By Craig Moorhead
The Caledonia Argus
Named for its location along a State Highway near Houston, Minnesota, Sweet 16 Farm is squarely aimed at connecting to the local community and agri-tourists from far and wide. It’s also about showcasing sustainable agricultural products.
“Believe it or not, neither Daniel or I come from a farming background,” Sarah Wexler-Mann reported. In 2010, the couple bought a Houston County farm that had once housed a dairy operation, then set out to restore the land through organic farming, the elimination of invasive species, and plenty of hard work.
“Both Daniel and I are very sustainably-minded farmers, so everything that we do with our land is kind of based on, ‘is this sustainable?’” Sarah added. “We’re thinking about how we’re going to leave the land for future generations in all the various projects that we undertake.
Still branching out in new directions, the farm now features a produce stand on Highway 16, a large garden to supply that retail vegetable and fresh flower stand, a hop yard that covers a third of an acre, a 20-hole disc golf course, and a milking parlor that has been re-purposed as a greenhouse with the addition of a clear polycarbonate roof and glass block wall.
“I like the idea of building something here that is connected to the community, as far as what we produce being available to the community,” Wexler-Mann said. “And hopefully, down the road, being a place that community can gather. We’re definitely not there yet, but we dream big.
“This is only our second year (of retail sales),” she added. Disc golf season opens on Easter weekend, and a spring plant sale is planned for the weekend of Mother’s Day.
“How do we make a farm more of a destination? Somewhere that people can come and experience farming, and experience the land, the woods, and the various projects that we’ve got going on. Maybe as a day trip?
“There’s kind of a growing movement in agri-tourism. So tourism, yes, but community is a big part of it, too.”
A future “next step” could develop the retail stand into a bit of a “farm store’” that could feature an outlet for artisans as well as showcase local baked goods, canned goods, honey, maple syrup, and more.
“We want to do things with an emphasis on it being local,” Wexler-Mann stated. Regional products, sustainably produced.
“We’re thinking of the experience that people have here. My husband’s background is in native plants, native landscape design, so how do we incorporate a native species, something that is naturally here, so that people can experience that as well?”
As far as the produce stand, “We don’t just grow three things,” she noted. The garden produces a plethora of produce. Example: on August 19-20, 2016, the farm stand featured cabbage, eggplant, fresh hops, potatoes, basil, parsley, edamame, kale, tomatoes, jalapenos, onions, bell peppers, and cut flowers.
Originally, “The hops is kind of how this all got started,” Sarah recalled. “We have had our vegetable garden, too, but when we moved out here we were looking for something that we both enjoy, and we’re both craft beer enthusiasts.
The first test plantings of hops occurred in 2014. “The Minnesota craft beer scene was just kind of exploding (then).” Wexler-Mann said. “We joined the Minnesota Hop Growers Association, to see how hops growers were succeeding (or not) in Minnesota. Then we just kind of took the dive.
“We took a course through the Land Stewardship Project’s ‘Farmer Beginnings Program,’ dedicated six months to understanding the product, the pests, and the diseases…
The couple now have about 240 plants in the hop yard, which encompasses a third of an acre. As big of and operation as you can work by hand,” Wexler-Mann noted.
“We’re excited to be partnering with a new brewery in Winona this year, called Island City Brewing Company… That’s a start for us.” A “harvest party” is planned for August. The Winona company plans to use the fresh product in a special “wet hops” beer.
Hops plant mature in about three years, Sarah noted. “We can dry and freeze them for smaller batches of hops for home brewers. But with the size of our hop yard, we’re really looking for contracts with local breweries…” There are plenty of those in places like La Crosse, Lanesboro, Lanesboro, and Decorah, she added.
“Hops are historically grown in our region… It was a fun starting project for us. We’re really thankful that we started with that project, because it’s taught us a lot about crop maintenance, and really, about farming.” The cash crop of hops adds options, diversity to the business of farming. “It’s an incredible plant,” Wexler-Mann concluded.
Disc golf “Started off as a way to kind of explore the property. It was very overgrown. Carving trails through it. Friends of ours would come out. Disc golf was a way to go out at the end of the day to relax, enjoy the rest of the property… We’re not an official, professional disc golf course, where you shoot for baskets. We utilized a target, so instead of shooting at a basket you shoot for a post.
The course grew into a part of the business model, opening to the public late in 2016. Competitors can park inside the gate off of highway 16. Easter weekend is this year’s opening date, and the entrance fee is $5 per player, payable at the drop box (at the farm stand). Maps which include a score card are available there. Holes “300-400 feet long… and feature a lot of ups and downs, in elevation.
“There’s enough challenge out there to keep people coming back.
“I’m expanding my cut flower production this year (available at the farm stand),” Sara stated. “People can walk down aisles of cut flowers and make their own bouquets… Another colorful piece of what we’re building here. The Mother’s Day plant sale will also feature a wide assortment of things for gardeners, including herbs.
“I’m just really happy to be building a home for my family,” Wexler-Mann said, “building something where each day I can go out work hands-on, and have my son work alongside me, or see him working alongside his father.
“It’s about giving back. It’s one of those things where we’re both giving back for the moment, and also building something for the future. I grew up in the cities, but I couldn’t be happier living here. Every year, we’re inspired by new things, new ideas. We’re building on to what we have, and where we’re headed.