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Published July 13, 2015, 09:30 AM

Heart and Soil: Couple launches small organic fruit and vegetable farm

GRANDIN, N.D. — Ross Lockhart is back where he started. Much is the same, but much has changed, too.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

GRANDIN, N.D. — Ross Lockhart is back where he started. Much is the same, but much has changed, too.

Lockhart, who grew up on a family farm near Grandin, N.D., has returned there with his wife and daughter. He’s home after a winding journey that included earning a master’s degree in international relations in the United Kingdom.

He and his wife, Amber, operate Heart and Soil Farm (he describes Amber as “the heart” and himself as “the soil”), a six-acre farm that raises and sells organic fruit and vegetables to customers in eastern North Dakota and western Minnesota. The much larger family farm on which Ross grew up, and which relatives still operate, raises wheat, barley, soybeans and sugar beets — the sort of conventional farming operation that’s found across much of the Dakotas and Minnesota.

Heart and Soil hasn’t received organic certification from the U.S. Department of Agriculture — a lengthy and time-consuming process — but utilizes what the Lockharts describe as “sustainable, organic practices” that include composting, green manures and crop rotation.

Ross Lockhart is careful not to criticize conventional farming practices.

“We don’t like to frame the discussion around growing food as conventional versus organic. Yes, we choose to grow our vegetables without the use of synthetic pesticides or petroleum-based fertilizers,” he says. “We choose to use organic practices because of the focus on land stewardship and working with ecological processes, both of which are cornerstones of our operation.

“However, we don’t point our fingers at our neighbors because they don’t use organic practices. We simply wish for a respectful dialogue between the two ‘camps’ and a recognition that our practices are just as much about responding to consumer demand as they are about long-term sustainability,” he says.

The Lockharts don’t sugarcoat the difficulties of operating and expanding their business, which they launched in 2012. But they emphasize this is want they what to be doing with their lives.

“We’re small, and there are a lot of challenges. But there are satisfactions, too,” Ross says. “I feel like a whole person, using my hands, head and heart.”

To Amber, “What we’re doing is hard labor. But it’s meaningful.”

Providing a high-quality way of life to their daughter, five-year-old Stella, is a big part of their motivation.

“A lot of this is for her, about her,” Amber says.

Not ‘hippie farmers’

Lockhart, 34, graduated from high school in the late 1990s, a difficult time economically for agriculture. His parents encouraged him to pursue other options, which was common among Upper Midwest farm families.

He studied political science and then international relations, earning a master’s degree in the latter from the University of Kent in 2005.

He and Amber lived on the West Coast for seven years, with Ross working as an internal auditor. Amber, who has a master’s degree in modernist literature, worked as a grant writer in the health and wellness industry.

But even though Ross had left the family farm behind, he’d never “quite let go of farming.” That longstanding interest, combined with growing interest in soil health, encouraged him to come back to the family farm.

Amber, who grew up in Fargo, N.D., but didn’t have a background in farming, was willing to move to Grandin and farm, in part to give Stella a better connection to healthy food.

Some people seem to equate organic agriculture with “hippie farmers,” Ross says. He and Amber see themselves as passionate, committed supporters of healthy food, soil and communities.

Business model

Heart and Soil is a CSA, the acronym for community-supported agriculture. In a CSA, individuals or families buy a share of a garden and receive a regular shipment of produce from it. The farming model is increasingly popular nationwide, with the number of CSAs rising from about 400 in 1993 to at least 4,000 today, according to some estimates, though there’s no official count from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Often, though not always, CSA members are young adults who value

locally grown foods or health-conscious senior citizens.

This year, the Lockharts will raise 30 to 40 crops, primarily vegetables, fruit and herbs, on two of the six acres they rent and farm. They rotate a handful of other crops, including oats and buckwheat, which require less hands-on cultivation, on the other four acres.

Their operation includes a high tunnel — a low-cost, plastic-covered building — that allows them to extend their growing season in spring and fall. Typically, high tunnels rely on solar power for heat, passive ventilation for air cooling and exchange, and irrigation for water. In contrast, so-called “low tunnels” are only a few feet high and provide temporary, early protection plants.

From June to September, the Lockharts deliver food grown outdoors and in the high tunnel to their 19 CSA members at weekly stops in Grandin, Hillsboro, N.D., Grand Forks, N.D., and Moorhead, Minn.

“We’re helping 19 families eat healthier, and we take satisfaction in that,” Ross says.

Hoping to expand

The Lockharts hope to serve more members. But as is often the case with young, small companies, growth won’t come easily.

Ross works off the farm, in his family’s seed business, which limits the time and effort he can spend on Heart and Soil. Amber works full time with Heart and Soil, concentrating on record-keeping, member relations and field work.

The work never ends, especially in the summer when they tend their many crops, each with its own needs and characteristics.

Ross and Amber want to expand their business, prudently and sensibly. But securing financing is a challenge — not uncommon for young, small companies.

Despite the challenges, however, the Lockharts say they’re where they want to be, doing what they want to do.

“We knew this wasn’t going to be easy,” Ross says. “We’re in it for the long term.”