Certified organic staple crops farm near Moorhead, Minnesota fosters a wide range of farmers and farmer training
Doubting Thomas Farms manages 1,200 acres of biodiverse working lands near Moorhead, MN. The farm is certified organic, and is clearly an asset to the region, the watershed, and the grain chain. So what’s to doubt?
Noreen Thomas explains that when she and her husband Lee—the 5th generation stewarding their land—decided to go organic, Lee’s father thought they’d be the last to work the farm. “The older generations did things differently. There was uncertainty over whether we could survive depending on niche markets for sales.” she says.
The farm has changed a lot in their tenure. Increasing the biodiversity of what they produce is a big focus, as well as broadening who participates in stewarding and accessing their acres. Noreen and Lee’s daughter-in-law Melany (pictured here with Noreen) has assumed many farm responsibilities, and currently produces wheat, rye, oats, barley, buckwheat, and soybeans on 800 acres. One neighboring farmer rents 200 acres and primarily grows soybeans, and another rents land to grow hay. A beekeeper maintains over two million bees around the farm’s perimeter, while a grazier manages cattle on perimeter buffer zones.
Doubting Thomas grows corn for the White Earth Nation, delivering it back to the Tribe, both as food and to continue to keep the seed they’ve maintained for thousands of years. The farm also has five acres of pollinator habitat, and hosts USDA research plots of perennial flax. On top of that, they offer space for an herbalist to gather medicinal plants for teas and salves, and for a chef to grow cooking herbs.
Doubting Thomas Farms works with six other women-owned farms to produce their seven-grain cereal, which Noreen cleans, blends, and packages. “Farm work can be isolating, so it feels good to be working with these farmers, and also chefs like Andrea Baumgardner from BernBaum’s—we have a really innovative way of working together.”
In addition to the cereal processing, Noreen rents a facility where she rolls oats for their line of other consumer packaged grain products including pancake mix, wheat berries, and a variety of flours. Her work extends into many off-farm projects, such as collaborating on the Midwest Mediterranean Cookbook: Finding Health & Flavors with Foods of the North, which adapts the tenets of the diet to the region, and as a “Conservation Connector” with AGC member Renewing the Countryside, linking historically underserved beginning farmers with resources available through USDA’s Farm Service Agency and Natural Resources Conservation Service.
While Noreen leaves most of the farming to Melany these days, they’re both involved in marketing and are very engaged in teaching, research, and policy. Noreen recently hand-delivered some of their open pollinated blue corn, destined to be featured in a special craft brew by Arbeiter Brewing in the Twin Cities. As an example of the need for cooperation, she says, “The market for blue corn is saturated right now. There’s a lot of instability in the supply chain.” That’s why she believes it’s so crucial to focus on relationships. Doubting Thomas works closely with many AGC members, including Bang Brewing and Baker’s Field Flour & Bread, who currently both toll mills grain for Doubting Thomas and purchases some for their own milling and baking.
Melany is serving as the 2023 Policy Committee Chair for the National Farmers Union and Noreen traveled to D.C. last year to advocate for soil health, better crop insurance, beginning farmers, and farmers with special needs (shown here, speaking to the Senate Committee on Agriculture). They hold several classes a year at the farm on topics from how to lightly repair a combine to how to change blades on the lawn mower. “I want to be the mentor that I wish I would have had,” Noreen says.
Doubting Thomas hosted a field day in June that included a farm tour, foraging, and an explanation of the USDA trials by researcher Brent Hulke. The group of around 40 also enjoyed lunch from a food truck featuring all local food produced within 20 miles. “It was great having more people learn about the farm,” Noreen tells us. “The questions were really good.”
Over the last five years, the farm has hosted 8,000 environmental science students from North Dakota State University. Another outreach effort is a 4H gardening program through which kids come once a week all summer to experience the farm. “They get to name chickens, interact with the dog, experience the farm, and watch the bees swarming. Sometimes there are lesson plans, but that’s not my preference—I prefer to be spontaneous.”
Melany and Noreen are invested in innovation, eager to see the development of grains like buckwheat for flavor and new varieties of wheat that are less susceptible to disease. Noreen is keenly aware of the importance of flavor, as she was a professional tea taster and sensory evaluator for Celestial Seasonings early in her career.
Doubting Thomas has another field day coming up on Sunday, August 13, with a schedule that includes a mini farmers market, kids’ activities (baby goats!), experts speaking on foraging and growing mushrooms, East African cooking, and a discussion of USDA farm programs, among other grain-y things!