Thell family, Carlton County
When Mark and Terri Thell moved to their current Wrenshall acreage in 1987, they faced the challenge of converting land previously used for growing cabbage into pasture and hay fields. Now with beef cattle, chickens, pigs, birdhouses and fruit trees, and relationships with chefs, a grocery store and community members, the 4 Quarters Holding farm family has undoubtedly succeeded.
Three generations farm together on their 640 acres, which proudly sport an MFU sign on the mailbox. Mark and Terri’s grandchildren Connor, Patrick and Kira can be found there often, moving cattle or building birdhouses. The root cellars that stored cabbage way back when still store the Thells’ own root vegetables and feed for their livestock. Belted Galloway and Red Angus cattle dot the landscape, about 170 in all, including cows, calves, yearlings and a few bulls. Young broiler chickens chirp inside their coop, excited for the day they’ll get their feathers and go into the pasture themselves. The pigs come running excitedly when a family member enters their barn, especially Kira.
Such is a spring day at 4 Quarters Holding.
Commitment to the local
The Thells have based their operation in direct marketing to individuals, caterers, the Duluth Grill and The Organic Carrot natural foods store. Their relationship with Duluth Grill owner and chef Tom Hanson earned them a spot in the 2012 Minnesota Cooks calendar, as well as the Twin Cities Public Television show Farmers & Chefs of Minnesota, the predecessor of Farm Fresh Road Trip. Chef Hanson cooked booya with them out in the field with their beef and vegetables from a nearby community-supported agriculture operation.
In a way, this marketing gives them a small-scale supply management system.
“I send a letter out to our customers the first of May and ask how much they want, and we raise it accordingly,” Terri said. “At least we know if we need to raise 500 or 1,200. Our regular customers are priority.”
Customers can request any amount of meat they want, or combinations of different types of meat. Their products aren’t certified organic, but Mark said that their growing methods meet the criteria for certification.
The demand from the Duluth Grill is more cyclical, depending on the time of year.
“Grandma’s Marathon is coming up, so there will be standing room only,” Mark said. “They’ll take 600 pounds of ground beef from us in a week instead of 400.”
The Thells also are committed to processing their meat as locally as possible. They process their beef at Lorentz Meats in Cannon Falls, pork at McDonald’s Meats in Clear Lake and chicken at Nelson Shine in Brainerd. Terri mentioned that Nelson Shine chicken isn’t state inspected anymore, due to a decrease in the numbers of state inspectors. Fortunately, custom inspection works for their direct-marketing operation, but it’s an issue that we’re working to address, so farmers have access to the meat processors they need.
Mark grew up on a farm in the vicinity of his current land, and he and Terri started their own farm on 20 acres in Esko.
“We had an apple orchard there, Apple Hill Farms was our name,” he said. “And we had some beef cattle and some pasture, and some cattle at my parents’ place, plus we made hay.”
They bought the 4 Quarters Holding land in 1986 and moved there in 1987. They’ve never forgotten the day they started moving cows over, as it’s the same as Terri’s birthday.
“That year, the grass was high and the dandelions were blooming in April. It’s never occurred since.”
They’ve seen changes in the environment over the past 20-plus years, including the die-off of bats and wetter autumns. Lately, however, it’s been quite dry, in contrast to southern Minnesota.
In addition to the grandkids, Thell sons Joe and Jim are active in the farm operation as well. Jim lives a few miles away and farms with them, while Joe buys animals from them. Their daughters Kristy (mom of Connor, Patrick and Kira) and Tanya live nearby as well. Jim is especially helpful with his expertise in diesel mechanics, as he takes care of the farm equipment. But Mark said he wants to teach the grandkids to work on it, too.
Making the MFU investment
While Mark was working at a paper mill, one of his co-workers brought in copies of Minnesota Agriculture. He read the paper and was encouraged to become a member of MFU in the 1990s, and he got to know former MFU Vice President Dennis Sjodin. Now he’s the Carlton County President.
Ever since then, the Thells have been making the most of their investment in membership. They’ve made connections in their community and engaged with the farming community, building trust and relationships. That helped Mark win election to the Carlton County Soil and Water Conservation District Board in the early 2000s, and, in 2018, to the Carlton County Board of Commissioners.
“If you’re going to be in public office, you have to have name recognition,” he said. “Call people up and ask them what they think about issues, and you can get credible answers.”
Membership in MFU also means being active in political advocacy. Property taxes and health care were two big issues they mentioned as particularly important to them.
“There would be a lot fewer people on small acreages if we didn’t have that assistance paying down our taxes,” Mark said. “On the Ag2School property tax credit that went from 40-70 percent, that’ll be a big help in rural districts.”
Both Thells worked off-farm, Mark in the paper mill and Terri as a special education teacher, so they’ve always had access to health care. But they empathize with young farmers and families who don’t.
“When you think of young families trying to cope with these medical bills, you can’t sit there with that and student debt and think you’re going to be able to invest in your property and your farm,” Mark said. “That is the biggest issue we as a country face.”
“The CSA farms around here, they’re very small,” Terri added. “They have to pay for insurance with such limited income.”
These both have been important issues to MFU for a long time, as we want to see all farmers prosper on their land and get fair prices for their labor. The investment that the Thell family and all of you have made in your MFU membership makes that reality a bit more possible.