I bump along the gravel road on Highway JJ, following my hand-written directions, not trusting my GPS to get me where I need to go. The service is spotty, I’m told. I pull up to an old farmhouse and Holly, a 35-pound tricolor mutt, pushes open the wooden-framed door and races toward me, her tongue hanging out and tail wagging happily.
“You must be Holly,” I say, scratching behind her ears. She sits obediently at my feet. The fact that I’m here is bizarre and nostalgic and gives me goosebumps. But, after chatting with Lauren Barry, owner of Dancing Gnome Farm, I wonder if maybe it’s not so strange after all: maybe I’m just following my life’s narrative.
Let me back up.
FIRST, AN ASIDE
When Eric and I were living in St. Louis Park, we heard about a pizza farm in Stockholm. We loaded up the kids and packed the car with plates, blankets, jukeboxes and wine and made the 80-mile drive southeast. The scenery was beautiful and we could feel ourselves settling and relaxing. In a way, the bluffs of Southeastern Minnesota and Western Wisconsin felt more at home than the city. The bluffs encompassed and surrounded us during our time at Saint Mary’s University — where we first fell in love.
Now, returning to this sacred space with our two kids felt special. We ordered two fire-roasted pizzas: one cheese and one with olives and sausage. We let the kids run around. We played in the field. We talked to the chickens. I remember looking out at the surrounding hills of Stockholm and wondering if there was a way we could live here…be here…in a way, return home.
Now let’s fast-forward to present day. I was working on a project with a local Wabasha business and in walked a familiar face. While I didn’t know her name or how I knew her, I was sure that I did, in fact, know her. Then it hit me: She worked at the pizza farm in Stockholm.
So, here I am, driving to her farm to learn how she transformed a simple field into a bountiful harvest and how she has continued to thread together a life of meaning and purpose, creating a common narrative for her life.
CHOOSING CURIOSITY OVER FEAR
“It all starts with my love of camp and being outdoors,” the 31-year-old tells me. When she was 12 years old, she started attending Camp Widjiwagan. A YMCA summer camp in Ely on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Camp Widji offers wilderness travel and environmental learning.
“That camp was a huge part of my childhood,” she says, smiling. “I was surrounded by strong women and female role models. We were all working towards a collaborative, common goal.”
Turns out, pushing yourself further than you thought possible can be incredibly empowering.
Lauren continued pursuing this passion of being outdoors. At Washington University in St. Louis, Miss., she was one of 12 students accepted into a environmental sustainability program. She spent the summers doing research — studying plants and climate change. When an opportunity to travel to Oregon came up, she jumped at the chance.
“I was surrounded by a team of multigenerational, strong women,” she says. “One woman I met built her own house.”
She tells me that the woman didn’t know anything about construction, but was confident that she could learn the necessary skills.
“She really inspired me. It flipped a switch,” Lauren says. “I may not know everything I need to, but I can learn. I can gain the skills I need.”
This advice came in handy after graduation: she spent a summer working as a field tech in Tibet. Living and working with a team of Chinese researchers, together they manipulated conditions to see how the semi-nomadic Tibetan people would graze their yaks. She took risks and asked questions. She embraced Tibetan customs and traditions as she entered their traditional wool tents, drank butter tea, ate freshly-boiled sheep’s stomach and completed a three-day hike of Mount Kailash, which is considered to be sacred in four different religions.
When Lauren was accepted into the Fulbright Program to research the impacts of climate change at a university in China, she again jumped in with both feet. At just 23 years old, she found an apartment, bought a bike, and eagerly connected with new faces. She continued to choose curiosity and bravery instead of fear.
After her time in China, Lauren visited a friend in Malaysia and then traveled to the Philippines with her brother.
“We WWOOFed it,” she tells me. Then laughs after seeing the confusion on my face. “That stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms.”
(I Googled it to learn more. It’s a movement connecting visitors and farmers for one common goal: a sustainable global community). Turns out, this experience of farming would add to her story in a crucial way.
Lauren loved farming. In a way, it gathered all of her passions, skills and talents into one collective bundle. She knew she could either go back to school to study sustainable agriculture or get an internship and get paid to learn the same skills. She opted for the latter.
Ready to feel settled, plant some roots, and build community, she interned with a farm close to home in Osceola, Wisc.
“Foxtail Farms was like farm bootcamp,” she says. “They were strict. Which was good, because we learned so much.”
Lauren tells me that she lived with five other interns in a brick farmhouse on the property. In the winter, she found a temporary job at Land ‘O Lakes processing soy bean meals.
The following summer, she interned again. This time at Loon Organics in Hutchinson. She and two other interns lived in a tiny house on the property, owned by a young couple with small children.
“Those internships were a really important part of my learning. It’s crucial to have that perspective,” she says. “We were growing more than 40 different types of crops and 300 varieties of seeds. There was a learning curve for each one.”
But more than just learning about crops and seeds, Lauren learned that farming was definitely the career she wanted to pursue. So she enrolled in the Farm Beginnings Program, an initiative that gets more successful farmers on the land.
This is also when Lauren connected with Robbi Bannen and Ted Fisher, owners of A to Z Produce and Bakery and the popular and successful Pizza Night. (You’re putting the pieces together, right? You see where this is going? I know, I’m excited too.)
In the spring of 2014, Lauren rented a piece of land and — with the generous help, she says, of Robbi and Ted, officially started her own farm, Dancing Gnome Farm. On Tuesday nights in the summer, she worked at the pizza farm.
“There was this guy who would come for pizza,” she laughs. “And every Tuesday night, he kept coming back. Finally, he asked me out.”
Michael was the owner of Wabasha’s Broken Paddle Guiding Company, which takes visitors on the water, in the valleys and through the bluffs in every season. He took Lauren out on the river with his home-brewed beer and wild ramps from his garden that he pickled himself.
“I thought, this is just too weird. This is too perfect,” she giggles. They’ve been together four years now; Michael is more than just Lauren’s partner in life, he’s her partner on the farm too.
“I taught him how to drive a tractor,” she smiles proudly. Then she pauses. “You know, looking back, this—” she gestures to the farm — “all feels like one cohesive narrative. But, in reality, it was just taking one small step at a time.”
I know what you mean, I say. As we hug good-bye, I drive home to Wabasha through the bluffs, grateful to be on a journey where I can focus on the next small step that’s hopefully leading to one common narrative.