Day On The Farm Project

Organic Farming Sparks Local Interest

by Barbara Kay Carlisle

More than 78 environmentally-minded people interested in learning how to garden organically and learning how to live more environmentally friendly visited the Leland and Noreen Jo Thomas organic century farm 15 minutes north of Moorhead, Minn., for their “Going Green on an Organic Century Farm” event, in conjunction with a special Moorhead Community Education course called, “Get Growing—Naturally,” which included several fun outdoor classes in the fresh country air on June 10

The experts teaching casual outdoor courses, during the four-hour event, included several master gardeners, a horticulturalist, Minnesota’s Clay County Extension Office educators, conservation and soil experts, NASA-funded researchers, and an entomologist. Young and old alike learned how to do the following through various informative and fun sessions: make and tend to a backyard compost heap, plant perennials, create unique garden containers, put “good” garden bugs to work, and plant trees to save money and the environment.

Children learned a lot of things, too, but not the dull schoolbook way. Swarms of boys dashed about in the fresh country air behind a silo and around stationary tractors waving large nets, similar to butterfly nets with long handles, occasionally sweeping their nets downward on the ground along the grass to discover what types of bugs were virtually invisible to passersby. One adventurous boy, 13-year-old Peter Totten of Moorhead , said he was trying to catch a bee! Little girls (and big ones, too!) seemed to prefer watching Amber Nord as she showed gardeners how to plant herbs, flowers, and ornamental grasses in unusual garden containers. Nord also discussed various decorative gardening ideas and tips, and how to grow perennials.

Even grown-up students taught each other things with their own gardening tips. One such lady, Yvonne Nelson, from Fargo , N.D. , delighted in sharing her citrus bug-killer tip. She said bugs had been eating her marigolds, so she made a solution of around 12 lemon peels and orange peels marinated in water to cover overnight, strained it, and then put her “Citrus Spray” into a spray bottle and misted her marigolds with it, and was amazed to discover that it worked. Now her neighbors save their citrus peels for her, so she can concoct her homemade miracle spray in an even more concentrated solution.

Students had a variety of fun classes to learn from. The Thomas’ 13-year-old son, Carsten, and 15-year-old son, Evan, took those interested on a Global Positioning System/Geographic Information Systems (GPS/GIS) tour of their century farmstead. The Thomas’ daughter, 17-year-old, Brita, was busy being a helper with the small children to keep them safe. Children had fun making soybean necklaces, and also planting crazy heirloom beans in cups, which they could then take home to grow. Evan Lambert, an entomologist from the North Dakota Sate University discussed the merits of having good bugs working for farmers and gardeners. The Farm Service Agency provided a display of fiber, wool, and corn products. Everyone went home with a full-color, satellite map of North Dakota taken from space, courtesy of the Northern Great Plains Center for People and the Environment at UND and its affiliated research and educational organizations, the Upper Midwest Aerospace Consortium (UMAC) and the graduate program in Earth System Science and Policy. The satellite image mosaic photo itself was provided by the U.S. Geological Survey, Earth Resources Observations Systems (EROS) Data Center in Sioux Falls , S.D.

University of Minnesota Master Gardener Alison McConnell , from the Glyndon-Sabin area, gave a presentation on guinea chickens, displaying a cage of four of her daughters’ 4-H projects, which the entrepreneuring girls also sell. She said her family’s interest in the semi-wild birds blossomed when she came across a 1929 book about them, and now they’ve been raising the birds for home use for their eggs and as fryers, as well as allowing the children to run their chicken-selling business. The girls hatch the chicks, tend to the birds, advertise the sale of them, and sell them—all on their own. “It’s a novelty for the children … and they get to keep the money!” McConnell said. She said it’s quite a learning experience for her daughters on many levels.

McConnell clearly loves guineas as much as her children do. “The females are good ‘watchdogs’ for the farm,” she said. “They get very noisy when cars come down our driveway.” She said that noisiness comes in handy as an alert system when someone comes walking onto their property that they wouldn’t otherwise know was there or when a fox is nearby. She said that guineas can be trained to “come”—much like a dog—by training it with white millet, but stressed that it’s not a good idea to try to train them too much.

She offered fascinated listeners a plethora of knowledge about guineas. She said their natural diet is bugs, so they need a lot of protein in their diet. Because their gullets are smaller than a regular chicken’s, she said they eat a lot as perpetual grazers. They are very docile birds and protective of their eggs. “A hen will die before leaving her nest of eggs,” McConnell said. She said they give their birds lots of fresh air, sun, and exercise, which is why they and their eggs “taste better than anything you can buy at a store.”

Here’s an intriguing thought she teased listeners with: why not contact your city council and ask permission to raise four-to-six bantam hens in your own backyard for their deliciously fresh eggs? McConnell said Boston and many cities out east are now allowing suburb home-owners to raise hens in sheds with heat lamps in back of their homes. She said next spring she plans to ask the Moorhead City Council to consider allowing homeowners to do just that. She said suburbanites should only raise hens, though, because noisily crowing roosters would disturb neighbors. She added that bantam chickens would be a better choice for suburbanites because they are quieter than the guineas.

McConnell advised using wooden structures to house the birds here in Minnesota because they are much warmer than metal ones in the winter. She also advised having a generator handy, in case the power goes out, during a storm, because Bantams and their eggs are quite susceptible to cold. Her daughters were crushed when they lost all of their incubating eggs, last winter, when an ice storm and blizzard knocked out their farm’s power. After that ordeal, they bought a generator.

She surprised her casual class with something mind-boggling: hens don’t need roosters to make eggs! That was certainly news to this reporter, as well. She rattled off a myriad of other Bantam tips, including: give them more light in the winter, keep their home above freezing, give them vitamins mixed in their water, dust them twice yearly with Mitacide to prevent lice, a family of four could eat very well without having to buy store-bought eggs with six hens in their yard, store their food in watertight metal cans to prevent mold, and do not use chicken wire to pen them into a little corral because it’s too weak to keep predators like dogs and cats out. McConnell advised using inexpensive, 5-foot-high cattle panels, lining the bottom of them with chicken wire, and then securing flight netting over the top of the pen to keep hawks and raccoons from attacking the birds from above.

Amber Nord, a University of Minnesota Master Gardener and farmer outside of Wolverton , Minn. , instructed home gardeners how to make unique plant containers, along with growing hints and tips for container gardens and how to grow perennials. Her backdrop was an old, wooden, straight-back chair, which Noreen had turned into a lusciously charming, flowering plant container. Six-year-old Nicole Herbranson, who lives in Rollag, but goes to school in Barnesville, helped Nord put a parsley plant into the belly of a teapot. The child beamed as she picked up the old Paul Revere and carefully studied up-close the graceful herb. It seemed as though she was thinking of something unusual from her own home that she could turn into a plant container.

Nord went on to offer and exchange tips with her bevy of onlookers. She encouraged everyone to try using a cocoa bean mulch in their home gardens. “It smells so good—when you water your plants, it smells like cocoa, so that’s really nice—and it really does serve a purpose by not drying the dirt out,” she said. “But, I don’t know if the cocoa aroma lasts more than a season or not because this is my first year for using this mulch.” Her course seemed more like a casual coffee-clatch gathering, and a natural camaraderie abounded between her and her green-thumbed students (or green-thumbed hopefuls).

Rick Abrahamson, Clay County horticulturalist for the Minnesota Extension Service in Moorhead , taught people why and how to compost and mulch. He said there are five requirements for efficient decomposition: aeration, moisture, particle size, nutrients, and turning/mixing. He said, “Smaller particles have more surface area that can be attacked by microbes. Organic material larger than two inches will be slow to compost.” He recommended using a shredder; but his low-cost tip to reduce the size of fallen tree leaves was even better: in the autumn, simply mow the lawn’s fallen tree leaves before you rake, then use a bag attachment to collect them.

He said many things—but not all—that people usually throw into the garbage may be added to a compost pile, including grass clippings, leaves, wood chips, raw vegetable and fruit scraps, coffee grounds, and eggshells. In addition, many other things may be added to a compost pile—things most people don’t realize, such as cotton seed meal, blood and bone meal, livestock manure, and lake plants.

However, Abrahamson said some things may pose a health hazard or create a nuisance, if they are put into a compost pile. He recommended that people should avoid putting the following things into your compost pile: human, cat, or dog feces; meat; bones; grease; whole eggs; and dairy products. He advised people to check with their local authorities to make sure there isn’t a city ordinance restricting the use of food scraps in compost piles. He further warned people not to put in plants that have been treated with pesticides or herbicides. He gave everyone a helpful booklet called, “Composting and Mulching: A Guide to Managing Organic Yard Wastes” from his office’s website:

Two Adopt-A-Pet of Moorhead dogs were treated to a leisurely day out of the city by their foster families, and a chance to make human contact with event-goers, and maybe find a new home. The Adopt-A-Pet foster family members also had a display with information about the organization. Noreen said she figured having the dogs at the event taught people that dogs should be recycled, too. Her children also volunteer as Adopt-A-Pet foster family members.

Various organic and/or natural products were offered to the public for a donation to The Gifted Learning Project (GLP) based in Lee’s Summit , Mo. (, Some of the products offered included a flax donation from Mark Askegaard of Fargo , N.D. ; organic beef from Lynn Brakke of Comstock , Minn ; and honey from Paul and Lori Luthie of Moorhead . “We wanted to highlight local foods,” Noreen said.

As was included in the registration fee for the various classes, the Thomas family served a delicious, homegrown lunch made with locally grown products, which included a wild rice blend side-dish topped with organically raised beef meatballs (from Lynn Brakke of Comstock) with gravy, and mixed vegetables. Dessert was a basket of certified organic chocolate chip cookies, donated by Country Choice Organic in Eden Prairie , Minn.

After the meal, Native American Donna Norquay of Indian Education spoke beneath a huge rain-or-shine event tent to a large crowd about the Iroquois people, their basic life-sustaining foods, and their agricultural system. She said corn, beans, and squash were the three main vegetables her people depended upon to survive. They planted using the “hill” method, and they also used a system called “interplanting.” She said two or three weeks after planting corn, the women returned to plant bean seeds in the corn hills because the beans provided nitrogen to the soil and the cornstalks served as poles for the beans to climb up. Between the rows, they cultivated low-growing crops, such as squash or pumpkins because the leaves shaded the ground, preserving moisture and inhibiting weeds from growing. She gave everyone a booklet on the Iroquois farmers’ techniques, as well as three treasured recipes—Fresh Corn Salad, Bean Dip, and Zucchini Carrot Dessert Bars—from “Three Sisters Cookbook”, which is available on her clan’s website:

The event ended with Leland Thomas hitting the dusty trail with 27 followers in tow to show-and-tell about their organic crops and the equipment they use. He looked like the Pied Piper as he led natural farming enthusiasts for a walk down the farm’s lane, explaining how he and his wife turned their century farm into an organic farm. He said they started transitioning into organic mode in 1999. They raised their first organic crops in two fields in 2002. Now in 2006, the entire nine fields on their land is grown organically. They switch crops around; this year, they’re commercially growing yellow corn, wheat, alfalfa/hay, and soybeans.

He showed and explained how they use their two main farming machines, the harrow, which helps with weeds and the rotary hoe, which also is used for weed control. Then Thomas left the dusty, gravel road—followed by most of his entourage—down through the tall grasses in the ditch and onto the bed of his soybean field. “This is the winter rye we planted last fall,” he said. “Then, in the spring, we plant soybeans. We wait for the rye to head-out; we have to wait for it to finish flowering, all the way to the top of the head because then the heads won’t come back as aggressively. Then we come in with a clipper. The weed control is really good. We also plant pretty thick—over 200,000 seeds per acre of soybeans—so that when the rye dies off, there are enough soybean seeds in there to make it. It’s another part of organic farming—‘plant population’—it’s a big deal in choking out the weeds.” He then asked and answered numerous questions.

Someone asked him what will happen to his soybeans, once he harvests them. “They will become food—somewhere. This is a high-protein variety, which is popular in the Far East . Japan has boughten a lot of our beans, and Taiwan . What they want is high-quality grains,” Thomas said. He added that lower quality of grains usually goes for livestock feed.

Yet someone else wondered if there is a time period that you have to get the residues off before you can be considered organic, and Leland responded with a resounding, “Yes! It’s a three-year period from the last time you applied chemicals. Like, if you sprayed 2, 4-D on your wheat in June in 2000, then in June 2003 you can be certified as organic,” Thomas said.

Meg Moynihan, organic and diversification specialist at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture in St. Paul, Minn., was also at the Thomas’ “Going Green on an Organic Century Farm” to help with their field day event. “Agriculture touches everybody's life—even if they don't know it. It's so important to help urban and suburban citizens learn more about how and where their food is grown. And it's fun and rewarding to see how delighted they are to spend time on a working farm. I was going to do a hands-on soil ‘station’ for kids and grownups, but Noreen had lined-up so many good activities, that I put on an apron and kept the Nesco full and the lemonade cold,” Moynihan said. She casually fielded questions from event-goers throughout the day, as well.

Moynihan’s duties with the Department of Agriculture is to help support Minnesota organic producers. She offers organic farmers help with financial assistance (cost share for certification), fact sheets, field days, conferences, and referrals. She also helps with the department’s special projects, like its newly published 42-page “Directory of Minnesota Organic Farms.” Her job also entails helping farmers who are curious about organic farming to learn more about the practices and requirements involved, so they can determine if it will be a good fit for them.

The event was co-sponsored by Thrivent Financial for Lutheran Brotherhood in Fargo , N.D. , and Country Choice Organic in Eden Prairie , Minn. Young and old alike were treated to a fun day in the fresh country air, and learned a wealth of environmentally friendly farming and gardening techniques to take home and put to use. Noreen was pleased with the turn-out and plans to hold another Going Green event next year.

The Thomas farm is also the site for a special youth program, sponsored by The Gifted Learning Project (GLP) called, "Meet Me in the Garden." The program works with children in an organic heirloom garden to provide fresh local produce for families, senior citizens, and the community. So far, more than 400+ children have already visited the GLP garden outside of Moorhead to “plant, rattle, rake and hoe!” The GLP recently received a grant for "Meet Me in the Garden" from the University of Minnesota NW Regional Sustainable Development Partnership .

Noreen Thomas recently received a Sustainable grant by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, with which she intends to create beneficial insect habitats for the farming environment. She plans to grow what the British call “hedgerows”—Americans call them windbreaks—to attract insects to work on their organic farm. She is also the author of a book called, “Caterpillar Scramble and Cantaloupe Boats: over 100 simple nutritional recipes and educational activities for children,” and another book called, “Dehydrator Delights: A Practical Guide to Using a Food Dehydrator.” She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Food and Nutrition, a minor in chemistry and also in microbiology, and she has taught dehydrating and various nutrition courses through Moorhead Community Education and at Dakota Clinic in Fargo , N.D. , for more than 12 years. Noreen and Leland have three children, Brita, Carsten and Evan.

The Thomas’ century farm is available to the public for fishing, picnicking, birthday parties, and other fun things all spring, summer and autumn, upon prior registration at

Noreen Thomas delighted green-thumbers in March as the Master Gardener guest speaker at Barbara Kay Carlisle’s “Horticultural Event” in Barnesville , Minn. , and has promised Carlisle to speak at her event, again, next spring. In addition, Thomas and Carlisle are planning an educational-themed event for this autumn, revolving around children, parents, school teachers, and day care providers, possibly to be held somewhere within the city of Moorhead and in Barnesville.