I Dream a Little Too Much of How Things Could Be

April 24, 2020

An interview with Luke Peterson of A-Frame Farm

By Artisan Grain Collaborative – April 2020. This interview has been edited for clarity.

A-Frame Farm is a 500-acre certified organic farm in Madison, MN operated by Luke and Ali Peterson. The Petersons grow a diverse rotation of grain, all produced using regenerative practices focused on soil health. A-Frame Farm is on a path toward perennialization and include perennial grasses and a beef herd in their rotation.

Artisan Grain Collaborative (AGC): For those who have not been to A-Frame Farm, could you paint a picture for us?

Luke Peterson (LP): A-Frame Farm is located near Madison MN. It’s 500 acres of certified organic crop and pastured land where we grow corn, soybeans, and a variety of small grains including two- and six-row barley, hard red spring- and winter-wheat, emmer, einkorn, flax, and Streaker oats. This year we’ve also added buckwheat. These are all annual crops and as we slowly move towards a more perennialized system we’ve introduced alfalfa and Kernza®—both perennial grasses—as well as grass fed beef.

AGC: Regenerative agriculture favors practices that build up soil health and mineralogy along with promoting biodiversity. Why is this important?

LP: Diversity is key for soil health. So, for example, after we harvest hard red spring wheat we’ll plant 40 lbs of peas per acre—a cool season variety and a warm one so that we have our bases covered in terms of what fall weather will look like—and then we plant sunflowers which are used as a taproot to penetrate the soil. Tillage radishes come next to break up the soil and then purple top turnips are grown since they are a nitrogen scavenger and will hold it in the soil for next year’s crop.

AGC: You’ve mentioned a plan for the farm that focuses on perennialization. What does this look like?

LP: At the farm we are introducing as many perennials as the market will buy from us. They are multi-functional but the main purpose is so that we can minimize soil disturbance as much as possible, collecting as much sunlight as we can throughout the year to then pull carbon from the atmosphere into the soil.

Perennials that we have or will incorporate into the rotation include alfalfa which will be a forage for overwintering our livestock. Kernza® is sold both as a grain and as forage. Down the road we might use it for grazing or as a cash crop. In the future we are planning on taking row crop ground and converting it to pasture and then rotating that pasture throughout our farm as a means of fertility, keeping nutrients on our farm as local as possible.

AGC: Walk us through a small grains rotation. What does that look like?

LP: As an example, we start off with alfalfa, and then follow in order with flax, Kernza®, corn, soybeans, and then move into small grains—this process varies. Then, we work the field lightly with a cultivator to prepare a seed bed. We can’t use herbicide so we do that to kill the first thrush of wheat, then the seed bed is prepared. And then we hope and pray for rain and that all of the small grains come in at the same time. The grain grows and then dies off. We use a swather to cut the grain then let it rest. Once it is dry and crisp we come by with the combine. We only harvest the small grain and leave the rest on the field and inject manure into the soil to replace the grain that has been taken out. A multi-species cover crop mix is added to create a lush green multi-species flowering field that sets all fall and into winter. If you dig around it in the winter it smells like cabbage because all of that green matter is starting to decay. A-Frame Farm specifically uses annual cover crops that will winter kill so then the following spring we don’t have to do any deep tillage to do that. The ground is worked lightly and all of that material is broken down by micro-organisms and it decays, bringing nutrients into the soil—worms also do that work. The seed is then prepped for the following season’s crop then rotation starts again.

AGC: What is a cover crop and why is including it in the rotation an important part of farming regeneratively?

LP: The reason that we plant cover crops is that soil is a living organism and it needs to eat. It does this through photosynthesis. Cover cropping provides protections from the harsh effects of sun, wind, and too much rain, while it also controls erosion.

Anything green and living in the soil can be considered a cover crop. However, at the farm we plant specific varieties to meet the needs of each field. For example, if the soil is compacted, we’ll plant a tillage radish, which has a sharp root that goes deep and penetrates the soil, using plants to aerate and bust up the soil instead of using a large tractor pulling steel through the ground. We plant legumes like peas to provide nitrogen for the following year’s crop. What we are working towards is multi-species, multi-functional cover crop mixes which will allow us to cover all of the bases in terms of soil health.

AGC: Are there obstacles to this type of farming?

LP: There are reasons why the farms in my county plant commodity corn and soybeans. A regenerative, sustainable way of farming definitely has its challenges as the market doesn’t favor this type of production. In our county, the price of farm land is cost prohibitive because with the right inputs, we have rich fertile soil that can continuously grow high yields of corn. That’s a lot of energy that can be sold and this sets the price for what we pay for cash rent. To take this land out of a high intensity monoculture system you need to be able to pay bills by growing things like grasses, including small grains, which isn’t easy.

Another challenge is that we don’t have infrastructure to support sustainable agriculture in our local community. I’m talking of businesses like meat processing or grain cleaning facilities. Falk’s Seed Farm does it now but I want to eventually buy my own cleaning equipment and build a cleaning facility to be able to accommodate smaller batches.

Food is relatively cheap in the grocery store as consumers and corporations are not paying for the externalities that go into creating that food. In addition, consumers often do not have extra money to spend on sustainably produced local food. I think a lot of farmers would love to turn towards farming sustainably and regeneratively but the market does not favor that type of production.

AGC: As someone who grew up in rural Northern Minnesota, and has returned to farm there, how do you feel about the fact that some of your neighbors might not be able to afford the products made with your crops?

LP: This is a really difficult question for me. I’ve been growing organically for 5 or 6 years and at first I felt very frustrated. The more that I’ve had conversations and arguments with other farmers growing crops conventionally, the more it has become clear that there is a race to the bottom with a mentality that says that if I don’t do this my neighbor will and then I’ll be out of business anyway. I’ve had to separate myself from that and market myself in bigger metropolitan areas like Minneapolis where maybe I’m more understood.

This year in my rural community, we lost our hardware store. We lost our lumber yard. A few years ago we lost our bakery which is where I used to stop every day with a quarter or 50 cents for a roll when I was young. It was across the street from my mother’s clothing store in Madison, Minnesota.  Now, Casey’s, the gas station, is our new bakery; Dollar General is next to it. The grocery store that was next to my mom’s clothing store is gone, too. I am very sad about all of this.

Why are things so difficult? As a farmer rooted in this community, I need to set a price that will support other local businesses as the local economy is based off of local extractors. If i don’t set a high enough price for my products so that I can pay a carpenter or mechanic or truck driver a living wage for their work then I’ve undercut the entire system. Right now this community pays the farmer and that’s backwards. What I mean by this is that government subsidies pay farmers to grow commodities, not food. This puts everyone in a bad spot, including those farmers.

Is it the farmer’s responsibility to fix it or is it the consumer’s responsibility to buy and pay for the true cost of good food? I personally feel like it’s on the farmer because we are at the start of the system. The minute that we sell a product off the farm that’s when business begins. What we are missing is discipline. If the farmer doesn’t have enough discipline to avoid going after high yield, high dollar corn, then this is where we end up.

AGC: You’ve mentioned previously that you gravitated towards regenerative agriculture because it is “expansive” and “creative.” Why are those qualities important to you?

LP: One word: diversity. Our entire ecosystem depends on diversity and we are losing that overall. We need to be creative to address this. A-Frame Farm grew twelve different crops last year in addition to fifteen or so species of cover crops. That is twenty-seven different varieties of plants. Our next door neighbor had two.

Because we don’t use insecticides, we have a vast variety of insects who support pollination and soil health and keep the chain going. As we introduce more livestock, we’ll be bringing back ruminants to walk the prairie like they did historically. One day we hope to have a self-sustaining system. We need to be creative because marketing our ideal rotation isn’t easy in a community where what is generally sold is conventional corn and soybeans.

I have to have the product before I have a market so that I can test it and meet specs. I enjoy the changes and challenges that farming this way brings and at the same time, it can be really stressful. I dream a little too much of how things could be. But then I have a breakthrough and I’m relieved.  I came to the conclusion that I will grow it and hopefully they will come. That’s the only way that I’ve been able to find markets. The bakers out there are going through the same challenges. They too are going out into the unknown. I am trying to meet them on the other side. There is no typical structure as a farmer of this sort. You have to roll with the punches and not worry about a lot of things.

AGC: Tell us about your relationship with Baker’s Field Flour & Bread in Minneapolis. How has that connection been important to you?

LP: That relationship came about through networking with a group of like-minded people. I planted wheat without having a market for it because it was next in the rotation. I was interested in selling to the few local mills in the area so I reached out to Steve Horton, head baker at the time at Baker’s Field, and we started a conversation about what varieties to grow and how much. Demand since then has been increasing. I’ve been very happy working with them and things are continuing to go well. They’ll take a majority of my small grains this year. I’m also working with Seven Sundays, a Minneapolis muesli maker, who recently contracted us to grow thirty acres of organic buckwheat for their Wild & Free Mix that features the pseudo-cereal alongside blueberries and chia seeds.

AGC: Given that climate change has made growing food increasingly difficult for farmers and now the COVID-19 pandemic has turned our normal life upside down, what does the future look like for A-Frame Farm?

LP: Changing weather patterns in Northern Minnesota over the last couple of years have made it challenging to grow small grains. It has been too wet. Small grains grow best when they have a dry period earlier in the season. This year looks a lot better.

I grow organic corn that is sold locally to an organic hog operation. It is the heavy lifter on the farm in terms of finances and it allows me to be creative and experimental with other crops. The market for corn has dropped which makes me a little nervous. At the same time, now is not the time to think differently. Instead, it might just be the time to push forward, to move faster in this direction. Food security could become an issue one day as we seem to have all of our eggs in one basket. Therefore, we need more local sustainable farms on the landscape. The only way to get there is to build them.

On the other hand, I spoke recently with the head baker at Baker’s Field and their mill is running hot. Our plans to plant crops for them this year is still on track and the weather is cooperating so far. The pandemic could help push people to appreciate the food that we eat and to do more home cooking. Hopefully, they’ll deepen their appreciation for the restaurants and bakeries that have been supplying them with hand-crafted food all along. At A-Frame Farm, we are not going to do anything differently because we’ve been planning this rotation and adding livestock so that we can have a more resilient food system in the future.

For more information about A-Frame Farm, view Season 2: Episode 12 of the PBS show Tastemakers, which highlights their relationship with Baker’s Field. In addition head to the “highlights” portion of AGC’s Instagram account for content from the April 2020 A-Frame Farm takeover.

All images courtesy of A-Frame Farm.