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Be innovative; don’t go away
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Be innovative; don’t go away

DULUTH, Minn. – Some people begin a project only to encounter obstacles; they quit and go on to something else. But other folks innovate over and around obstacles to achieve a specific goal. Sometimes their deep thoughts and spirited innovations lead to amazing results. In the process they may discover what’s best for their land and themselves.

Just before the turn of the century Jeff Hall and Cindy Hale started to farm on 40 acres north of Duluth. They started with the goal of producing healthy and sustainable food for family and friends. They had no farming experience, but knew they wanted their farm to be sustainable and good for the environment. They built a solar greenhouse and planted a variety of fruit trees, currants and berries. They restored their heritage orchard as well as planted vegetables and herbs in their greenhouse. They tried raising livestock.

As time went on they expanded to more than 500 chickens for meat and eggs. Turkeys, ducks and hogs were raised; meat was sold directly to customers. After a few years Shetland sheep appeared. Herb and fruit production increased.

And then it was time to take inventory and revisit their goals.

On a sunny day in an orchard at Clover Valley Farms, Jeff Hall said, “We farm 7 of our 40 acres. But it’s all part of the whole system. We have a creek that flows through it. We have four orchards and we grow Juneberry, elderberry, currants, apples and pears. We raise rabbits. We wholesale rabbit meat to a co-op in Duluth. For 10 years we raised chickens and pigs. When we started raising chickens you could buy a chick for about 30 cents. Now they can be a couple-bucks apiece. The price of organic feed has gone through the roof.”

The decision was made to limit what was purchased or imported. So Hall said he switched to raising rabbits.

“Rabbits breed themselves,” he said. “They are fairly easy to care for. We feed them fresh grass. We have them in movable enclosures so we can move them instead of moving manure.

“Our sheep are awesome; we have 16 head right now. They eat grass; we get wool, hides and meat. We sell all of it. We have a woolery, and we sell wool batting and yarn. Each label includes the names of the sheep who produced the wool.

“In this orchard we have apples, honeyberry, Juneberry, elderberry and aronia, or chokeberry. The aronia is very productive. We had a horrible grasshopper invasion this year and the drought caused some of our berries to abort. It’s a down year for apples, too, but you get what you get. The aronia is doing well. We use our fruit in jams, jelly, vinegars, chutneys, mustard and shrub.

“Shrub is a 50-50 mix of vinegar and a syrup combined together. We make many shrubs, but for example in one we use rhubarb vinegar. We harvest spruce tips in May; we pick before the needles get hard and astringent. From them we make a 50-gallon batch of spruce-tip tea. We add honey to it to make the base of syrup we combine with the rhubarb vinegar to make a shrub. Shrubs are used in cocktails, sodas, salad dressings and other culinary applications. Over 1,000 years ago shrubs were used in the Middle East as a way to preserve fruit. Our shrubs are very popular.

“We started with chickens, ducks, turkeys and pigs (but) it was very labor-intensive. Then we started raising fruit. We tried selling fresh fruit at farm markets and co-ops (but) if it didn’t sell it would just go bad. You have to sell it the day you pick it or it shrivels. Take Juneberries for instance; they don’t last long after they’re picked. You never see Juneberry in a grocery store, but it’s an awesome fruit. So we started thinking about ways to preserve the fruit in a value-added product. My wife has a science background; she wrote for a grant for a feasibility study on vinegar. It turns out it can be profitable. So we started making vinegar out of our fruit. We have several different kinds – rhubarb, elderberry, apple, wild cherry, and a combination Juneberry and current with aronia,

“With a diversified farm where we make vinegar we have enough vinegar in process to endure a bad year. We are one of the only small culinary-artisanal vinegar-makers in Minnesota. There are a handful in the whole nation and little pockets of small producers around the world. We are in a small group.”

Hall also hand-crafts wooden bowls. He had no formal training but through trial and error, ingenuity and innate artistic talent, he perfected his craft. His bowls are sought after by collectors.

Products produced at Clover Valley Farms are sold through nearby co-ops, directly at farm markets and online at the Clover Valley Farms website. Visit www.clovervalleyfarms.com for more information.

Some people say we must go big or go away. But Jeff Hall, Cindy Hale, their daughter, May, and their rescue dogs Honey and Lucky have found a way to produce sought-after value-added products in a sustainable way on their small farm. They innovated to find a way good for them and good for their land. They aren’t looking to go big and they aren’t going away. And quite a few folks are glad of it in the region around Duluth and Superior, Wisconsin.

Jason Maloney is an “elderly” farm boy from Marinette County, Wisconsin. He’s a retired educator, a retired soldier and a lifelong Wisconsin resident. He lives on the shore of Lake Superior with his wife, Cindy Dillenschneider, and Red, a sturdy loyal Australian Shepherd.

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