Exploring land-based living: Habitat restoration, hobby farms, and more

When Brittany Wiitala and Amy Peterson met in college, they immediately connected over their shared passion for working with people with disabilities. Wiitala had worked at a group home and Peterson was studying kinesiology with a minor in special education. After spending a week at a summer camp run by the Minnesota Autism Society, the two decided to combine their creativity and experience to establish a new, non-profit organization.

Today, 21 Roots Farm in Grant, MN (www.21rootsfarm.org) provides a beautiful location for children and adults with developmental disabilities to connect with nature, community, and dignity through farming. The farm features ten acres of pasture, a prairie, apple orchard, veggie plots, and numerous farm animals. It offers a variety of programs for participants, sells veggies through a weekly subscription program known as a CSA (community supported agriculture), and even has an Animal Pen Pal program that allows participants to keep in touch with their favorite farm animals via email or old fashioned mail.

“It isn’t a hobby farm,” says Barbara Heitkamp, education coordinator for the Lower St. Croix Watershed Partnership, “but it is a farm with a different purpose.”

When Rebecca and Matt Hardy bought land in Franconia, MN a few years ago, they decided to take their farm, Rust Hill Ranch (rusthill.com), in a totally different direction. As the story goes, Rebecca’s great-grandfather Martin Rustebakke and his brothers took the train from Thief River Falls, Minnesota to Scobey, Montana to establish a homestead in 1919. There, the Rustebakke family has farmed continuously for over 100 years. Today, back in Minnesota, Rebecca and Matt are working to build on their family’s farming legacy and establish a regenerative farm of their own.

Rust Hill Ranch raises natural, pasture-grazed chickens and hogs for local sale on land that was formerly row crops. The pigs are allowed to roam free and forage in the woods, a practice known as silvopasture, and the chickens are raised outdoors in mobile “cathedrals,” with full-time access to fresh air, green leaves, bugs, and sunlight. Each day, the Hardys move these cathedrals onto a new patch of pasture to prevent over-grazing and provide a natural source of fertilizer for the fields. 

On August 1, Brittany Wiitala and Matt Hardy will share their farming stories during a special workshop hosted by the Lower St. Croix Watershed Partnership: You’ve got Land: Exploring farming and land management options for 10-40 acres.

The workshop will be held on Monday, Aug. 1, 2022, 2-5pm at Lindstrom Community Center.

“There are a lot of people in the area who have mid-sized acreage and aren’t quite sure what to do with the land,” says Heitkamp. “Sometimes they want to restore portions to natural prairie or woodlands, but often they’re interested in growing veggies or raising chickens, horses or goats as well. This workshop will offer a forum for people to learn from local farmers, consider possible options, and meet other people in the area that are pursuing similar projects.”

The workshop will be held on Monday, Aug. 1, 2-5pm at Lindstrom Community Center and will feature four special presentations, as well as small group break-out sessions, and light refreshments.

In addition to Wiitala and Hardy, other speakers will include Mary Jo Youngbauer, a conservation planner with Chisago Soil and Water Conservation District, and Julie Arnold of Shepherd Moon Farm in Lindstrom (www.shepherdmoonfarm.com). Youngbauer will talk about her efforts to restore wildlife habitat on her 40-acre property, through small wetland restorations, a prairie planting, forestry management, and creating monarch habitat. Arnold will talk about the conservation practices they utilize at Shepherd Moon Farm, which is a small, woman-owned, veggie CSA. These include crop rotation, limited tilling, and manure composting. Each of the speakers will also share information about financial assistance programs they’ve utilized to offset costs.

To RSVP for the Aug. 1 workshop or learn more about financial and technical support for local small-scale farming, contact Barbara Heitkamp at bheitkamp@mnwcd.org.