Former landless farmer plants Barnum roots
Rising Phoenix landing: Heather-Marie Bloom traded leasing spaces across the Northland and living in a tiny house to settling on 40 acres in Barnum. And Year One has been fruitful.
Heather-Marie Bloom stood surrounded by drying garlic stalks. About 300 pounds covered table after table, headed soon to Bloom’s CSA members, the Whole Foods Co-op or back in the ground for next year’s harvest.
It was the first thing planted in Bloom’s newly acquired farmland this fall, and she didn’t know how the soil would respond. This plentiful bounty feels appropriate for a former landless operation called Rising Phoenix Community Farm.
Bloom had been leasing land in a rotation of Northland locations — Esko, Wrenshall and Prairie Lake — living out of a tiny house, farming full-time and working two to three jobs on the side. Since 2011, her operation moved five times before landing last year at its now-home.
Today, she and her partner, John Hatcher, live on 40 acres outside of Barnum, and since May, they’ve erected a greenhouse, a walk-in cooler, a fence and a rain garden for pollinators.
In addition to farming and feeding 73 people through their CSA (community-supported agriculture), they’ve also hosted “kimchi kamp,” a member-led fermenting workshop and a movie night/bonfire.
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They bought a walk-behind tractor and a van for their deliveries with help from a Farm Services Agency loan. “We did our deliveries in a Prius before, which was hilarious. Sort of like a clown car, all these vegetables would come pouring out,” Bloom said.
It’s been a busy year, and much has changed since the previous owners sold the farm.
Ed Johnson’s family, originally from Ontario, Canada, moved in 1906 to the Barnum homestead, where they would farm oats and corn and run a dairy farm and, eventually, a beef cattle farm.
After the death of their mother, Ed Johnson and his two sisters Susan DaPra and Sharon Riemer decided to sell with the intention that the land not be divided into small plots or go as a rental.
Soon after, Johnson saw Bloom and Hatcher’s newspaper ad seeking a farm to buy.
“When they came along, it seemed like they had the right idea,” Johnson recalled.
They were realistic, they had a clear vision, and Johnson was encouraged that Bloom had a long farming and CSA history.
Also: “They’d make a good couple in the neighborhood,” said Johnson, who lives a half-mile away. “I expect to see them there for quite a few years.”
Johnson has helped Bloom and Hatcher erect their fence, he gets veggies from them each week, and it helps the couple to be in contact with him in case they have questions about the property later, Hatcher said.
Before Rising Phoenix moved in, Johnson and his siblings had more than 100 years’ worth of things to go through. It took six weeks, which allowed them time to reminisce.
“It still brings back memories when I go over there,” Johnson said.
When Johnson left the farm, he and his wife prepared a personalized passing of the torch.
“When we moved in, this was sitting on our table,” said Hatcher.
“With a basket of fruit,” added Bloom.
It was a picture featuring the first of Johnson’s family to live there with a note, “Welcome to your farm.”
Bloom grew up in a Twin Cities suburb. Starting at a Catholic worker farm drew her into agriculture. She interned at Northern Harvest Farm, and soon ventured out on her own, launching a CSA with 12 members.
The next year, she had 27.
Her planning system is still all analog. She keeps her records in a giant three-ring binder — and it works. Every year, she knows exactly when her veggies need to be planted.
Bloom pulled out a tiny notebook and pencil from her pocket. She can tell you what they’ve offered each week and how many. This week’s CSA offerings?
“Sixteen,” she said.
“To do it right, it’s this choreography. It’s like a fireworks display that’s got to go off all summer long. That’s a part I’m glad I don’t have to think about or know,” said Hatcher.
It’s an industry with a tricky culture for female farmers. People will show up and speak only to Hatcher.
“We’ve had some people stop by and ask questions and he’s like, ‘I don’t know, you’re going to have to ask the boss.’ And they’re always like, ‘Oh it’s not you, the man?’” said Bloom.
“He’s really great at pointing out that this is my farm, my business,” she said.
“We obviously both live here, but this is a sole proprietor farm that she runs. I work when I can in support of her,” added Hatcher, a full-time University of Minnesota Duluth professor.
They have a good workflow and, aware of a need for balance in farming, they are good at splitting and sticking to certain jobs.
The weeks are a mix: harvest and delivery on Tuesdays, onsite farm stand on Fridays.
The rest of the week is cultivating, weeding, watching for insect damage or signs of stress with heat or water or fungus.
“You’re babysitting thousands of babies all the time,” Bloom said.
While they’ve been productive, it has been a challenging year and a challenging time for farmers. The growing season is changing, and they’re seeing different bugs on their plants.
Bloom lost quite a few from their first planting due to freezing temperatures in May, and then there’s the drought, she said, recalling lost seedlings.
“It smelled like cooked cabbage out there. Everything was burnt to a crisp and there’s nothing you can do about it,” Bloom said.
“Farming is sort of an exercise in resilience and stubbornness,” she added
It’s also a type of public service that prompts you to consider your values, added Hatcher.
“If you’re totally oriented, and we’re totally not, toward profit, then you probably should be doing something else,” Hatcher said. “But if you think of it more in terms of, if your priorities are being good to land, growing food that you eat, that your family and friends eat, and doing something that’s of value, that has meaning.”
During the News Tribune visit, the veggies were coming in full force.
Tomato and cucumber plants were trellised high above Hatcher’s tall frame. The beds were bursting with summer squash, peppers of all kinds, Thai basil and shiso, a Vietnamese herb.
Taking a break from harvesting jalapenos, Alli Szewczynski said she asked to work on the farm this summer because she wanted to learn more about how food is grown.
Along with an intro to Napa cabbage and kohlrabi, she now knows some sustainable farming practices and what goes into growing veggies on a larger scale.
Of Bloom and Hatcher, Szewczynski spoke with adoration and high regard.
“Obviously, the farm is very important to them, but with all the love they put into the farm, the community is really big for them, too,” she said.
Alesha Murphy and her mother have been Rising Phoenix community members for about eight years. Working with Bloom was their introduction to CSAs.
“Being involved in a CSA means eating a little bit differently. Not eating what you want to eat, but adjusting what you eat by what’s in season and what the farm’s producing,” she said, adding that Bloom has always done a great job of informing her members of what’s going to be included in the week’s share and ways to prepare them.
Murphy and her daughter, Fiona, 10, are active in the community Bloom has built.
They’ve gone to the member movie night, they’ve eaten ice cream with the farmers, and while they didn’t make it to kimchi kamp, Fiona made a connection to the Korean cuisine in a book she’s reading.
Of Bloom’s recent move, Murphy said, “It’s been fun to see her be able to literally and figuratively put her roots down at this new farm, and that sigh of relief that this is home.”
To learn more
On Our Farm is a profile of Northland farms and the people behind them. If you have one to recommend, email Melinda Lavine at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 218-723-5346.