I did a double take when Don Heinel told me where his land was – Little Canada you say? But it turns out, not knowing the farm was there was the just the tip of the iceberg (lettuce).
Don has been doing this a while- like his whole life. Being out in the fields has given him plenty of time to think things through. And his willingness to share (but not preach about) what he’s come up with so far is refreshing and contagious!
At first glance Don may seem a bit gruff, he’s admittedly “not a big smiler”, but don’t let that fool you. He’s one big ‘Veggie Bear’, (favorite nickname I’ve come up with so far) who is a passionate steward of his land, dedicated to bringing lovingly grown food to market for you to enjoy.
He’s found his own balance of ‘common sense’ farming techniques that bring him high yields without much chemical application. He uses Neem oil and other organic applications when needed, but finds that prevention is the best medicine. He practices crop rotation, letting land lie fallow (not planting anything on it) and pays close attention to water drainage issues (standing water weakens plants and harbors bugs, dry land stresses plants and lowers yields).
While Don was walking me around his farm I saw lady bugs, dragon flies and weeds- not in abundance but enough to know there are no herbicides being sprayed on the row crops, or pesticides taking out the insects. Birds were flying in to grab some snacks of their own too.
No, he’s not Certified Organic.
Don doesn’t care to be certified organic, especially with selling directly to his customers at market. Selling direct gives him a chance to talk with you all and explain the nuances of organic, conventional, sustainable, and where he falls with best practices. For him, the certification is just a lot more paperwork and red tape without the payoff.
Don urges us all to find out more about the way food is grown, starting with the simple fact that, yes- organic pesticides do exist! I learned about the “OMRI” because of him. The OMRI, the Organic Materials Review Institute, “supports organic integrity by developing clear information and guidance about materials, so that producers know which products are appropriate for organic operations,” directly from the OMRI Website. Cool Beans.
The Way Back Story
Don’s a 4th generation farmer whose family has been farming for over 100 years and working this same land since 1939, and farmed in Roseville prior to that. Keeping that same 17 acres in the family for all those years means that Don’s farm is a lot closer to the metro area than most new farmers could hope for; not in today’s real estate market. It also means he knows his land like the back of his hand. He showed me ‘the hill’; a barely visible rise in one section of field and explained how just that rise makes it too dry to plant. He also explained when and where he recently changed row direction from E/W to N/S and just how that will affect water drainage, and how he wait until just after the dirt stops clumping (into what he calls dirt ‘potatoes’) after a tilling to plant.
It’s obvious he paid attention to his chores as a kid on the farm, and spoke to making a conscious decision to stay and farm because of the freedom of choice it allowed him. What and where to plant, who to sell it to, how much is a fair price; these choices and the time outside are a good fit for Don.
Don has sold produce under the Heinel Farm name since 1988 at the fall White Bear Lake Farmer’s Market, the first year it started. He also used to sell wholesale but gave that up after witnessing the increasing hoops farmers had to go through, and the increasing liability insurances etc. they had to take on to continue selling that way. Markets might take a little more work, but they are proving more rewarding too.
His wife, Shari, while following her own career path, helps where she can and is his technical support, answering emails and posting to their Facebook page and all the other tasks that keep the company running. They make a great team and can be seen together at different Farmer’s Markets throughout the week.
Don’s father was his main mentor and business partner until he became ill. He passed away in 2015. His father was also the one who suggested Don start taking it easy, helping Don make the decision towards ‘semi-retirement’. Although, once I understood his schedule a little, there’s no way the average person would call that being ‘semi-retired’! He still gets up early, works in the fields most mornings and is at market 3 times a week. Logistically this meant quitting the Minneapolis market so he didn’t have markets on the weekends. (whew!)
Heinel Farm Summer 2017 Market Schedule
Mondays: Little Canada Farmer’s Market: 2:30-6pm
Tuesdays: Shoreview Farmer’s Market: 3-7pm
Fridays: White Bear Lake Farmer’s Market: 8-12pm
In Don’s words “Weather and Critters are the two biggest issues for farmers.” And this year he’s dealt with both. Although his farm was lucky enough to escape damage from the hail storm on June 11 he was still catching up from what he referred to as the “7 days of death” the cold rainy yuck that hung around the Twin Cities in early May. His critter problems include the typical racoons, deer and rabbits along with a crow that has been bugging him for years on end.
Don shared one of his favorite quotes with me, and now I’m sharing it with you…
Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil and you’re a thousand miles from the corn field. -Dwight D Eisenhower
Critters are one of the reasons he invested in a high tunnel. He uses that for tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers; and low tunnels for cucumbers and zucchini. He also starts a *few* plants; 20 flats that each have 162 cells each – that’s 3,240 seedlings to transplant. And with those seedlings and direct sowing he fills the 17 acres (except what he lets lie fallow) with all kinds of beets, squash, sweet corn, tomatoes, peppers, fennel, bush beans, broccoli, lettuces, kale, cauliflower, zucchini and cucumbers. Yum.
He likes going it alone, and stated, “There’s a certain something to doing it all on my own.” I think he enjoys the peace and solitude of the farm just as much as he enjoys seeing his customers on market days.
Another one of the choices he’s glad he gets to make is being able to give extra produce to the food shelves in the area. In 2016 the farm donated 2,662 pounds of beautiful, Minnesota Grown veggies to the White Bear Area Emergency Food Shelf, and a similar amount to the Ralph Reeder Food Shelf of New Brighton. That’s a few heads of fresh and local broccoli that went to our neighbors in need! Thank you Don and Shari!
If you’re interested in seeing a vegetable farm up close and personal, Don has shown others around for a nominal fee based on availability. He showed me how to wrap a cauliflower (below) so I can try to grow my own next year 🙂 and I still have things to look up from our time together.
I mean, this is the guy who gets spinach to winter over so it shoots out of the ground before anything else, I’m going to listen to his tips! Of course, like all smart businessmen, Don won’t tell a soul how he gets the spinach to grow or which seed variety he uses. And I have to say; good for you Don, I think you’ve earned this one!
After visiting Heinel Farm and seeing all the flourishing veggies, it gave me a little push to figure out ways to grow happier veggies in my own garden- and to know which ones I’ll leave to the experts.
Either way, I can’t wait to dig into the summer surplus flooding our farmer’s markets from farms just like Don and Shari’s!