Homesteading in Northern Minnesota

article image
ILLUSTRATIONS: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
Minnesota offers a land of abundance to hard-working homesteaders.

Since the publication of our first “Report From Them That’s
Doin’ ” in MOTHER NO. 22, my wife and I have
received an avalanche of mail from folks wanting to know
more about homesteading in northern Minnesota. I’d like now
to answer some of the most commonly asked questions about
this region, and perhaps–in this way–do right
by the many kind souls whose letters we simply haven’t had
time to answer.

Number One on most people’s list of concerns, it seems, is
our climate . . . understandably so, since almost any place
in the continental U.S. is warmer than northern Minnesota!
(When we moved here–in the winter of ’73–we
asked an old-timer about the length of the summer season.
His reply was: “Summer? That’s the day we play baseball!”)

Minnesota winters are frigid, make no mistake.
From about mid-December to late February, the nighttime
temperature usually dips below zero (Fahrenheit), and the
mercury rarely goes above freezing during the day. (One
time, about three years ago, we experienced a 16-day period
when the temperature never got above zero degrees!) The
snow, however, is always fresh and dry here during the
winter . . . never the slushy mess that’s so common further
south and east. And because dry snow is so much safer to
drive on, the roads in these parts are practically never
salted (which is why you see so many well-preserved old
cars and trucks around).

According to the Weather Bureau, this region gets an
average of 21 inches or so of precipitation per year. (You
can figure on an annual snowfall of 45 or 50 inches.) One
thing the weatherman’s charts and tables don’t tell you,
however, is that–usually–Ole Sol shines bright
on sub-zero days. Personally, I can take a lot of cold as
long as the sun is out.

Because we’re so far north, our growing season (as one
might expect) is rather brief–90 to 105 frost-free
days per year–but it is long enough to allow a person
to raise sweet corn, early tomatoes, and a slew of
cold-loving crops. (We’ve even harvested our own vine
pumpkins and Hubbard squash, which are supposed to take 120
days to mature!)

About ways of earning a living: The economy here is pretty
much based on the extraction–by mining, logging, and
farming–of natural resources from the land. (The
region is also supported–to a lesser extent–by
tourism.) Jobs in these fields aren’t terribly abundant,
but you can land one if you’re persistent enough.

Probably the most common source of income up here is
small-scale logging. Almost everybody engages in this
activity sometime . . . including us. Carol (my wife) and 1
made about $2,000 as freelance loggers our first year on
the farm, working a total of maybe 50 days. The only
equipment we had was a chain saw and–beyond
that–a horse to skid the cut timber to a landing,
where a hired trucker picked it up. (We spent about five or
six hours a day in the woods, which left plenty of time to
do chores around our place.)

Nowadays, I work with three other back-to-the-land types in
a seasonal construction business that has us rolling out to
the Dakotas from late spring through early fall to work
three or four days per week. (We not only earn considerably
more money doing this than we would if we stayed around
Bemidji, the nearest “large” city, but–since we
subcontract our work–we’re our own bosses, which
happens to be worth a lot to us.)

Carol and I have received a number of inquiries about the
real estate situation here in northern Minnesota. All we
can say–first of all–is that land prices have
soared in recent years (sound familiar?), although our
acreage is still fairly reasonable–$100 or more an
acre for open land, sometimes less for timbered–when
compared to other parts of the country.

The main hassle, however, is seldom the price of a piece of
property. Rather, the big problem–more often than
not–is finding a small farm or usable tract
of land that’s for sale in the first place! Good-sized,
habitable farmsteads like ours are exactly what hundreds of
people are looking for right now. And usually, when someone
(like me) gets hold of such a place, he isn’t interested in
selling for love or money (or both).

If you’re serious about finding a piece of land here, about
all I can suggest is that you get in touch with one of the
big farm real estate sales firms, such as United Farm,
Safe-Buy, or Strout. Each of these companies is
well-represented in Bagley, Bemidji, Cass Lake, and
Fosston, and will be interested–I’m sure–in
helping you locate what you’re looking for.

Many people have written to ask about the feasibility of
“living off the land” here. Happily, such a way of life is
feasible in these parts . . . however, you most certainly
won’t be able to make the transition to self-sufficiency
without a fair amount of tools, skills, good judgment, and
money.

As I see it, any would-be homesteader must concern himself
with two things if he’s to become “self-sufficient”: [1]
feeding (and sheltering) himself and his family at as
little cost as possible, and [2] finding a way to earn a
small amount of cash during the year . . . enough to take
care of such things as land taxes and manufactured
necessities. (Like it or not, you will need to buy an
occasional tool, plumbing fixture, light bulb, or other
mass-produced item from the plastic “outside world” now and
then. To think otherwise is nothing but Utopian daydreaming
. . . believe me!)

The key to eating inexpensively, of course, is to grow a
large garden. (This is true no matter where you
live.) OK, so you can’t raise watermelons and peaches here
. . . you can grow short-season varieties of the
cold-loving crops, such as peas, potatoes, rutabagas,
turnips, cabbage, carrots, beets, and chard (all of which
do well in the 16- to 18-hour days of early summer). A
large freezer–one of those “manufactured necessities”
I spoke of a minute ago–comes in mighty handy for
taking full advantage of the summer harvest . . . however,
a well-planned canning and root cellar storage scheme would
work just as well.

Around here, you should have no trouble supplementing your
low-cost garden-grown foods with no-cost wild edibles. Fact
is, I’ve never seen such a cornucopia of
free-for-the-pickin’ nuts and berries as we had in and
around Pinewood (our town) last year! Blueberries,
raspberries, chokeberries, Juneberries, high- and low-bush
cranberries, wild plums, rose hips, and hazel nuts came on
in fast succession throughout the summer, making domestic
planting of these delicacies a waste of time. Add to this
the bounty of Euell Gibbons-type foods (cattails, acorns,
burdock, sumac, etc.) that grow hereabouts, and you’ve got
a virtual Garden of Eden for foragers!

The high-protein end of your diet can be taken care of
inexpensively through fishing and hunting (assuming you
have no qualms about killing for food). Large game
fish–such as walleyed and northern pike–are
legal from mid-May to mid-February, while good-sized pan
fish may be caught in most lakes year round. (An especially
large catch may, of course, be smoked and/or frozen for
later consumption.) Come November, deer season opens . . .
and in case you didn’t know, a single kill of venison will
keep you in meat for the entire winter.

The nice thing about living this far north is that you can
store meat (venison, for instance) simply by keeping it
outdoors–in a clean, dark locker–throughout the
cold season. (Just be sure to seal the makeshift freezer as
securely as possible, to protect it from cats, dogs,
badgers, and other vermin.)

Wild rice grows abundantly in this region and serves as a
kind of double-purpose food for homesteaders, since a
person can either eat the grain or sell it for profit.
Depending on when the crop ripens, the rice season may
begin any time in late August or September. Usually, the
harvesting is done by two people in a canoe: One poles the
craft through the shallow waters of the rice field, while
the other–using a stick of prescribed dimensions (the
entire activity is regulated by the state)–knocks the
ripe kernels of rice into the bottom of the boat.
Experienced ricers can collect as much as 100 pounds of the
grain in a single day this way, which is considerably more
than the average “take”.

The price paid for wild rice varies. Nearby processors
offer $1.50 to $2.00 per pound for the raw grain. (In
contrast, the same product will fetch $3.50 to $4.00 per
pound in the tourist snares of Bemidji.) Then too, I’ve
heard that East Coast gourmets pay as much as
$7.00 per pound for the delicacy. It’s too bad the
producers and consumers can’t get together on this one!

As I said earlier, a homesteader needs to be able to earn
some money during the year . . . and around here,
we like to take advantage of two handy moneymaking projects
that just naturally go together in the fall: [1] the
cutting of boughs for the Christmas wreath company in
Bemidji, and [2] the gathering of pine cones to sell to
state and private nurserymen.

An experienced bough-cutter can gather a pickup load of
trimmings (taken from the bottom branches of young trees)
in a day . . . the equivalent of half a ton, if the truck
has a rack. The boughs then bring $55 per ton in the case
of balsam, or $65 per ton if the cuttings are cedar. (Cedar
pays better because it grows in swamps that’re hard to get
into.)

Pine cones, on the other hand, are bought and sold by the
bushel. The price paid for them depends on the species of
origin: Jack pine commands around $4.00 per bushel, red and
white pine bring $6.00, and various types of fir fetch up
to $9.00. (It takes quite a while, though, to gather a
bushel of fir cones, which are only one-fourth the size of
the cones from red pine.)

If you’re thinking seriously of moving to this area, you’re
probably interested in knowing something about the local
people. Well, I think I can safely generalize and say that
most northern Minnesotans are good, honest, hardworking
folks . . . people who’ve managed to preserve (to a
remarkable extent) the pioneer spirit–and the many
all-but-forgotten homestead skills–that their
ancestors brought to this region.

Norwegians comprise the largest “ethnic” group here. In
general, they have a reputation for thriftiness that’s
amply reflected in their lifestyle. They’re uneasy, for
instance, about spending hard-earned dollars for fuel oil,
convenience foods, and packaged entertainment (although
some of them have weaknesses for taverns, polka bands, and
snowmobiles).

A good many native residents are older folks who’ve seen
their own children leave the area to seek the tinsel
treasures of city life, and
who–consequently–are usually happy to see young
people reinhabit abandoned farms and houses …even if the
youngsters do drive funky vans, have long hair,
and say “far out” a lot.

The multiplicity of social institutions that characterized
American life of a century ago still exists, I’m glad to
say, in northern Minnesota. Church and school events are
much discussed and looked for ward to by the local
populace. Homemakers’, sportsmen’s, and veterans’
organizations thrive. In addition, the local citizens take
an unusually active role in government, since they know
their elected officials as neighbors.

Perhaps the two most charming social institutions in these
parts are the cutting bee and the benefit
dance.
A cutting bee is an all-out, slam-bang day of
logging in which neighbors work together to raise money for
a family that happens to be down on its luck. Likewise, the
benefit dance is just what the name implies: a dance
designed to generate funds for the relief of people in
need.

One of the most unforgettable experiences I’ve ever had was
when I attended a benefit dance held in behalf of four or
five local families who’d been burned out in a recent
forest fire. The event took place at the Buzzle Town Hall,
a weathered gray, false-fronted relic from the turn of the
century. Inside, sunlight glared on the
corn-flour-sprinkled wood floor, where poker-faced farmers
and loggers pumped away to the polka music with their
strong-as-steel womenfolk. Along the sidelines, young
barefoot girls did the twist together as the nasal twang of
the band’s lady drummer split the air in a strained
imitation of Loretta Lynn. The vibes were incredibly funky
. . . it was like taking a step back into Steinbeck’s
America of the thirties! I remember thinking, “I’m glad
this is my home.”

If I were to give just one word of advice to folks wanting
to start a new life in the woods of northern Minnesota,
it’d be this: Don’t come here and expect the woods and
lakes and wildlife to solve your personal problems by mere
association. (The trouble with our
militaristic/nihilistic/uptight modern society right
now–in my opinion–is that it’s brimful of
messed-up individuals . . . individuals
who–unless they take time to sort out their own
private hang-ups–are not going to find happiness in
ANY neck of the woods!) On the other hand, if you harbor no
illusions about country life . . . and you think you can
handle the harsh climate, the scarcity of full-time
employment, and all the rest . . . I say come on out. We’d
love to have you.