“For me, it was food and cooking,” said Pete Kerns. Kerns is originally from suburban Chicago and today co-owns Turkey River Farm with his wife, Natasha Hegmann, in Elkport. “I started working for a caterer in high school and gradually came to understand how better food comes from local farms, smaller farms, and farms that have some of the values that we have. I studied some sustainable agriculture in college, worked with some urban agriculture organizations and did some organizing for sustainable, fair food.”
Readers might recognize Pete and Natasha from the Guttenberg Farmers Market, where they debuted last summer selling maple syrup, vegetables, culinary mushrooms, and heritage breed pork. Hegmann spent time on the very acreage the couple now manages as a child. She and her husband met while serving as Food Corps members in Montana and made plans to move back to their Midwestern roots. “We were thinking ahead and trying to figure out how and where we were going to be farmers because that was the dream that brought us together,” Hegmann explained. “We wanted to live in a place with some wild area, so this was the spot.”
The couple describes their 300 acres as “A beautiful place to recreate and connect with nature in northeast Iowa.” Their role as caretakers of the farm they rent from a local nonprofit includes protecting and maintaining forested and riparian areas, managing the small guest house on the property, and mowing six miles of mowed hiking trails through hardwood forests, along the Turkey River and the limestone bluffs.
Food is also the thing that inspired Hegmann to live a farming lifestyle. She spent four summers working on a farm near Mount Vernon, where she carefully observed the farm’s owner, Laura Krouse. “Laura was a huge inspiration for me: working hard, growing food, and eating the food that we were growing every single day. It was the most fulfilling work and the most challenging work…. It opened my mind to the whole world of food from all these different angles. In college, Hegmann started the Northfield, Minn., Seeds Farm, and managed the food production program for dining services at the University of Montana.
Both of their backgrounds in the food industry have led the couple to care deeply about food safety. “We always take steps to make sure that our customers can trust the food that they purchase from us as safe to feed their families,” said Hegmann. “We also care about the conservation of the land that we live and work in partnership with, so we strive to use sustainable farming practices across our enterprises.”
The couple is full-time farmers. “We put a lot of research and planning into setting our prices, developing our markets and trying to get more people access to healthy, farm-fresh food,” Kerns told The Press. “It’s also really important that we in Clayton County grow food for people in Clayton County. We could sell all of our produce to Chicago or Madison and probably for more money, but our values and our passion are for serving the community where we live.” Kerns and Hegmann make it a point to spend their locally-earned dollars in the area, strengthening the local economy while using their produce to make Clayton County consumers healthier.
“We personally believe that food should be medicine, and we believe that we have a role in making healthy food accessible to people in our community so that we can improve the health of the community at large,” Hegmann explained. Kerns chimed in, “Which is why we also do a few things in addition to selling our produce. We offer donation shares, which is an opportunity for our community members to purchase vegetables from us that we donate directly to the food bank.” Last year, 20 weeks of produce from Turkey River Farm went directly to the food bank at a value of about $1,500. Kerns and Hegmann also volunteer at the Central Community School garden as well as with the school cooking club. “We believe that it’s very important that kids especially have access to fresh healthy food so that they can cultivate habits throughout life.”
The duo also invited Central students to their home for a farm field trip. “We love bringing people to the farm. We are very passionate about sharing knowledge of agriculture and natural ecosystems with visitors to the farm, so we throw some events during the year,” said Kerns.
Their main event is the September harvest party, which featured Mexican-style pit-roasted pork tacos, fresh pressed apple cider, hay rack rides, live music, blackberry popsicles, and children’s activities in 2016. “It was a great celebration of the season,” said Hegmann.
Turkey River Farm raises heritage breed hogs on pasture. “Studies show that hogs raised on pasture lead to pork that is higher in omega-3 fatty acids, which are especially important for heart health,” said Kerns. “They are happy pigs, raised humanely.” The hogs get a varied diet, eating worms, roots, and apples in the pasture and also munching on supplementary non-genetically modified corn, oat and soy mix.
The farm is all booked up for this year’s maple syrup season. Weekend retreats allow visitors to enjoy catered dinner and breakfast featuring vegetables are grown on-site, as well as a hands-on syruping experience. “We take folks out back and tap a tree, show them how to boil syrup, and they get to enjoy an afternoon or morning out in the woods with us, learning about maple syrup.”
While they’re busy in the sugar shack this time of year, the couple is also offering shares in their CSA (Community supported agriculture) program. “The reason we like the CSA model and want to build our vegetable business on that model is because it’s based on relationships. The strength of the CSA is that as a customer, you know who your farmer is and you have a relationship with them, and as a farmer, you know your customer. A CSA model is a way for a community to come together to make sure that they’re going to grow healthy food for themselves.”
Turkey River Farm is offering two CSA options this year, starting at $200 for a program specific to the Guttenberg Farmer’s Market. “Customers can buy a share of the season’s vegetables in increments of $200, $300 or $400, and you get a 10% bonus for purchasing a share. You get a weekly newsletter with tested recipes and when you go to the market you can purchase whatever you like, you’ve already paid, and we mark down what your tab is,” Kerns explained. The more traditional CSA share is also available. For $500, customers get produce delivered to their door anywhere in Clayton County weekly for 20 weeks and the included newsletter with a breakdown of all the vegetables in that week’s box.
“We try to focus on staples like potatoes, onions, cooking greens, salad greens and fresh herbs and then above and beyond that, we also have crowd pleasers like carrots, sweet corn, green beans, sugar snap peas, hot peppers, sweet peppers, tomatoes, etc,” Hegmann explained.
Meet Pete and Natasha at the Guttenberg Farmer’s Market every Saturday morning, May through October, or find Turkey River Farm on Facebook. For more information about the CSA or to sign up, email email@example.com or call 563-245-1006 by March 15.
Photo courtesy of Ben Hovland.