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Helping grow a foods movement

Sunny Ruthcild, 66, lives just a couple miles away from where Laura Ingalls spent her days “On The Banks Of Plum Creek,” near Walnut Grove. Sunny spends most of her waking hours thinking about food – not eating food, or even cooking food – but growing it. The local foods movement, which includes sustainable, organic and naturally raised foods, is the fastest growing segment of agriculture today, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. By some estimates, it is growing by up to 22 percent annually. Sunny has been at the forefront of that movement for the past six-plus years, in a corner of the state slow to embrace the growing trend. She owns, operates and lives on a small 10-acre sustainable and organic farm she’s dubbed “Merryweather Gardens.” Her farm doesn’t look like the big industrialized agribusiness operation we’re used to seeing with thousands upon thousands of acres of corn and soybeans. No, Sunny’s farm is a bit of an atavistic throwback to a simpler, quieter and slower paced time. Her farm looks like it belongs in the 1930s, 40s and even into the early 1950s. There’s a big red barn, a chicken coop with chickens running around the yard – laying hens and roosters for meat birds. There are turkeys and ducks of all sorts of breeds mixed in with the chickens. And now that spring is officially here, there are lots and lots of baby chicks.   There is a granary, but it is used for housing Sunny’s birds, not corn. There are various patches of ground dedicated to growing vegetables, along with thousands of bulbs of the best tasting garlic in the state. There are big strawberry patches, hundreds of raspberry bushes. And now, as Sunny enters into her “retirement” years, shes adding an apple orchard to lineup. “I’m operating on a fifty-year plan,” Sunny said, with a sly smile. “I don’t expect to live that long. I don’t think I want to be 116-years old, or whatever that comes out to.” Sunny says she has no plans of entering retirement anytime soon. “Retirement is for people who want to change their life,” Sunny said. “And that is a point where they get to. I’ve never waited for that. I’ve just changed my life as it goes along.” Sunny moved back to the Walnut Grove area after leaving decades earlier. She lived on the west coast, raised a family, ran several successful businesses, and, as she said, changed her life, again, by returning home with a new focus. “I’ve been very fortunate and studied a lot; and some things I’ve studies to intensely that people have even given me degrees,” Sunny said. “But the truth is, I am my best person, and my happiest self, and feel living most appropriately when I am dealing with living beings of other species – plants and animals.” In studying natural health and natural medicine, which Sunny has a degree in, it became apparent to her that the most important thing is eating food that is raised cleanly. “Ecologically speaking, it is important to eat food raised a close as possible to your proximity,” Sunny said. “That’s just ecology 101. It is the beginning of the concept of ‘local foods.’” Sunny raises almost all of her own food. Excess food is sold at farmers markets, a garlic festival and other various outlets. Sunny has been working hard not just for her operation, but for others like it in southwest Minnesota. She has been instrumental in the formation of the Marshall Area Food Co-Operative, which is just now in its infancy. She helped start a farmers market in Walnut Grove. And is now turning her attention to the farm-to-school program, which focuses on getting local, sustainably-raised foods into school lunch programs. “I’m going to up my production as much as possible,” Sunny said. “It is important to get good, natural food into the mouths of kids and adults. I’ve planted 40 fruit trees this past week. I have about that many coming in this week. I have 1,000 asparagus starts coming, 1,000 strawberry starts coming, and a hundred and some more raspberry bushes.” This level of activity would be more than enough for your average person – but not for Sunny. She’s working on yet another angle to the local foods movement. She has started remodeling a bank in nearby Milroy, which was constructed in 1902. It will be an incubator kitchen. “The idea is to give people a place to prepare foods for sale in a certified commercial kitchen,” Sunny said. “It costs a lot of money to build a kitchen, and takes a lot of risk. I’m hoping to have people package fruits and vegetables there for the farm-to-school program. I’d like a baker or two to work out of there.” Local growers can use her commercial kitchen to can and preserve, making their “value-added” items eligible for sale through the Marshall Area Food Co-Op. “I’m basically spending my retirement money on these projects,” Sunny said. “But this is what I’m passionate about. “At some point, I may find it to be too much, and have to sell it, or pass it on to someone else and do something else with my life. But I don’t see that happening anytime soon. I don’t feel old. Sixty-six is something that has just sort of happened. I was stunning, most stunning last year when I turned 65 and realized I’d now switched categories in our society and I was now an ‘elderly woman.’” Sunny questions what that means. She still walks four miles each day with her two dogs, LS and Mate. She still works sun-up to sun-down and beyond each day. She fulfills her duties as a Supervisor for the Redwood County Soil and Water Conservation District. She takes care of her farm and all of her birds. And she works her farm and other projects like someone 40-years younger than herself. “I’m constantly active,” Sunny said. “And I sleep pretty well at night. I don’t know just exactly what it means to be a ‘senior citizen.’ Maybe some day I’ll find out.”

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