DAWSON, Minn. — About 50 barn swallows sat on the power line which ran parallel to the drive to the farmhouse of Luke and Ali Peterson outside of Dawson. As the car rolled past, they leapt from the wire and began their aerial acrobatics. They appeared to be having fun.
In their seventh season of farming, and despite the unpredictable weather of recent years, the Petersons also seemed to be having fun. Ali, a nurse practitioner on maternity leave holding their second son, Oaken, joined the relaxed conversation on the front porch as artist and farmer Luke talked about his two vocations. Daughter Esther and first son Orville played nearby.
“This morning I was thinking that farming and wood carving don’t have much to do with each other,” Luke said, “but then I thought — in a weird way, wood carving got me into farming.”
It was wood carving that he was pursuing when, newly married in 2008, the Petersons went to Alaska so Luke could work with renowned chain saw carver Scott Hanson. There they made a connection which eventually led them to Joey Bishop, a farmer near Fargo. Ali was earning her Bachelor of Science degree in nursing at North Dakota State University and Luke was studying carpentry in Morehead. Luke needed a place out of the city to do his chain saw carving.
“The intent was to carve out on his farm and it turned into more of working on the farm — learning the ropes of farming,” Luke said.
Luke had grown up on a farm, but hadn’t seriously considered farming. Once he started working with Bishop, he discovered how much he liked planting a crop, running machinery, even the mechanics of keeping machinery running.
When Ali graduated with her RN degree in 2011 (she would get her Master of Science degree from South Dakota State University and become a nurse practitioner in 2016), they moved to their twelve-acre farmstead near Dawson, near where they had both grown up and had gotten jobs. Ali was a nurse in Dawson. Luke did prairie restoration for the Department of Natural Resources and farmed 40 acres. But when Esther was born, he wanted to be able to help more at home. In 2013 he was able to rent 320 acres and began farming conventionally.
“We did okay,” Ali said. “We were lucky. Prices were good.”
Once he came to understand agribusiness and marketing and got involved in selling seed, Luke said he realized “the whole business model showed me it is a ‘get big or get out’ industry. I had 320 [rented] acres and we don’t own any land.” That did not augur a prosperous future.
Here he saw another connection between art and farming.
“I came to the realization that if my kids were going to farm, I might not be able to play this [conventional] game forever, so I’d have to get creative. That’s where the wood carving came into farming, the creative side, thinking outside of the box.”
In 2015 he decided to transition to organic farming. He got in contact with Carmen Fernholz, a successful organic farmer from nearby Madison.
“Carmen was known in the community as the organic farmer east of town, so it wasn’t hard to meet up with him,” Luke said. “He was only a few miles away and more than willing to share information.”
Fernholz became his mentor.
“From there, we’ve been plugging away with organics and we’ve been successful at it,” Luke said.
He saw the possibility that organic agriculture may someday become industrialized, and felt the need to become even more creative.
“I’ll always be certified organic,” he said, “but I think in my lifetime I’ll need to keep moving forward with direct marketing, building relationships with people, to show true transparency on our farm, so people can know their farmer directly.”
Pursuing that idea brought him into contact with Steve Horton. Horton had a bakery in Minneapolis and saw a value in having fresh flour to work with.
“They were talking about building a business where they work directly with farmers,” Luke said. “We had the same goal: building relationships with people. Their business model is to buy grain directly from the farmer, mill it in the bakery, and then sell flour and different pastries and breads in the Minneapolis area.”
The business is called Baker’s Field Flour & Bread, and Peterson became one of their growers.
“If they have a variety [of grain] they want to try, I’ll put in a small acreage of it and they can test it and see if it’s worth using. It’s amazing the different characteristics in different varieties after you talk to a baker. They put it through the mill and start baking with it. That’s what really tells the story.”
Peterson said what a baker is looking for is the taste of the flour — something he as a farmer hadn’t thought about. In 2019 he planted nine types of grain, most going to Baker’s Field: Nothstine Dent corn (being experimented with for corn meal), flax, Streaker oats, Forefront wheat, and heritage wheat varieties Emmer, Einkorn and Redeemer.
“Baker’s Field is unique because they value relationships with people as their first goal,” Luke said. “This needs to come first before profit if we want to see our communities thrive.”
Two crops are sold on the organic market. Soybeans are sold as seed to Blue River Hybrids in Ames, Iowa. Yellow field corn is marketed through a Minnesota cooperative, OFARM.
“OFARM is a collective bargaining platform that is farmer owned,” Luke said. “I feel that this is important to be a part of because if we don’t start working together as farmers, we surely will fall apart. In these financially difficult times, I see farmers competing against each other for land and a place in the market, when we should be competing against the corporations that set our grain prices and the price of our inputs.”
With the retirement of Fernholz, Peterson is transitioning to Fernholz’s land and will have about 450 acres in 2020. His pieces of land run mostly along State Hwy. 40, from Madison to Lac Qui Parle Lake. While that is a bit of a stretch, Ali said it can help spread out the workload if it rains on one end and not the other.
They apply what are often termed ‘regenerative’ practices.
“This year we will have eight different species of cover crops that we will be planting,” Luke said. “We have pollinator strips around all of our farms; we eliminated fall tillage on annual crops; and do minimum tillage in the spring for a seedbed. We’re really focusing on soil health. One reason we are going down this path is that we believe that we have a carbon issue and we need to start pulling carbon back into the soil where it belongs. We are hoping in the long run to build our soil back up to have a little more resilience against the weather variability that we’ve been having.”
Even though there may be some risk in going “outside of the box,” Ali is supportive of what Luke is doing. That’s partly because he supported her while she was in nursing school and then got her nurse practitioner license. Yet, it goes beyond that.
“From my healthcare perspective, I see the importance of what Luke is doing in soil health and healthy food,” Ali said. “In my line of work I see a lot of poverty and people not eating healthy and good nutritious food. The health of the community starts with the health of the soil. The health of the people is all directly related.”
Peterson will bring livestock into the mix in increments. This year he has five steers on grass, and will move the grass-fed beef forward as the market grows.
The wood carving that led him to farming has not been abandoned; though it gets more attention in the winter. He said it’s “kind of laid back,” because now he focuses on what he wants to make rather than on what he thinks will sell. Still, he has no trouble selling what he makes.
“People just seem to show up,” he said. “It’s kind of word of mouth.”
Luke has done a lot of wildlife carvings — bear, eagle, moose — but now enjoys carving roosters. That could be a sign of things to come. Chickens could become a part of their diversified enterprise someday.
Right now he has to hire the cleaning of his grain. He said he loses 20-30 percent of the grain in cleaning — a loss which could be fed to chickens. He would like to take over the cleaning step and has purchased used cleaning equipment, but is still looking for a used gravity table to separate out the heavy kernels after the grain has gone through the fanning mill.
While Luke Peterson continues to carve wood, he and Ali are also carving their niche in the big world of farming. They are small compared to the average farm, but size is not their goal. They are more attuned to the health of their soil and the food they produce, being resilient in a time of climate change, and establishing relationships at a time that consumers have a growing interest in who grows their food. Ali looks forward to a time when the relationship they have with Baker’s Field, a company three hours away in the city, might be a model replicated in rural communities.
Is this an adventure?
“Yes,” said Luke, “and it will never end. Once you know, you can’t un-know and now we just keep plugging away. It makes it more fun, too.”
You can follow the Petersons on their adventure on Instagram @aframefarm. If you don’t use Instagram, they can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Samples of Luke’s wood carving can be found at www.custommade.com/by/petersonfarms/ Find out more about Baker’s Field at https://bakersfieldflour.com.