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Cultivating Connections on Small Farm Operations

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Home > Education & Events > September 2019 > Cultivating Connections on Small Farm Operations
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Fifteen years ago, Cindy Hale and Jeff Hall began raising chickens part time. With little livestock and farm management experience, their venture required research, persistence and a lot of trial and error. They both liked the idea of homegrown eggs and poultry, so with Hall working in special education and having summers off, they figured, why not take the plunge?

To say their farm operation has grown since then would be an understatement. Running their 10-acre diversified farm just north of Duluth, Minn., has turned into a full-time job for the couple, who have embraced the lifestyle and community that come with farming.
 
DIVERSIFY AND VALUE-ADD
Hale and Hall started as beginning farmers raising chickens, and then began growing apples, then raising pigs, followed by more fruits. In 2009, they started dabbling in culinary vinegars. They begin by fermenting the fruit they grow into wine. Then they ferment it again using the “mother,” an aceto-bacteria culture that turns the alcohol into acid. Voila! You’ve got vinegar.

After receiving a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and conducting a feasibility study in 2012, Hale and Hall discovered their crazy idea just might work. And Clover Valley Farms was born.

Today, the couple has expanded their farm to grow more than 10 different fruits, including apples, rhubarb, currants and juneberry. They also raise a variety of herbs in addition to sheep and rabbits. Their main products are vinegars, shrubs (concentrated syrups that combine fruit, sugar and vinegar for making sparkling soda, cocktails and more) and herb-infused salts.

“The nature of our farm operation is that we’re essentially running four businesses in one,” Hall said. “We’re growing the fruits and herbs, creating a value-added product, packaging, and direct marketing to customers at farmers markets and events across the region.”

While juggling the many facets of their business can be a challenge, the couple is passionate about an ecological approach to farming.

“We both just love the process,” Hale said. “Our focus is on being students of the ecological systems we work with – those complex communities of organisms: wild, natural and modified. You really have to understand that to make it work. We find it really intellectually rewarding.”
 
CONNECT AND GROW
As immersed as they are in the ecology and science behind their farm operation, community is at the heart of Clover Valley Farms. It’s really all about people.

“We’re fortunate to have a network of other farmers to collaborate with and the consumers in the area who really appreciate what we do, how we do it, why we do it,” Hale said. “Support and positive feedback make us feel like we’re doing something good – not only for us – but for our community.”

As a way to pay it forward, Hale and Hall work with multiple organizations to provide dollar matching to Electronic Benefits Transfer-eligible shoppers and children who visit the Duluth Farmers Market. They also provide educational opportunities. On a recent Wednesday, Hale and their daughter May led a session where farmers market shoppers created their own container gardens.

“Community outreach is such an important part of the farm market,” Hale noted. “Without the community aspect, you’re just another store selling vegetables. We’re committed to making a difference to those around us.”

Farmers Market Facts
  • The number of U.S. farmers markets has grown by more than 2,200 in the past 20 years.
  • Locally owned retailers, like farmers markets, return more than three times as much to the local economy than chain stores do.
  • Growers who sell locally create 13 full-time jobs per $1 million earned.
  • Farmers market shoppers have 15 to 20 social interactions per visit vs. 1 to 2 per visit to a grocery store.
(Source: Farmers Market Coalition)

The Compeer Financial Farmer Market Grant Program has two different grant programs: one designed to help organizations and another for farmers directly.

As one more way to #ChampionRural, Compeer offers grants for farmer market vendors are designed to help farmers with education, marketing or technology advancements. This can include developing branding, website creation, or mobile payment technology products (excluding cell/smart phones) or fees. Grants funds are not intended for farm/operation input or operating costs.
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