Asking Questions

reprinted from the Common Harvest Newsletter, Spring 2003

Eric and Anne Nordell recommended we share this reprint of valuable information from a regional alternative agriculture bulletin. We are hoping to hear more directly from these good folks and we wish their efforts the best outcome. SFJ

Asking Questions

With the untimely death of Paul and Sheila Wellstone, the organic farming community lost dear friends and outspoken champions for sustainability. With each passing day, corporate influence and control of our food system is growing on all levels from local to global. Paul Wellstone was among a handful of people in congress willing to stand up and demand that our federal farm policy reward stewardship practices. Without Paul and Sheila’s voice we all need to find a new way to speak out for the needs of the land and work harder to protect our eroding democracy.

Another question for us has been the madness of the impending war with Iraq. So much of the life of a farm is about living the cycles of hope and regeneration. Yet, our world operates increasingly on fear and distrust. We think about farmers in Iraq as they cultivate their fields with the knowledge that at any moment terror could rain down upon them. Imagine the courage it must take to believe in the power of planting a seed under the shadow of a possible war.

As the daylight lengthens, we continue to pray for a lasting peace that will move us from fear and distrust to hope and renewal.

Given that protecting the global supply of oil is a major factor behind the possible war with Iraq, we have decided to dedicate 2003 as the year of alternative energy on the farm.

Energy use on U.S. farms has increased dramatically in the past fifty years. Some estimates are that it takes over 100 kilocalories of energy to produce one kilocalorie of food. Our own farm, although small and organic, still relies on a significant amount of fossil fuel to power our tractors and delivery van.

We feel that one of the most hopeful answers can be found in alternative energy.



This past year we decided to pursue a dream of adding horses to our farming system. In May, we purchased two Haflinger mares, Dixie and Dolly, from an Amish family near Marshfield, Wisconsin. The well-trained team of full sisters have worked together their entire lives. Last season we used them for some cultivating and pulling a wagon. Over the winter we have modified several tractor drawn implements to be used by the horses. We have also purchased a harrow, and several cultivators in the hopes of using our horses more this season in growing your food.

Learning to farm with horses has introduced us to an exciting new world of people who have quietly dedicated themselves to keeping this tradition alive. We have discovered a hidden network of small equipment manufacturers who are introducing new tools designed specifically for farms like ours. As we learn to farm with horses, our instincts tell us that we are moving closer to the answer of how to grow food more sustainably.


As our farm has become larger and more diverse over the past 14 years, we have witnessed an increase in our demand for electricity. Irrigation, refrigeration, and greenhouse heating and ventilation all require electricity to keep these systems operating.

Small wind generators are becoming more affordable and practical for individuals to purchase and install. We are currently exploring the possibility of purchasing a 20 Kw Jacobs wind turbine for our farm. The first step will be to conduct a wind speed assessment and determine if this is an appropriate alternative for us. If installed, the electricity that we would generate would be connected to the grid so that when the wind speeds are high we would be selling our excess electricity and when the wind speed is slower we would continue to have our local electric coop supply our needs.

We are blessed to have farm member Wes Slaymaker as an advisor on this project. Wes is employed in the wind industry as an engineer. Another exciting development with this project is that we have received a $5000 grant from one of our members to pursue this alternative energy source.

If everything falls into place, we could be returning a windmill to this farm for the first time in more than thirty years.


For years we have wanted to reduce our fossil fuel use in heating the greenhouse. Rather than put it off any longer, we have decided to make it a priority for this season.

We have gotten to know a number of Amish vegetable farmers through working with horses. Many of them have innovative wood fired boilers made by an Amish man, Felty Hershberger from Dalton, Wisconsin. We recently made a trip down to visit Felty and, while we were there, he showed us one of these boilers in operation. The design is quite simple. The wood stove heats water in a jacket surrounding the firebox. As the water temperature increases, the hot water rises to the top of the greenhouse where it then falls through a network of irrigation pipes that run beneath the greenhouse benches. Bottom heat is a much better heat source than our current forced air system and in two seasons the fuel savings will pay for the boiler.

We are very excited about gaining more independence by further reducing our need for off-farm inputs.


Farm member and environmental consultant Terry Foecke approached us last fall and asked if we would be interested in an alternatively fueled delivery vehicle. Being surprised that they even existed, we were naturally very excited. Terry has discovered an innovative program where major automakers donate hybrid vehicles to small, community-oriented businesses as a way to showcase new technologies. The van will have some type of advertising on it identifying it as an alternatively fueled vehicle. It sounds promising that we may receive a van sometime during the upcoming season.

We will keep you informed about this exciting project as it develops. Special thanks to Terry for all of his time and hard work on behalf of the farm.


For the past few years we have been buying various processed organic fertilizers in order to meet our fertility needs for the season. An exciting alternative has recently become available to us through a grant from the Polk County Land and Water Conservation Office. We have been awarded a matching grant to build a compost demonstration site.

Once this project is up and running, area horse owners will bring their manure for us to compost and turn into a valuable and much needed source of nutrients for the soil. The question of how to reduce our dependence on these off farm fertility sources has challenged us for years. Now it appears that the answers are falling into place.


All of these developments however, would not be possible without the support of our members. We can take risks and make changes on the farm because we know that we have your commitment and support far beyond this season.

Together we are creating a new way of relating to the land and to each other. We can think of few things that are more hopeful as we look for answers to creating a more sustainable future.

This article was reprinted from the Common Harvest Newsletter Spring 2003 edition.