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