Two thousand five hundred pounds of bacon. That’s how much is required to meet the demand for the Heirloom Tomato & Sweet Corn BLT at the Farmers Union Coffee Shop during the Minnesota State Fair.
The Klein family of Hidden Stream Farm, just outside Elgin, knew it would be challenging. And they were there for it, largely thanks to the fact that they have their own processing plant in nearby Dover.
“Unless you have connections to the next level of meat processors, nobody else in the state can provide that much natural bacon,” said Lisa Klein. “(Birchwood Cafe chef) Marshall (Paulsen) reached out to several farmers initially to see if they could do this. We were the only ones locally who could do it at a decent price.”
These are the farmers who put the B in our BLT – and that’s far from all they do. MFU members since 2008, Lisa, her husband Eric and their six children raise about 60 head of pastured beef, 3,500 broiler chickens and 800 pigs each year (plus a “boatload of cats”).
Hidden Stream Farm’s influence in Minnesota’s local foods arena extends well beyond just the Farmers Union Coffee Shop. They sell direct to consumers online, at three Southeast Minnesota farmers markets, in food cooperatives, restaurants, food service and a little bit of farm-to-school. They’ve had multiple features in our Minnesota Cooks™ program and calendar, as well as our Farm Fresh Road Trip show on Twin Cities Public Television. And their meat processing plant has met the needs of producers throughout the region.
Lisa’s grandmother staked out the land in the 1950s after her husband died and her son, Lisa’s father, was a teenager. He soon became the primary farm operator, running a dairy until 1990 and transitioning to beef and pork after that. He also became a leader in local sustainable farming programs.
His lasting legacy to Lisa and Eric was his introduction of rotational grazing. That led to direct marketing.
“When we got married, we came back and tried to figure out how we were going to make 80 acres work,” Lisa said. “Somebody stopped alongside the road, saw the pigs in the field and said they wanted one. That’s how we started direct marketing.
“In 1999 we started at our first farmers market, and it’s grown from there.”
They’ve expanded to about 450 acres now, rented and certified organic on two locations. Other landowners reached out to them and asked them if they would run their land. It’s been useful with children interested in staying on the farm.
“We need to make sure there’s enough for everyone,” Lisa said.
The kids – Andy, Ben, Katy, Sarah, Isaac and April – all keep busy on the farm and participate in 4-H. Andy studies at South Central College in North Mankato as well. Katy runs her own egg business, with about 200 layers in total. Andy and Ben keep an eye on the predator camera to watch for owls and foxes that could threaten the chickens.
The farmers markets, food co-ops, schools and online direct-to-consumer have been solid markets for Hidden Stream Farm. Lisa and Eric rave about the growing local foods restaurant movement, too, as it’s expanding quickly in Greater Minnesota.
“Some chefs are moving out of the Twin Cities,” Lisa said, “into places like La Crosse (Wis.), Winona, Rochester, Cannon Falls. We’re glad to finally get into the Rochester restaurants. Winona’s food co-op is changing.”
One of MFU’s goals with the Minnesota Cooks program is to highlight those local foods restaurants outside of the Twin Cities metro. It’s a market that’s highly beneficial for some family farmers, and it certainly has been for the Kleins. They’ve developed relationships with chefs committed to local foods, and they keep those relationships no matter where the chefs move around to.
But we can’t forget about the State Fair market. Hidden Stream has had a relationship with Birchwood Cafe for several years, so it made sense that Chef Paulsen would reach out to them for the BLT. Since the Kleins had built the processing plant in 2016, fulfilling a dream of Eric’s, they were able to follow through, and still keep up with the rest of their customers.
“We just had to plan ahead, smoke and slice all of the bacon,” Eric said. “This year we started on it at the end of June. Now it’s all bagged up and in the freezer.”
All of these market and consumer relationships have made Hidden Stream able to withstand fluctuations.
“We had a downturn for two years in meat sales once, but we were diverse enough in our markets that I wasn’t having to commit to buying other people’s eggs,” Lisa said.
In other words, their advice for navigating tough times is to have options for yourself – in their case, it’s market relationships.
Minnesota Cooks was what introduced the Kleins to MFU initially. They’ve been paired with Mendoberri of Mendota Heights and Lucia’s of St. Paul in the program. They’ve come to admire MFU’s advocacy to keep farmers on the land and make it easier for beginning farmers to get land.
“There are so many people who want to get started, and big farms power over them sometimes,” Eric said.
“And the other thing is, even if you do find older farmers who are willing to work with new farmers, how do you match them up and facilitate that?” Lisa added. “Sometimes farmers get stubborn and set in their ways, and they want to see their land farmed the way they’ve always done it.”
It’s a hard question. There are programs out there to bring retiring and beginning farmers together, but much more work needs to be done there. Lisa and Eric have children who want to be farmers, so it makes sense they’d care deeply about this issue. We haven’t found the perfect policy to help more people be able to farm, but we have fought for provisions such as the Beginning Farmer Tax Credit that incentivizes selling land to beginning farmers for retiring farmers.
And, just like the Kleins have sustained themselves by building relationships with chefs, farmers markets and others, MFU works by building relationships in rural policy networks.
“We like what Farmers Union does,” Eric said. “It represents all sides of what agriculture is.”