Citizen Farmers

Story and Photo by Richard Jenkins, Daily Globe Journalist

IRONWOOD TOWNSHIP, February 24, 2016 — Since moving to Ironwood Township in July 2013, Darrin Kimbler and Eve Komosa have owned and operated Taiga Farm and Vineyards, taking part in a growing trend of people returning to small-scale farming.

“Our type of farming is actually probably growing in this country,” Kimbler said. “There are a lot of people buying smaller farms and joining the local food movement. Whereas, the big guys are consolidating into bigger and bigger commodities farming, the smaller farms are really starting to (pick up).”

He explained whereas larger farming operations tend to be single-crop operations focused on maximizing crop yields, smaller operations like Taiga Farm produce a little of everything.

“We’re kind of going back to more of the multi-species, multi-product farms of the older days, where you needed to provide much more of your own stuff on the farm and then you sold your surplus.”

Appropriately named after the Siberian word for northern forest, Taiga Farm fulfilled the couple’s desire to move north and live in a more sustainable way.

“We knew for many years before getting here that we wanted to live somewhere in the Northwoods, somewhere near Lake Superior and somewhere more rural,” Komosa said. “We knew we wanted land and we also knew we wanted the land to earn its keep. There’s no point in buying a large parcel of land if you’re not going utilize it,” Kimbler added. “And we found this old, deserted farm.”

The couple moved to the area after Komosa took a job as a physician assistant at the Aspirus Grand View Clinic.

While the farm is a conversation starter with colleagues, Komosa said a lot of her co-workers have either gardened or tried raising some type of animal or had children in 4-H, meaning farming isn’t as alien as it would be in a larger, more urban hospital.

“That’s definitely a difference living in this community compared to my personal, urban upbringing,” she said.

15 acres in production

Consisting of 40 acres — roughly 15 of which are in production — the farm produces a variety of fruits and vegetables, and is home to a number of animal species.

The determination of what to raise involves a number of factors, Kimbler said, including a simple calculation of what will survive the region’s climate and how much can be harvested.

For example, Kimbler said the Icelandic sheep produce multiple crops a year, including wool twice a year, meat, pelts and breeding stock. Planting in hoop houses and high tunnels extends the region’s growing season, expanding the variety of produce they can grow.

Kimbler said they try to closely follow organic farming principles, however, they will use antibiotics or other procedures when dealing with sick animals.

“With our livestock, we follow organic procedures until there is a sickness or something and then we assess and treat that animal properly,” Kimbler said.

“While I appreciate organic principles, we won’t be so dogmatic as to let an animal suffer to follow those (principles).”

The couple raises Icelandic sheep for meat, fiber and breeding stock, as well as heritage-breed Guinea hogs. The farm also has a number of chickens, ducks and geese that are raised for both eggs and meat.

“My goal, when we started the farm, was to produce 70 percent of what our needs are off the land,” Kimbler said, estimating the produce is pretty close to 70 percent, meat is more than 70 percent and then enough surplus is sold at the area’s farmers markets and co-ops to help defray costs.

Drawn to farming

Kimbler said he grew up in a farming family, with both sets of grandparents having farms in Kentucky and his family had a quarter-acre garden when he was kid that he also helped with.

Kimbler is also trained as a botanist, having attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison for grad school.

“That helps and hinders,” Kimbler joked. “I understand the science behind (farming)... I have a science background so it’s not just with the plants, but also with the animals, understanding physiology and nutrient requirements and that kind of stuff — the basic science you need.”

While Kimbler grew up helping on farms, Komosa was raised in Chicago. However, she said she often felt she was a country kid born in the wrong place.

“I was always a nature lover as a kid and I loved being outside,” Komosa said.

Her family always took vacations to Wisconsin and growing up she would always say she wanted to live in Wisconsin, joking the township was close enough.

She said she has pursued outdoor recreation activities and has a background in environmental education and a bachelor’s degree in ecology, which helped her adapt to farm life.

One of the keys to successfully following organic farming principles, according to Kimbler, is not overstocking the farm.

“If you don’t get too many animals on your farm ... you’re less likely to have those incidents where you have a disease issue or something,” he said.

The couple’s efforts to sustainably farm resulted in Taiga Farm becoming the first farm in Gogebic County to obtain certification through the Michigan Agriculture Environmental Assurance Program in the fall of 2015.

Kimbler explained the farm’s farmstead, crop and livestock certifications are a recognition the farm is operating in a way that minimizes the potential harm to the environment.

“Essentially what it is is you’re following the best management practices to make sure you’re environmentally sustainable,” Kimbler said. “That involves how you apply your nutrients on your fields, when you apply them, how you store your chemicals if you use chemicals, how you store your fuel for your tractor. Just good, sustainable practices.”

The certification lasts five years, according to Kimbler, before the farm must be re-certified.

Future plans

With the farm established, Kimbler and Komosa look to expand operations in the future, increasing the number of animals to reach the farm’s carrying capacity, and exploring the sustainability of a commercial vineyard.

Kimbler explained the carrying capacity — or the amount of animals the farm can sustain without adversely impacting the soil and water quality of the land — of the property is approximately 50 sheep and a handful of pigs.

The farm currently has roughly 20 pigs and sheep and 46 birds.

The vineyard effort is now in its second year, with two varieties of white and three red varieties growing on a total of 250 vines.

“That’s our test vineyard to see the viability of maturing wine grapes up here,” Kimbler said.

He explained that has the potential to translate to around 200 gallons of wine, although grapes won’t be produced until year four and the following year would be the earliest wine could be produced.

The plan likely calls for a pick-your-own operation initially, with positive results leading to an expansion into commercial production.

“A lot of what we are doing up here is testing and trying new things,” Kimbler said. “A lot of the things we’re trying may not have been done here in the past, but we’re trying things with new techniques and new varieties that allow us to succeed here where it wasn’t possible in the past.”

Rewarding lifestyle

Both Kimbler and Komosa said that while the farm has been hard work, it’s been incredibly rewarding.

“In the summer time, it’s an 80-hour a week job,” Kimbler said. “In the winter time, we can just deal with animal chores, (we have) so much more freedom to do other things.”

“It helps you to appreciate winter 10 times more because you don’t have to work so hard,” Komosa said, with Kimbler joking, “Winter is for skiing.”

Komosa said in addition to providing a change of pace from her job in the clinic, the farm also provides a connection to the natural world.

To me, it feels like a more genuine way to live — to eat our own food.”

“When you’re working outside on a farm — even though you’re working (long hours) — to spend that extended amount of time outside, and over the course of the day, seeing how the sun changes and the wind shifts and hearing the breeze and birds and then the sunset. It gives you sort of a full-on experience with the natural world while you’re also doing something purposeful,” she said.

“We’re able to see things grow and develop that ( we had a hand in creating),” Kimbler said, adding they are much more in- tune with the sun and weather changes than if they both worked traditional 9-to-5 jobs.

“The animals are just a joy, we just love them. I mean, they still create work and there are definitely still moments of frustration and heartache, but for the most part, they just provide constant entertainment,” Komosa said.

Both say they’ve adopted the philosophy of the Nuce family, owners of the Whitney Creek Farm in Erwin Township, that the goal is to raise the animals destined for the dinner table in such a way that they only have one bad day.

For more information, email Kimbler at Kimbler can also frequently be found at the farm’s table at the area farmers markets during the market season.