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Easy Yoke Farm

Sparks from the Anvil

Hannah and Daniel Miller, greenhousing.

Daniel and Hannah Miller farm 30 acres in the Zumbro River valley outside of Zumbro Falls, Minnesota. They supply People’s Food Co-op in Rochester with vegetables “about two times a week,” Hannah says. “We do a lot of greens and kale with the Co-op.” On a snow-covered day in late March, Daniel and Hannah sat down in their greenhouse to talk about their farm experience in the region.

Flats of seedlings covered the greenhouse floor around us as we chatted. The Millers use an unusual ground-heating system—a wood-burning stove heats the greenhouse and a blower forces some of the heated air into pipes buried under the floor.

Neither Daniel or Hannah grew up on a farm. Daniel describes himself as a “Minneapolis city kid.” He has a degree in political science from the University of Minnesota, which will, no doubt prove useful when negotiating with goats if Easy Yoke ever diversifies; they are a vegetable-only farm now. Daniel reports that he started working for farmers in Iowa and fell in love with the work. “I like how tangible it is. And after a while, I began to realize that I could actually do this for a living.”

Daniel stays only a few minutes; he’s been unexpectedly called away to a sheep-shearing party, but before he rushes off to his car he pauses to say: “Please tell the Co-op people how much we appreciate their business. People don’t realize what a huge impact a person’s purchases have on their local farmers’ economies. Your dollars are supporting these farms. That connection between the grower and the shopper is why I got into farming. I get to meet the people I feed.”

Hannah grew up in South Carolina and followed her older sister’s footsteps into farming. “I started spending summers on farms. I studied English literature. After college I spent two years in Sweden and came back to this country and decided I wanted to work on a farm. Rebecca, my older sister, had moved up to Minnesota to farm and had bought land with her husband, Joe. In 2009, I moved up here to work for them. I met Daniel and we married in October of 2010. That’s right, 10/10/10—along with a million other people.” Hannah’s lost her accent—you wouldn’t know she speaks Swedish. “I like the Minnesota soil better than down south; the summers aren’t as intense either.”

For a wedding registry they had friends and relatives chip in on a land purchase. They own their farm and are happy to share a fenceline with Hannah’s sister and her husband’s farm. “It’s good to have family here,” Hannah says. They’ve also found community connections with long-time organic farmers Jack and Marge Wartheson, who have been farming in the area for 30-some years. Daniel worked for the Warthesons for four years learning the ropes and describes Marge as their farm mentor.

Easy Yoke has had a CSA operation going since 2011 and currently has about 25 members. Hannah thinks that’s about the size they want—at least for now. “It’s just Daniel and me. We have a lot of quality control. Our costs are low because we don’t have any regular employees,” she says. “We’re organic and that means we’re out in the fields every day (that’s unique around here).”

As Hannah and I talk, her nephew, Silas, has been wandering around the greenhouse. He’s about four years old and has fashioned a bow and arrow out of sticks and a bit of twine. He invites us to pause and admire his skills in archery. He splits the apple. He sends the arrow through the axeheads. He’s ready for the Hunger Games.

Organic has its risks, Hannah says, and “sometimes we’re jealous of the big farms’ subsidies—but it’d be boring to just do the one crop year after year.” We’ve been sitting in the greenhouse, sweating out the long winter cold. Easy Yoke doesn’t have anything in the ground yet. This year looks like another late planting season. “People talk about the wet spring,” Hannah says. “There’s a lot of gloom and doom talk, but we learn every year: don’t worry so much, things catch up.”

Silas is out of arrows and I have no more questions. On our way out of the greenhouse, Hannah mentions that Daniel’s parents, Jack Miller and Pauline Redmond, used to live in the area and edited/published a regional magazine, the North Country Anvil (1972–1989).

Some Shopper readers may remember the Anvil from the recent past. The journal was centered in the Millville and Winona, Minnesota, area, but covered a wide range of topics from the American Indian Movement (AIM) fight at Wounded Knee, to the national farm crisis in the 1980s, to the early days of the cooperative and organic food movements. An excellent anthology of the Anvil’s work, Ringing in the Wilderness, is available from Duluth’s Holy Cow! Press.

The anthology has work from celebrities such as Robert Bly and good writing from Paul Gruchow, Paula Giese, Steven Schwen, and others. There’s an overview of the cooperative movement from the 1840s Rochdale Pioneers to the Co-op Wars of the Twin Cities. Jack Miller contributed editor’s columns and occasional essays. He’s a companionable writer. Maybe not up to contemporary bloggers’ standards, but Jack was no doubt hampered by constraints of spelling, grammar, and effectively deft essay construction. A publication such as this was clearly not long for the world—but it is a testament to the native intelligence of the North Country that it lasted as long as it did.

Perhaps one of the things that perhaps made the Anvil a going concern for so long was the tradition of cooperative organizing in the North Country. As Jack Miller says in the Anvil: “From the beginning settlers here have been up against combines of speculators, bankers, railroads, grain dealers, and middlemen of all kinds. The history of the farmers’ movements against these interests—the Grange, the Farmers’ Alliance [...] are filled with examples of vision, bravery, and determination against awful odds. At their best these movements have fought not merely for a decent life for farmers and workers; they have fought for a society freed from the tyranny of a rampant commercial capitalism; they have fought for a different way for people to live and work together, a ‘Cooperative Commonwealth.’”

I caught up with Daniel by phone a few weeks after the visit to Zumbro and asked him about the Anvil. “In 1991, my father moved the family from Millville to Minneapolis. He’d decided to become a pastor and went back to school. I was seven when we moved. That was a big move from a town of 150 to South Minneapolis. The Anvil has helped with my move back here. Marge Wartheson, who’s been a big help here, was active with the Anvil, and it’s given me a lot of connections to the alternative farming community here. But I also want to say we’ve had a lot of help from the bread and butter guys, the conventional farmers, around here.”

One of the themes in the Anvil anthology was the struggle of the alternative farmers to find common ground with the conventional farmers in Minnesota. In the 1980s the Anvil writers struggled to find solidarity with farmers who had overextended their credit to get big—as they’d been told to do. Other writers, such as Carol Bly, in her collection of 1970s essays on rural Minnesota life, described the “psychic deadening,” the barren emotional landscape, that she found in Western Minnesota at that time.

Kathy Herron, Dick Herron, Barton Sutter, and Jack Miller. Cover image from the book "Ringing in the Wilderness: Selections from the North Country Anvil," ed. Rhoda R. Gilman, Holy Cow! Press, Duluth, MN; 1996. Photo used with permission. 

When I mention the Anvil critique of conventional farming in Minnesota, Daniel replies: “Yeah, I know [that Anvil essay],” Daniel says, “but it’s changed. I was talking to this conventional farmer the other day and he told me a story about a forum he went to 20 years ago. The farmers were asked: ‘What do you see happening in agriculture in the next 20 years?’ Well, they predicted the consolidation—that big farms would get bigger, and the big corporations would come in, but they didn’t predict us. It’s been a pleasant surprise for these guys to see us small farmers starting up. They’ve been really welcoming and supportive.”

I asked Daniel if he intended to relaunch the Anvil. He laughed: “Well, my father retired as a paster 18 months ago. He had three or four careers in his life. Who knows what’ll happen? Right now I’m focused on farming, but I have a turn-of-the-century letterpress in storage. If I ever need to do something else, I guess I could get that thing going.”