Minnesota farmer-artists embrace their small roots on 6-acre plot
“Rather than having my career be art and my hobby be gardening, now farming is my career and art is more of a hobby that I do in the off-season."
HERMANTOWN, Minn. — If you’re looking for tomatoes, blueberries or a ceramic mug, Small Wheel Farm might be your one-stop shop.
The Hermantown, Minn., farm run by spouse-team Rebecca Gramdorf and Peter Taylor is nestled on 6 acres. Their garden beds are spread out — a high tunnel here, a fenced-in patch there, an orchard over here. The most recent addition is an asparagus patch to add to their kohlrabi, radishes, onions, tomatoes and more. And their barn’s seed-starting area is steps away from her potter’s wheel and paint brushes.
“Rather than having my career be art and my hobby be gardening, now farming is my career and art is more of a hobby that I do in the off-season,” said Gramdorf, a former art teacher.
She and Taylor have found a balance that works.
She’s the full-time vegetable farmer and ceramics artist. When he’s not at his full-time desk job, Taylor helps with farmers’ markets and deliveries — and his main focus is the orchard, which houses their blueberries, honeyberries, apple trees, apricots and sour cherries.
“I only have a limited amount of time. … We have 40 trees total, that’s plenty to manage for me,” he said.
This is a relief to Gramdorf, who is in charge of the rest of the farm.
“This is Peter’s domain. I just come in here,” she said. “It’s a peaceful experience for me, walking through here because I know Peter’s going to do most of the work.”
While she offers feedback or advice in the orchard, her focus lies elsewhere. But she did have one request: “Make straight rows,” she recalled.
He’s from Charlottesville, Va.; she’s from Waukesha, Wis. She got a job in Grand Rapids, Minn.; he moved to the Northland for work. They met online, married and merged lives in Hermantown. Like every farmer, they’ve had ambitions to do everything, and they’ve had to pare it down to limited space and limited time.
While they’re not certified organic, they don’t use chemicals or pesticides. They opt for hand-weeding, they use planting strips as a weed barrier, and they cover some of their veggies with a tarp to keep out bugs. They’ve added an employee, and they have volunteers who help in exchange for a CSA share. After three years of adding more fields, they now feel they’re at a manageable capacity.
“We want to grow better, not bigger,” Gramdorf said.
They’re still learning about pets and bugs and other practices. This year, they’ve rolled with a late May frost and a drought, and Gramdorf said she still feels like a beginner.
She loves the physical nature of this work. “It’s very similar to making art, where it’s very hands-on, and you can directly see the result of your labor,” she said.
In 2016, Gramdorf and Taylor purchased the 6 acres in Hermantown. The space looks nothing like what it did when they moved in.
“It was a rock wall with a bunch of weeds and bushes. It was sort of unsightly,” Gramdorf recalled.
The couple had the choice to knock it down or start over. Gramdorf fell in love with the idea of using the old structure and preserving a bit of history. Now the barn is a large space with a lovely rock foundation.
In her studio stood a shelf with a crate of supplies: underglaze in peach, turquoise, mustard and royal blue and coffee mugs in different sizes with greenery in nontraditional colors and staccato geometric shapes and abstract accents coloring their exterior.
“It only takes 15 minutes to throw a pot, but I’ll spend two to three hours decorating it,” she said.
She comes from drawing and painting and picked up ceramics when she started as an art teacher in Grand Rapids. She doesn’t specialize in sets; she likes embracing the idea that all are unique.
She fires her pieces in a friend’s kiln and sells them at farmers’ markets and on SmallWheelFarm.com , and she says this form of creativity suits her. “I’m not so invested in, ‘This needs to be an amazing painting that has great meaning.’ I’m creating something that someone wants to use in their house. I like that better.”
Working in ceramics has helped her become less attached to her work and focus on the joy of the practice.
“When I was an art teacher, I didn’t have a lot of energy to do art in my off time. I’d use all my creative energy to teach, and then in the summers, I wouldn’t do any art. I’d just want to get outside and play in my garden. Now, I play in my garden as my job,” she said.
While this work is mostly a winter go-to, Gramdorf said her goal is to create and not accumulate what she makes.
“There’s a couple coffee cups over there that I want though,” added Taylor.
Her artwork does take a back seat to the farm. Even in the winter, there’s paperwork and planning and taking time off to recharge. But she hopes to integrate it more into their farm.
Taking a break from a busy farm day in June, Gramdorf and Taylor sat on their shaded porch on heavy wicker chairs they had to sit upright lest they blow over. Gramdorf said she most looks forward to interactions at the farmers’ markets.
In her early days as a farm volunteer, it felt “very isolating and weird” to invest time and energy growing food and not seeing the customers. Many farmers prefer the anonymity of the process, she said, but not her. With her background as a teacher, she relishes the time spent chatting and getting to know her customers.
Asked about their name, Gramdorf said it’s hard to name your farm. Theirs started with Taylor’s image of himself delivering their veggies by fat bike, so he suggested Big Wheel Farm.
“I can’t get the toy, Big Wheels, out of my head,” she said, but he was on to something.
She considered the two small wheels of their tractor. The constant of turning beds over and replanting. Her potter’s wheel.
“Thinking of all these cyclical things and the fact that we’re on this little postage-stamp sized farm … We’re embracing our smallness,” she said.
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