In a manner of speaking, Jesse Mattern's interest in farming sprouted from the soil. Monique Blais' passion for farming was sparked through a passion for good food.
They met in the middle, and haven't looked back. Bit by bit, they've been building their farm dream in central Pennsylvania, and growing their family. Their 3-month old son is the newest addition to the farm team at Grassroots Family Farm!
Tell us a bit about your farm. The farm was once a part of the original Walnut Acres, America’s original organic farm established in 1946 [it’s a fascinating story!] and so the land has never had chemicals. We own 8 acres and try to incorporate as much diversity as possible and we farm this land using organic and biodynamic practices. We have 2 cows, a dozen chickens, and some ducks and geese that enjoy being by the pond, and our orchard is just starting to bear fruit for us.
How do you divvy up responsibilities? Monique farms full time and Jesse does most of the prep work in the spring and fall but has a window cleaning business that keeps him busy full time. We have a 3 month old boy, who will eventually help us out in the field.
What made you want to become a farmer? Monique studied Restaurant Management in College and wanted to get to the root of what it takes to make good food good (indeed, it’s the soil!). Monique started out farming in 2004 when she met an organic farmer while working at a juice bar in the city. Jesse had a great opportunity as a teenager following his dad around on organic farms while he was working towards his master’s degree in Soil Science. Jesse has been farming since 1996 on organic farms across the nation
What do you produce? Do you have a specialty? We have over 50 varieties of vegetables for our market and our specialty last fall was dried pears and apples.
What are your markets? We attend the Selinsgrove farmers market on Saturdays and hope to start a small CSA share program this year. This is our first child so we’ll wait a year before getting too committed to another market
Why do you feel natural practices are important? Biodynamics is something that we live by. In fact, we met at the 2010 biodynamic conference and got married at the 2012 conference! We're both passionate about diversity on the farm and respect for the soil. Soil health and fertility is our number one concern. Having land that has never had chemicals is a gift, and it is our duty to uphold that!
Why did you get involved with CNG? We feel it’s important to support organizations that help the organic movement. We also want the customers to feel confident that we really are abiding by natural practices. Being certified organic through the USDA is too costly and the paperwork is very cumbersome - we strongly believe the USDA has a system that is not designed to support the small farmer. CNG sets us apart from the conventional farmers at the market by having the logo at our stand and the peace of mind that our vegetables are grown using sustainable practices. We also really like that CNG has farmers certifying farmers. That means a lot to us and our customers.
What is unique about your farm? We use biodynamic practices and have a whole farm approach. We feel our compost pile is as important as our cows on pasture, and it’s vital that we have chances just to appreciate the beauty of nature. (The ducks, for example, are there just for our pleasure). We are not about maximizing our production for profit. We want to instead strive towards a closed system on our farm - producing our own compost, hay and saving seed.
How did you choose your farm name? Jesse’s Dad came up with the farm name while he was weeding. He pulled up some grass and was impressed by the root structure.
What was your most positive farming experience? Most frustrating? Travelling and seeing many different working farms before starting our own. The most frustrating part is not having all the right equipment yet.
Talk about the biggest challenge you’ve encountered as a farmer. It’s a challenge to earn enough money to reinvest in more equipment. Achieving a closed system approach is no small feat, either. The diversity on our farm requires us to wear several different hats all the time. We are rotating pasture and keeping an eye on when to make hay at the same time as keeping the weeds at bay in the garden and mulching in the orchard! We need to keep good records to help the farm turn a profit and we have to take the time to appreciate the beauty of the farm so we don't take what we have for granted.
(When) have you wished you hadn’t become a farmer? Money is always an issue when you decide to farm full time. It seems to be very hard to turn a profit! We love what we do so we don’t look back. We’re fortunate that Jesse’s business pays the bulk of the bills.
What's something you learned the hard way on the farm? Monique learned to look out for hay shoots in the barn as she fell through one and shattered her elbow. [Take a look at that x-ray!]. We've also learned how valuable it is to think and plan ahead.
Favorite vegetable: For Jesse it’s dandelion and for Monique it’s our own celery with deep green stalks.
Who is your hero in the food and farming world? Michael Schmidt from Glencolton Farms in Ontario, Canada. He lost his farm by selling and distributing raw milk and for 20 years has battled for our food rights and freedoms. He has taken a Gandhi-like approach to it all and we admire him so much for standing up for what is right.
What plans for the future? If we could bring back the Walnut Acres name, to produce and sell enough to distribute as widely as they did, wow, that would be awesome! One day, one day…
Usually we like to list a website or Facebook page where people can find out more, but this post is the inside scoop. Monique says: "Not applicable at the moment. We are too busy in the fields and with our son that we haven’t gotten around at getting the word out online yet!"