A garden of sustainability
Wildrose Farm is bursting with a diversity of flora and fauna, thanks to the careful planting locations and management of a couple dedicated to keeping the land healthy.

By Deborah Hyk

Texas organic cotton supplier weathers moisture and weed challenges

Gary Oldham of Texas comes from a long line of cotton farmers. His farm has been in the family 80 years and family members were growing cotton elsewhere long before. He’s been raising certified organic cotton since 1992, but he says the farm was organic before that, simply without the certification.

He notes that cotton-processing mills need only to clean equipment between batches to keep cotton organic. Finding a mill was a bit of a challenge. But the biggest challenge to his crop, he says, is weather. “Young cotton is susceptible to wind, rain and hail,” he notes.

Like all organic farmers, Oldham finds that weed control is the biggest challenge. Another problem is that he has to wait until a freeze kills the cotton stalks, and rain during that period may lower the fiber quality.

“Weevils are the biggest pest threat, but rotation helps that,” he says. His farm is considered small at 2,500 organic acres, and only 400 in cultivation with a rotation of cotton, peanuts, wheat and beans. The rest is pasture for grazing cattle, which are not certified, though he says they could be . “We just don’t have the demand for organic cattle to do that yet,” says Oldham.

Visit Oldham’s website:

Sustainably networked

Karen and Church Knierim bring careful thought to how they sustain their land and their enterprises. They lend this same care to advancing sustainability in a cluster of Minnesota-wide efforts.

They are involved in:

Regional Sustainable Development Partnership (RSDP), University of Minnesota, and the Statewide Coordinating Committee for the RSDPs

Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture (MISA), University of Minnesota

Council on Public Engagement, University of Minnesota (COPE)

Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota (SFA) (Central Chapter and SFA Board of Trustees

Chuck Kneirim will be speaking at the annual conference of the Sustainable Farming Association (www.sfa-mn.org) on Feb. 17, 2007, at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, Minnesota.

Posted November 9, 2006: When rolling down the driveway toward Chuck and Karen Knierim’s house, time seems to fade away. The farmstead, when you reach it, is quiet, sheltered from the sound of the nearest roadway by thick groves of pines, oak, spruce and birch. The farmhouse is the oldest in the area. Chickens and turkeys roam freely, as horses graze in a pasture that surrounds the farm. Stands of lush forest abound in every direction in this spot near Breezy Point, Minnesota.

For Karen, it’s the place and the life she knew she wanted from the very beginning. As a child in suburban St. Louis Park, Minnesota, she knew she couldn’t abide the city. Maybe it was the lack of animals that drew her to the country. Or maybe it was the drive she shares with Chuck to be part of something bigger—something wonderfully sustainable.

The farm has evolved over the years to make sustainability an aspect of every function of the operation. “We’ve been growing organic vegetables for over 30 years,” says Karen, noting that’s where the farm began its journey even though most people didn’t know what that meant 30 years ago. Today, customers at the Crow Wing County co-op purchase their vegetables—and today’s customer is a bit more savvy.

Since they purchased the farm in 1974, the Knierim’s have developed a multifaceted approach to sustainability and recycling. One aspect of this is seen in their organic cotton clothing business. The venture, started in 1994, is a full-time business with some part-time help in the winter and three to four full-time employees in the summer.

Serious injury spurs innovation

The business was, in some ways, the happy result of an unfortunate event. While Chuck was doing logging work, a large log rolled off a truck and landed on him, breaking his back. Chuck was facing a long recovery, leaving Karen with limited help, and looming college tuition for their three daughters.

The solution seemed obvious, in hindsight. “I’ve always taken in sewing,” says Karen. So it was a natural thing for her to begin making clothing. It was also a way for the farmers to increase their efforts at environmental, social and economic sustainability.

Karen conducted research into the cotton industry. She quickly learned of the toll cotton clothing production was taking on the social fabric of the world. She discovered that as much as 97 percent of clothing for sale in the mainstream department stores and retail outlets is produced overseas, much of it in sweatshops or labor camps that have deplorable labor standards. She adds that the cotton produced worldwide “is raised on only about 3 percent of the arable land, but is treated with 25 percent of all agricultural chemicals used.”

Karen hoped she could create a growing demand for organic cotton—and she has. She found an organic cotton grower, and a mill that would handle the raw product to keep it certified organic (see sidebar). Initially, the clothing was sold through some national catalogues and to 60 small boutiques. Soon the business boomed, requiring from seven to 10 employees to meet orders from clients. “We learned that success came with stress and large investments,” notes Karen. “Now, we want to stay small.”

Karen has designed a line of clothing primarily for women, although she does make items for men. To make her business as efficient and frugal as possible, Karen decided to sew together all the scraps of fabric leftover from clothing.These strips are woven with strands of hemp to make rugs.

Chuck has turned to another part of the farm to provide structures for the workshop and to maintain the house and barn. The forested land, as Chuck says, is also a garden. “Our soil is very sandy, mostly glacial moraine,” he says. “Not good farmland, but great for growing trees.” And so, nearly 18 of the farm’s acres now grow wood.

The farm practices what Chuck calls “sustained yield timber management.” To make this possible, the trees are carefully planted, tended, pruned and harvested, in much the same way vegetables are harvested from the garden—with an eye toward a meal today and many meals more during the season.

Patience measured in decades

The forest’s season is years—even decades—long. “I hear other farmers talking about patience, and I think that a farmer really knows patience when they manage a tree farm,” he says. A look at past tree-farming practices revealed to Chuck what he needed to do to create a sustainable business, productive land and a healthy forest.

Every year, the couple plants hundreds of trees, including fruit and nut trees that someday may provide harvests. “We dig a big hole, and fill it with lots of compost to give the best start possible to the fruiting trees,” says Karen.

“We want to establish a diverse permaculture, not a monoculture,” Chuck notes.

“Much of it has been allowed to go back to a natural state of vegetation,” says Karen. The Wildrose Farm forests are highly biodiverse, and the landscape is bursting with wildlife and songbirds that have come to exploit the new habitat.

In Europe, the couple note, local agricultural specialties are highly valued by the market now—because farmers in a region have focused on what they could produce best. The two hope to employ that principal on their farm as their many species of forest crops come into production.

Someday, they may sell maple syrup from the numerous volunteer maples on their farm. Maples are threatened elsewhere by climate change and earthworm encroachment. But Chuck feels the forest litter he leaves behind is helping the worms—and the maples—flourish in a more natural setting.

This is all part of a plan to reconnect farmers to consumers, and revive the economic sustainability of farms in Minnesota and America farm. Chuck and Karen have worked to get farmers’ markets going all over the state. “It’s much better when the consumer hands you the money for your product,” Chuck says. The relationship, the connection and the increased revenue are all immeasurably valuable.

To make that kind of success for his farm, Chuck plans his woodworking projects carefully. When he begins a piece, he finds a tree or trees that will fit the need without cutting to reduce waste. Chuck notes that some of the reasons so many forests are in trouble are clear cutting and monoculture. “We might be able to use 50 percent of a tree for a building or woodworking project,” he notes. The rest is used for firewood to stokethe farm’s wood-fired water heater, which provides heat to the farm buildings. The smaller branches, leaves and any trimmings he returns to the forest floor to decay and feed the soil.

The firewood scraps and scraps from a local mill and woodworking company also feed the fire that heats the home and the hot water tank for the farm. “People ask what we’re growing here,” says Chuck. “There are more things than can be counted.”

Lumber crop becomes workshop

The tree farm has played a supporting role in the organic cotton clothing business. Chuck carefully harvested a number of mature pines to build a workshop for Karen. He tucked the loft into the hillside, providing ample storage space. The building features a southwestern exposure to take in ambient sunlight and heat through windows, and well-placed track lighting to keep all the workstations bright enough for Karen and her employee helpers.

After the couple decided to begin marketing Karen’s clothing themselves, they opted to sell at the Renaissance Festival in Shakopee, Minnesota. The festival takes place for seven weekends each fall, and the couple purchased a building there from which to sell their goods. Chuck harvested lumber from the farm, remodeled the building and added a second story to improve its effectiveness during the event.

All of their efforts with the trees and the clothing business have won them some hard-earned recognition. In 1999, they won the Governor’s Award for Excellence in Waste and Pollution Prevention for recycling all scraps into rugs or archival-quality paper. The use of a wood-fired furnace that heats the house and the shop with in-floor water heaters also helped boost this farm to the top of sustainable Minnesota businesses.

Karen and Chuck don’t rest easy on their success. Recently, the couple replaced all their light bulbs with compact fluorescent lights, further reducing energy consumption. They also decided to add some solar panels to slash their reliance on outside sources of energy.

“Years ago, when we had goats, we knew we saved the life of at least one child with goats’ milk,” says Karen. Some customers continue to come for health reasons. They are part of an increasing population segment that is chemically sensitive to a range of synthetic products and ingredients. Many of them find it impossible to wear conventional clothing. But most of her customers, Karen says, are simply people who are environmentally aware.

Karen and Chuck serve people who, like them, are gaining insight into their ecological impact on the world in the areas of energy consumption, chemical use and byproduct waste. “We just want all of our efforts to build sustainability,” says Karen.

Visit the Knierim’s farm at www.wildrosefarm.com.