STILLWATER TOWNSHIP — a young Stillwater native and her fiancee are trying to make a go of a new heirloom produce and poultry farm they call “The Capable Carrot.”
Since last year residents Joshua Rutherford and Olivia Johnson have grown 15 varieties of heirloom-pollinated tomatoes, salad greens and melons on Johnson’s family land, also raising “pasturized” poultry that’s moved to fresh pasture land each day.
Though not certified organic, their business follows organic practices and uses no chemical fertilizers or pesticides. The results are sold at the couple’s township farm stand and the White Bear Farmers Market.
Last week the Press caught up with the 31-year-old Rutherford, a native of Kennewick, Wash., to learn more about how the venture is going.
Q: how did you wind up in Stillwater Township?
A: Olivia and I moved here last April from Portland, Ore. We moved into Olivia’s childhood home; her parents have owned the property since the 1980s. It had been in rental for the previous decade until we decided to move here and try to get the farm operating. Neither of us had any formal farming experience growing up.
Q: what prompted this venture?
A: four years ago I was injured in a bicycle accident (in which) I was T-boned by an automobile; that was a very life-changing moment for me. my former profession was as an Outward Bound instructor, teaching mainly youth. After my injury I could no longer spend 200-plus days a year outside with a backpack on tromping all over the North Cascades. I started gardening. It became an obsession. I spent the next three years experimenting in my backyard in Portland. since everything was new to me, it was very exciting and I had no preconceived ideas on how things should be done. I was able to learn the newest and more technologically advanced methods of small-acreage farming.
If the goal was to crank out quick crops of veggies, spraying a bunch of harmful chemicals and gnarly fertilizers would be the name of the game. The name of my game is to slowly build the land, to slowly build (an ecosystem) that nourishes itself. This is why some “organic” farmers get a bad rap, or have such a hard time. It will take a while but eventually, you can achieve even bigger and better yields than in conventional, chemical fertilizer farms.
Last summer when we arrived I had a chunk saved, and quickly went thru $10,000. getting even a small farm costs lots of money. my saying has been “if you haven’t farmed before you have to buy everything!” last year we both worked the farm very hard, just the two of us, with some weekend help from a few of our CSA share holders. This year Olivia is very busy. she is going to nursing school full-time, working 20 to 30 hours a week as a waitress at Chilkoot Cafe and helping me with farm chores.
Last year we started with the idea of going for the CSA model (in which) we grew over 120 varieties and pre-sold them all to shareholders who came for weekly pick ups. It was a help getting started to have the cash up front.
Q: what is the Capable Carrot’s “claim to fame”?
A: People really like our tomatoes … people really notice the tomatoes since they look very different. The big deal with heirlooms is that they are packed with nutrients. The food you buy at most grocery stores (is from) hybridized plants bred for their shape, firmness, long shelf life, etc. — not for flavor and nutrients. We also raise chickens for eggs. They live in an eggmobile, a chicken coop built on a trailer so we can haul it around the property and give them fresh greens all the time. It helps build the grass up, and in turn the chicken eggs are so amazing. The grass is magic; it makes the yokes very strong and very dark orange, not yellow.
Q: Do you have a typical customer?
A: They range from young and hip to more elderly and conservative. Last year at the farmers market we spent the first half of the season convincing people our veggies were worth the extra cost. It was probably the best feeling of the summer when folks started to come to our booth who had walked away previously due to the higher cost, or weird-looking veggies, exclaiming that we had something special.
Q: tell us about your plans to start aeroponic farming for lettuce, herbs and winter tomatoes.
A: my most recent job was consulting for an indoor aeroponic lettuce-growing operation starting in Faribault. (Aeroponics) is a practice which combines hydroponics and aquaculture; fish waste is used to deliver nutrients to the plants, and the plants clean the water for the fish. That also will allow me to grow year-round. The plan is to hook up with local chefs and grow what they need, when they need it. I am in the process of looking for funding; I need to raise about $15,000 to get a good push. That will enable me to not have to work off the farm. I am really amped on aquaponics… the plants grow so much faster than in the soil, it’s fabulous, and the quality can’t be beat.
Q: What’s been the greatest challenge of this venture to date?
A: Farming is expensive any way you look at it. I enjoy all small battles that come with farming — dealing with weather, pests, etc. Its a fun challenge that engages all of me, my powers of observation, physical strength and my creativity. I keep cranking numbers and re-thinking my approaches to make it more cost-effective, but I keep coming up lacking. It’s gonna be a journey till I can really support us as the family we hope to be.
Q: What’s in your five-year plan?
A: keep farming, buy some property of my own, and start all over. I hope that I can eventually hire some folks and start an intern program. my background in outdoor education is still a big part of me, and I love to teach what I have learned.
To reach Rutherford and Johnson at The Capable Carrot, 503-901-8525 or .