WILLMAR, Minn. — Alan and Helen Arends are still figuring out how to develop the 250-acre farm on which Alan is the fourth generation to live. It has been transitioned to organic, but Alan is still experimenting to determine which crops and markets will bring a good return. Alfalfa sold to a dairy farmer and grass-fed beef are the main farm enterprises right now. They’re not certain what the end-product will look like.
But somehow you can be confident that after Alan (a Willmar native) and Helen (a Moscow, Russia native) figured out how to complete a 5,000 mile romance which resulted in marriage and eight children (ages 2-22), they will figure this out, too.
In the meantime, bread, pizza, grass-fed beef and free-range chickens are providing for their needs.
Let’s go back to the beginning.
Alan was in his late teens when he went on a mission trip to Russia in 1992. Helen was a Russian teenager who served as an interpreter for his group. They obviously were attracted to each other.
“He had a very original pick-up line,” Helen said with a laugh. “He asked, ‘Can you help me memorize John 1:1 in Russian?’”
It was good enough to start a relationship which resulted in marriage in 1995. Helen, “always open for an adventure,” moved to Minnesota. She wasn’t concerned about adjusting to the change.
“We were starting a new life together, a family together,” she said.
Alan’s widowed grandfather still lived on the farm. Alan worked with his father in manufacturing in Willmar. In 2000, the couple moved to the farm to be with his grandfather and stayed on after his death. Alan had often visited his grandparents on the farm, helped with the garden and butchering chickens. When he was old enough to start learning about crop farming, the mid-1980s farm crisis hit and his grandfather quit farming and rented out the land.
“About all I had learned was how to drive a tractor,” Alan said.
Even though Alan was not a farmer, having worked in manufacturing for 20 years, he said, “I was well-aware that a 250-acre farm was not what it was 50 years ago and it would be tough to get a return with conventional corn and beans.”
When he took over the land, Alan began the transition to organic and tried various gluten-free grains and alternative crops. Currently, the farm produces the alfalfa that he sells, rotationally grazed beef, and free-range chickens. It is the cropland that he has not yet settled into a rotation.
In the meantime, Helen was learning to be a homemaker — which included learning how to cook. If she missed anything about Russia, it was the bread with its crisp crusty exterior and chewy texture — what today might be called artisan bread.
“My mother would give me 20 kopeks and send me to the bakery for a loaf of bread,” she said. “By the time I got home I had eaten half of it.”
She couldn’t find such bread in our grocery stores, and Willmar didn’t have a bakery. Her only choice was to learn to bake it, and she did. She was also home-schooling their children.
“Sometimes I would read to my two oldest daughters,” she said. “To keep their hands busy, they would make jewelry while they listened.”
When the jewelry piled up, they decided a lesson in entrepreneurship would be good for the girls, so they took them to the weekly market in Willmar to sell jewelry. One week, Helen decided to bake bread and take it along. She baked 11 loaves and sold seven. The bread was a hit.
“It went from 11 to 20 to 30 to 40 loaves,” Helen said. Eventually she was up to 100 loaves and people were lining up to buy bread before the market opened. She now bakes 120 loaves — plus scones, fresh baklava, pies, biscotti, and other pastries and dessert items. They are sold at the market and by subscription.
Since the market was seasonal and she wanted a year-round stream of income, a daughter suggested she have a subscription service — like a magazine. During farmer’s market season, subscribers can pre-order rather than take their chances at the market. The rest of the year subscribers get a weekly loaf, plus they can special-order with smaller minimums than required on non-subscriber special orders. Once a week, Helen brings the orders to Willmar for pick-up.
Helen’s Bukovina Old World Bakery is actually her farmhouse kitchen. Her bakery is licensed under the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s Cottage Food Exemption which allows her to use her own kitchen without meeting commercial standards; but requires all sales be direct to customers — no mail or store sales — so her customers tend to be local.
What makes the bread so popular is more than a good loaf, in Helen’s estimation.
“I think bread has so much more to it than just food. It unites families around the table.” She also thinks part of the popularity is that it is sold at the farmer’s market, that it is home-baked, and that it’s not available every day. The couple tried their hand at running a coffee shop where the bread was available on a daily basis. It didn’t sell as well.
Since they had the dough business down, they expanded into pizza. After learning to use a wood-fired oven, they acquired one on wheels which they now take to events and private parties.
“We bake and sell Neapolitan pizza with a farm twist,” Helen said. “We raise our ingredients.”
The vegetables and herbs are from their organic garden, the meat from their grass-fed beef. They design pizza around what’s in season. This spring they had an asparagus pizza. When their strawberry patch produced well, Alan came up with a strawberry cheesecake dessert pizza.
At the same time, the Arends continue to plan for the future. Someday they hope to have a commercial kitchen, and they are working with an architect about remodeling their barn into an event center for weddings, reunions and gatherings. They would like to develop their farm site as a destination.
“Al and I love to have people over,” Helen said. “We love the hospitality aspect.”
There is also a desire to help people reconnect with the land — especially since there is a growing interest in people to know where their food comes from.
“Al has a strong connection with this land,” Helen said. “He also has a big heart for people and for restoring their roots (i.e. their own connection with the land).”
They love to see kids come out, put away their phones, and go dig in the non-chemical dirt of their garden, snacking on the produce.
As for the ag side of the farm, this year Alan put in 50 acres of organic field corn. But many acres are still in alfalfa.
“After 4-5 years in alfalfa, I have to start coming off of that to get a rotation going,” he said. “I’m not a farmboy, so everything has a learning curve for me.”
Whatever they do, it will all be tied to their farm, and it will be a team effort.
“We have so many options, so many dreams,” Alan said. “[We have to decide] what do we do now, what do we shelve for later, what don’t we do at all.”
What started as a Moscow romance has blossomed into raising a family on the Arends family farm near Willmar. Their children are the fifth generation to live on these acres they call The Back 40. They love the life and want to introduce others to their love for the land and the food it produces. Just how that will play out is not yet certain. What is certain is that when their family gathers around the table, there will be homemade bread.
More can be found on the Arends’ farm at https://theback40mn.com.