“I could have retired,” said Jim. But he decided instead to start something new. “The way I look at it, I could have paid to play golf, but instead I am getting paid to garden.”
But there is much more than gardening going on at his organic farm. Jim and his wife, Mary, have a herd of close to 100 Icelandic sheep, which they raise for their meat as well as their wool, a small flock of chickens, and a plethora of organic vegetables. They sell lamb, broilers, vegetables, and Mary’s homemade soap at the St. Joseph Farmers’ Market, as well as to coops and restaurants in the St. Cloud area. Their vegetables are certified organic by the Organic Crop Improvement Association, a certification agency based in Red Lake Falls, Minn.
The farm’s current specialization has evolved over a few years of experimentation. The Degiovannis have tried their hand at running a bed and breakfast, planted grapevines with an eye to getting into winemaking, and raised free-range turkeys. At one point, Jim was baking bread and calzones in an outdoor brick oven – which he built himself – and selling them at the farmers’ market. These were all good ideas but weren’t quite the right thing for them, for one reason or another. They closed down the bed and breakfast when they realized that their hearts just weren’t in it. The grapevines, while requiring an awful lot of pruning and maintenance, may be revisited another time. The free-range turkeys? “Well, I had to sell them for such a high price that they were just too expensive for people to buy,” said Jim. So for now, they are happy with their Icelandic sheep, chickens, and organic vegetables.
Many of their ventures have come from friends who have been living the country life for a while. One friend brought over a couple of chickens and that was the introduction the Degiovannis needed to raising chickens. Barb Lyngaard, a textile artist, was raising Icelandic sheep but needed to sell her herd when she moved to a lake home. Now her herd of sheep belong to the Degiovannis.
There may be more changes ahead. They have been considering adding steers to the mix, but, said Jim, “Since I didn’t grow up on a farm, large animals still make me a little nervous.”
Jim doesn’t seem nervous around the sheep at all. We walk out into the pasture to get closer to his flock. They are gorgeous, woolly Icelandic sheep. Icelandics have curly horns, whether they are ewes or rams – except for a few which are, surprisingly, hornless. In this country, Icelandic sheep are well-known for their wool, which can be spun and knitted or woven into garments. But in Iceland, Jim says, they are mostly grown for meat which is considered a delicacy. Jim is raising the Icelandic sheep mostly for meat, but has sold a small amount of wool. Jim’s wife, Mary, does a little spinning and weaving. “One of the nice things about Icelandic sheep,” said Jim, “is that their natural color can be white, black, gray or even brown. So their wool can be used without being dyed. It makes it a favorite for spinners and weavers, since it doesn‘t have to be dyed before it can be used.”
The sheep bleat at us and pose for photos, with a neighbor’s red barn in the background. “These are all ewes,” he said. “The ram is in the other pasture with the lambs.” Recently Jim had begun culling the herd, and sent a few of his best and meatiest to a butcher in Grove City. It is this meat that he will offer for sale at the St. Joseph Farmers’ Market or sell to his restaurant and cooperative customers.
When Jim takes me to the back pasture, we see the young lambs, which look to me to be the same size as the rest of the sheep. But they have only been separated from their mothers a month or so ago. Here, also, is the ram which he will use for breeding. He is a beautiful, big gray sheep with thick wool and those wonderful curly horns, who Jim calls “The Crusher.”
Jim shows me the portable electric fencing which he uses to cordon off portions of the pasture when he wants to move the sheep. The portable fencing, powered by a battery pack, connects to the electrified portion of his permanent fencing. Not only does it keep his sheep where he wants them, it deters predators, like coyotes and wild dogs. Jim uses a similar portable electric netting to contain his chickens at night. They are free range during the day but roost in a small hoop house at night. The portable electric netting keeps them contained and free from harm.
As we tour the farm, Jim points out a spot where he may grow strawberries next year. In another area, he has planted crabapple trees for making cider. “I’m told it’s the crabapples that make the best hard cider,” he said, as we walk. Another location is planted with a cover crop which keeps the weeds down. Jim will soon plow the cover crop under, which adds nutrients to the soil as he makes it ready for next year’s vegetables.
We wind up the farm tour at Jim’s newest addition: a “high tunnel” or hoop house, where he grows most of the vegetables that he sells. The greenhouse-style building, made of a metal frame and covered with two layers of heavy duty plastic sheeting, “has made all the difference in my vegetable growing,” said Jim. Inside, 2x4s support huge tomato plants and cucumber vines which grow all the way to the ceiling. “The temperature when the sun is shining can get between 115 and 120 degrees in here, so the plants grow faster and the vegetables ripen better. I can also space my plants more closely, so I can grow more vegetables.” Jim uses a plastic mulch to control weeds in the building but also finds that weeds don’t get established as well as they do in an outdoor vegetable garden, so there is less weeding to do. Within the building, he uses drip irrigation, which is also better for the plants. His plants are large and very healthy. Inside the building, Jim grows tomatoes and peppers, as well as cucumbers, kale and lettuce.
Jim directs my attention to an outdoor vegetable patch, where I can see beautiful purple eggplants, as well as more kale. “Outside we use more straw or spoiled hay for mulch – anything to keep the weeds down.” “Weeds,” said Jim, “are a gardener’s worst nightmare.”
Musing about his lifestyle change, Jim said he enjoys the gardening, and enjoys the people he meets. Selling at the St. Joseph Farmers’ Market is fun and gives him a chance to get to know the other farmers, as well as his customers. “It’s a friendly group of people,” he said. “Nobody is trying to compete or edge anyone else out. “I try to bring items to the market that others don’t have. I do have some maple syrup I could sell, but I won’t bring it because I know there is someone there who only sells maple syrup. If I tried to sell it also, I’d only be cutting into their sales…and I don’t want to do that.” Instead, he focuses on bringing the best produce and the best meat he has. And he takes the time to see what works and what doesn’t, to be flexible enough to change the plan if he needs to, moving forward with the business for this part of his life.