Jacob Limmer of both Glacial Till Farm and Cottonwood Coffee has generously agreed to be the subject of the first of my SD Green Features. Glacial Till Farm is a small-scale organic vegetable farm near Lake Norden, and Cottonwood Coffee is one of the best new places in my beautiful hometown of Brookings.
From time to time, I’ll highlight South Dakota people, non-profits and businesses with a sustainable focus. I’m thrilled that Jacob recently took time from his busy schedule to participate in an online interview with me. Because I got a little carried away asking questions, I’ll break up the interview into a couple posts. Without further ado, here are the first of Jacob’s thoughtful and thought-provoking answers to my questions (all photos courtesy Jacob Limmer):
What’s your history with sustainable agriculture? I grew up in South Dakota and around agriculture, but certainly not any kind of sustainable agriculture. I started working on a large conventional farm when I was eleven and twelve years old; just mowing hay and moving bales and things like that during the summer vacation from school. As far as I knew, that was what a farm looked like and I was fairly ambivilant to the whole idea.
After high school, I attended Carleton College in Northfield, MN. Carleton is a small, private liberal arts college that attracts people from all over the country. Having had little exposure to life outside of South Dakota, this new environment was quite the culture shock for me. I distinctly remember quickly turning to my rural upbringing as a source of identity, but I found it challenging to defend what I saw as my foundation. I started to realize that I had many unfounded philosophies about agriculture and rural America. Most of what I was saying to the new people I was meeting was sounding hollow; like a regurgitation of what I had heard growing up.
I initially intended to pursue a career in medicine and consequently geared my classes towards biology and the sciences. One of the greatest benefits of a true liberal arts education is that it forces a person to explore ideas outside of your core focus. It wasn’t long before I was enrolled in more and more classes focused on ecology and agriculture. At the same time, I was delving more into my relationship with my rural upbringing and South Dakota and finding a new and complex appreciation for the place.
I constantly find myself coming back to this thought that South Dakota is ripe with potential, but desperately needs people to actually believe that and act with that in mind. We may not have the things that have historically made a place desireable. We don’t have mountains (almost), no big cities with all of the big city amenities, a distinct sparsity of oceans, crazy weather, a real lack of ethnic diversity. What amenities we do have are becoming increasingly difficult to find anywhere else. We have open spaces and clean air. We have small towns and main streets. We have the ability to feed ourselves both in the body and the mind. Ours’ are the often overlooked, subtle qualities that people in the fast-paced world are constantly seeking.
Why did you choose to farm in eastern South Dakota? I chose to farm in eastern South Dakota because of a few reasons. First of all, it is logistically close to some of my family. That was a motivating factor when other locations seemed fairly equal. Secondly, South Dakota has great soil and at least a little rainfall, while the land prices are still within the grasp of a young person. The ideal farm size for what I do is about forty acres. On the coasts, forty acres is not really an option for most people. In South Dakota, the right forty acres and a farmhouse can be purchased as a normal mortgage. And also, with all of the philosophical reasons stated earlier, South Dakota is a developing market for locally grown, organic produce. I like being on the front end of a trend and trying to push an idea forward.
What do you know now that you wish you had known when you began farming? I would have developed a better, more sustainable strategy for financing the farm operation. In other words, I wish I would have thought of the coffeehouse idea before I was in the middle of the farm expanding and rapidly growing.
Several experienced farmers told me that there was no rush to get started…make sure you are prepared, mentally and financially. I just jumped in. Now we struggle to make it all work. In South Dakota especially, I think it would be nearly impossible to finance the whole enterprise year round just off of the farm income from day one. Some farmers teach during the winter, some have spouses or partners that work regular jobs, somehow you have to be prepared to subsidize the farm while you expand and figure out what you are doing.
Otherwise, farming is about slowly acquiring real life experience. You simply have to put in the time to have the knowledge that it takes to be a good farmer. You have to watch the crops, dig in the soil, have failures, reflect on seasons. Knowing the “facts” beforehand is an unacceptable substitute to becoming in tune with your farm through hands-on experience.