louis County chapter of Minnesota Farmers Union.
He’s also a land access navigator for nonprofit Renewing the Countryside, which means he works with new farmers, advocates for the area and helps folks find land.
“The small farmers, the 40 acres, the house and a barn and a tractor, it’s here. It’s not anywhere else,” he said. It’s a very unique environment in the Northland where you can still find that, and it’s still affordable.
Growing in this area comes preloaded with challenges, Beaton said, so, if we can figure out how to do it, then we can be an example to the state and flip the narrative. Instead of being overlooked, now, we’re leaders in the farming community. That’s our goal in the north, he said.
“Wherever there’s grass, there could be food growing. The only thing preventing utopia and abundance of everything is knowing that and not doing it,” he said.
John grew up in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota, where his grandparents restored and ran what became Fairhaven Resort. Naming their operation Fairhaven Farm is a way to honor his grandfather, and it encompasses their values.
“Fairhaven just brings up this feeling of safety and happiness and abundance. That’s what we’re trying to embody up here. Fairhaven of the north,” he said.
Beaton worked the Seeds of Success program at Community Action Duluth, and he studied food systems and anthropology at the University of Minnesota Duluth. After interning at Northern Harvest Farm, he launched his own CSA.
Emily grew up in the Twin Cities, and her life’s work took a turn after trying organically farmed veg during a potluck. “It was the first time I had really tasted vegetables because they were prepared in a way that was honoring the vegetable, celebrating the vegetable,” she recalled.
From there, she grew microgreens on her windowsill, interned at a farm. She eventually sold microgreens through her operation, Pocket Farms.
She met her now-partner in life while they were both selling veggies at a farmers’ market.
They had the same values and business goals, they’d both taken a farm beginnings course and had similar background and training.
From there, things accelerated quickly, John said.
They met in fall 2015, and in 2017, they bought the farm, which was also the location of their wedding.
It was always their goal to create a gathering place for people to come and experience farm-fresh food. “I wanted other people to have that same experience that I had because it changed my life,” Emily said.
It takes a long time to access land, and they had a lot of help from family and friends, which is a privilege that drives their mission to help others.
“Feeding 50 families, that’s not going to save the world, but if we can have others build their own little farm, to get other people to come and get inspired or grow food … for our benefit and the future benefits, we need more farms,” John said.
Ted Johnson of Duluth’s Blue Forest Plants Nursery rents a patch of land on Fairhaven Farm.
The collaboration allows Johnson more space to propagate his berry bushes and fruit trees, and it allows room for the Beatons to diversify their offerings.
Johnson said he’s aware of other businesses sharing goods, but not space like this. It seems unique, but it’s in line with the Beatons’ mission, he said.
“They’re dedicated to using their farm to help others, whether that’s through education, experience, maybe access to land,” Johnson said.
They’re a model for a lot of people regarding healthy food systems. They also operate in the wider area of ideas and vision and view themselves as a community connector — that’s what they really do well, he added.
The Beatons came across their farm by word of mouth.
The former home to Grassroots Farm was cultivated and developed by Linda Ward and Steven Chadwick. The couple embraced sustainable practices and farmed exclusively with horses.
Their reach expanded beyond the farm.
Chadwick helped develop initiatives to create affordable housing throughout Minnesota, he was the executive director of the Duluth Community Action Program Inc., he launched the community garden program, among other things.
Now we get to carry on some of that advocacy work, John said.
Ward was very specific regarding the sale of her land; she wanted farmers to take over, Emily recalled.
The Beatons made a handshake agreement to buy the farm, they moved in and worked the land for nine month. “We watched all of her emotions as she detached from the farm,” John recalled. “When we dug up the field for quackgrass, she knew we were for real.”
“We were able to build that trust,” added Emily.
(The News Tribune’s attempts to reach Ward went unanswered as of press time.)
After they bought the farm, the first order of business was to build a wood-fire oven. They knew this would be important for the future for sustenance and for gathering, and they found it had added significance.
“Steve and Linda used to grow wheat. … Steve’s ashes were scattered in the wheat field because that’s what he loved, so now we brought a bread oven to the wheat field.
“It’s just magical; you can’t make that up,” John said.
On Our Farm is a profile of Northland farms and the people behind them. If you have one to recommend, email Melinda Lavine at email@example.com or call 218-723-5346.