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
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
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
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,”
“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
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
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
“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.