Walking the Path Together, When It Matters Most
by Leigh Adcock
Women farmers often say that they owe their success to meeting just the right person at just the right time. Mairi Doerr and Hannah Bernhardt are Minnesota farmers who are helping each other meet two very different goals.
Hannah is a beginning farmer. She grew up on a conventional grain farm in south central Minnesota. Although she loved her childhood experiences, playing outside for hours and helping with the livestock, she never considered farming as a career. After attending college on the east coast, she worked in politics and government, first in Minnesota, then in Washington, DC. Then she began to miss farming and rural life.
“ I started wanting to advocate for things that I really cared deeply about,” she says. So she found work organizing with The Greenhorns, a network of young farmers, and their sister organization, the National Young Farmers Coalition. Talking with farmers and attending conferences for these groups, Hannah met other young people who were actually making it as farmers, contrary to the messages she’d received growing up.
“I started getting excited about it and thinking maybe I could do it too.”
She says it took a little bit of time for her to get there. For two years, she worked in marketing at the last remaining milk processing plant in New York City. When she was laid off due to financial constraints, she “took a leap of faith” and went to work as an apprentice at two commercial rooftop farms in Brooklyn, Eagle Street Rooftop Farm and the Brooklyn Grange. She grew her first vegetables on an urban rooftop, and remembered how much she loved being outdoors, even in the city. She cobbled together an income teaching yoga and found part-time marketing work (through the Good Food Jobs website) for Roaring Brook Dairy, a small woman-owned company that sells home cheese-making kits.
Her next leap of faith landed her at Kinderhook Farm in upstate New York, where she worked as an apprentice raising grassfed sheep and cattle and pastured chickens and pigs. She worked six days a week at the farm, and continued her marketing job on her “day off”. (“I always knew I was a little bit of a workaholic, so farming is a good fit for me,” she says.)
After reconnecting with her love of animals, Hannah knew that she wanted to start her own enterprise involving livestock, and she felt it was time to return home to Minnesota to be closer to family. In early 2015 she moved in with her parents for the winter, attended every sustainable ag conference she could find, and began “stalking” all the sheep dairies she could find in the upper Midwest. When she saw a job posting at Shepherd’s Way Farms she jumped at the chance even though it was an hour away. “I forced myself upon them,” she says, laughing. Through some relentless networking, she then made contact with the Sustainable Farming Association, and SFA staff sent an email to its local network alerting farmers that a beginner was looking for land in that region to start a small enterprise, and that’s how Hannah made contact with Mairi Doerr.
Mairi is the owner of Dancing Winds Farm Stay, a farm retreat near Kenyon, MN. The farm has evolved through several incarnations, as has Mairi.
Although she didn’t grow up on a farm, she spent a lot of time outdoors as the youngest of a family of five children with active, sports-oriented parents. After her mother died of cancer when Mairi was 20, her siblings encouraged her to take some time to travel and explore her options. After spending nine months hiking in the South Pacific, she returned to the US with a desire to pursue a career growing things and taking care of animals.
Mairi finished an AAS degree in horticulture from the University of Minnesota-Waseca Technical College and worked for 11 years in various aspects of this field. For all of her 20's and still today, Mairi also pursued her passion for the outdoors: camping and canoeing in particular. She trained and was certified to lead all-women's Boundary Waters and Quetico Canoe Trips with two premier outdoor organizations of the day: "WoodsWoman" based in Minneapolis, and "Women in the Wilderness" based in St Paul. Mairi continues to lead canoe trips, although now mostly with friends, into the Boundary Waters and the Quetico Provincial Park. She continues her love of gardening, caring for animals, and adventures in the outdoors.
In the fall of 1979, Mairi had a severe respiratory reaction while spraying pesticides in her greenhouse grower position in NE Minneapolis. She was hospitalized for six days, and it became a life-changing event for her. Going organic was not an option Mairi was aware of at the time, so she chose to "retire" from horticulture and re-train in a one-year certified training as a computer programmer. Mairi learned the seven most-used "computer languages" of the day. (Remember, she notes: this was in 1981...before desktop computers even existed!)
She graduated in spring of 1982 and worked at two part-time, well-paying jobs: one with Minnegasco (now Excel Energy) and the second with Thrift Trading Company – both in downtown Minneapolis. However, after nearly two years, Mairi was tired of "staring at a green screen all day and not even knowing what the weather was like outside." When her uncle, who was a semi-retired crop farmer near Hamel, MN, offered her the chance to care-take his farm while he needed to be away for six months, Mairi jumped at the opportunity.
“During that time, I read the book Journal of a Solitude by May Sarton, and that really sparked my feelings of ‘Why am I not living on the land, pursuing the things I really love to do?’” She scraped together her savings and a s
“During that time, I read the book Journal of a Solitude by May Sarton, and that really sparked my feelings of ‘Why am I not living on the land, pursuing the things I really love to do?’”
Mairi had recently made friends with a woman on a recent Everglades canoe-trip who shared a similar "farm dream". So, together, they decided to pool their resources and make their dream come true! After all, Mairi was now 31 years old and ready to put down some roots.
So began a search for fertile farmland in Minnesota. Mairi had enough savings plus a small inheritance from her mother to contribute to this project. Her friend was counting on proceeds from the sale of a home in Florida.
They acted on some good advice from Mairi's uncle and made up separate lists of what was priority to each of them in a piece of land. This was before the days of real estate being listed on the Internet. The two beginning farmers logged many miles on the road together and six months of searching.
Then Mairi's uncle told them to look at 40 farms first. He said, "Even if you think you find ‘the right place’ on the first try, DON'T BUY IT! The more places you look at, the more your vision will gain clarity and your priorities may have to adjust.” But pretty soon, he said, when you see the right place...you'll know it.
“It was a useful process, because we both had a few differing priorities but still a similar vision,” Mairi said. “When we realized any farmland available on water, let alone a canoe-able river, was way out of our reach monetarily, we lowered that priority. A lake or rivers nearby would have to suffice.” Other criteria included soil type, useable buildings, and a home they could move into right away.
The search led them finally to the 20-acre homestead near Kenyon that became Dancing Winds. They loved the high-quality soil on the 10 tillable acres, the windbreak, the proximity to a small farming community. It had a shed, chicken coop, big barn, and milking facilities.
At this point, Mairi was still planning to raise vegetables for market – and she did that, for the first two years. Her partner kept her job as a teacher. Mairi had a paper route. And somewhere around this time, neighbors gave them a pair of goats.
“That started the trajectory,” she says. “I fell in love with them.” She had some experience with goat husbandry from having spent time during college with her brother and his wife on their rustic homestead in Washington state. She realized how hard they worked, but she was drawn to the outdoor physical labor, caring for animals she loved, and harvesting milk to consume or sell for drinking and cheese-making.
As Mairi puts it, “That started the goat cheese adventure.” She found mentors in a couple of women who operated a goat dairy near Madison, WI. She trained as a cheese-maker in Wisconsin, where licensing is required. Even though Minnesota does not have that requirement, Mairi knew that goat cheese was an unfamiliar product to many Midwesterners in the mid-1980s. She wanted to assure customers that she was a licensed cheese-maker working at a graded goat dairy, maintaining a high bar of quality.
That started a 17-year run operating a goat dairy. When the farmstead’s large original barn was lost in a fire started by a heat-lamp, Mairi and her partner worked with the man who would become their dairy inspector to rebuild a facility better suited in scale to a goat dairy. They designed a 60’ X 40’ passive solar barn for their herd (and stopped kidding in the coldest part of the winter).
At first, Dancing Winds offered fresh milk and yogurt. When they started getting more milk than they could sell fresh, they began making cheese. “We focused on chevre at first, then feta,” she says. No one else in Minnesota was making goat cheese, and Mairi’s contact at the farmers’ market said she would rather buy the product locally than keep importing it from California.
Mairi went through cycles of growth and downsizing with the dairy, as many small farmers do. When business boomed, she hired employees, but realized she didn’t enjoy the frantic pace and additional management load. She downsized back to what she could handle herself, but after 17 years found that she “didn’t have the fire in my belly anymore” for the dairy and looked into other options.
The farm stay portion of the business had been operating all along in various forms – first as a bed and breakfast. In 1996, Mairi began offering farm stay opportunities to families who would live in one end of her remodeled home, eating locally made products and enjoying the life of the farm at their own pace, walking the trails and visiting the animals.
This model worked well for Mairi. “It was appealing to me because I didn’t have to get my chores done, then try to put on a Martha Stewart breakfast.” The farm stay business ramped up as Mairi phased out of cheese-making. Then she built a new garage with a loft for hay, which eventually was turned into living quarters. “That’s where Hannah came in,” she says.
Beginning last spring, Hannah paid nominal rent to live in the guest loft and was allowed access to a rotation of former goat paddocks to raise 10 pastured pigs (see – or eat! -- the results at www.BellyRubBacon.com). After a successful first season, she and her partner Jason moved into the main guest house and have helped take care of Mairi’s property and two remaining goats over the winter, while shopping for the right farmland for them.
Having Hannah living on the farm has allowed Mairi the freedom to purchase her dream home, 25 miles away on a lake, and explore options for her next life-adventure. Mairi and her fiancé Sue are now taking the Land Stewardship Project’s farm transition class. For now, she will rent the farm business with its 10 tillable acres, farm stay capability, and room for livestock, as they decide what comes next.
Meanwhile, Hannah has had the freedom to experience running her own farm enterprise, market and sell her own product, and begin looking for a farm with 100-plus acres where she and Jason hope to rotationally graze cattle and sheep, perhaps evolving into breeding stock with chickens and pigs, and one day start a family. They are taking the LSP’s Farm Beginnings course this winter to help them chart their course.
“This set-up at Mairi’s has been perfect, a transitional step that we really needed,” Hannah says. “A lot of beginning farmers need it, whether or not they realize it.”
For Mairi’s part, she is committed to passing her farm business on to a beginning woman farmer. “Last year was my 30th anniversary at the farm. It’s been my home longer than any other,” she says. “In my heart, I have a real desire to see it taken to the next level, maybe certified organic. And I want to pass it on to female energy, and help someone get up and running the way my mother and grandmother and other women helped me.”