Eller Family Farm

22 07 2009

by Sarah Milnar

The wide brim of a tan felt hat shaded Barb Eller’s eyes as she ambled through her pastures. She moved slowly and spoke softly, calling affectionately to her goats and ponies by name. Then she shoved her weight against the creaking gate of a new pasture.

“Pigs!” she called with an unexpected gusto. “Where’s my pigs?”

From behind an auburn shed came the playful grunts and snorts of 12 hogs. Their little hooves trampled through the sand as the hogs scuttled to Barb’s inviting calls.

Barb Eller - Sarah Milnar“Hello, hello,” she sang, giving a special greeting to a brown hog named Little Guy.

“Little Guy was the runt of the litter,” said Barb. “They said I should have named him Wilbur. But then I thought, ‘Could I b-u-t-c-h-e-r Wilbur?’”

Barb doesn’t talk about what happens in that auburn shed in front of the pigs.

“But they have a good life until they meet their destiny,” she said.

This time, the destiny of some of those little pigs was to feed the elderly of the Mille Lacs Health System Nursing Home in Onamia, Minnesota. Barb’s pork became savory Swedish meatballs in a peppery cream sauce for MLHS’s Local Foods Meal. Swedish meatballs are a favorite of many nursing home residents, and they raved of the good quality meat. But such quality starts right in Onamia.

Barb makes sure all her pigs, cows and goats have room to roam over 140 acres of farm and forest. They need that Little Guy - Sarah Milnarspace to run, even play. “Hogs are joyful creatures,” said a smiling Barb. “They’ll play like dogs.” In the confinement facilities of many large farms, animals are packed in so tightly they have no hope for such a joyful life. Barb has great respect for the purpose of all her animals and does her best to ensure a pleasant, natural life until it is fulfilled.

The animals are free to graze around a number of pastures and eat a variety of grasses and plants for a completely organic diet. The natural exercise makes their meat lean, but not so lean that it dries out and looses flavor. The natural diet brings out a peppery spice that make the tongue tingle, hinting that the meat has been seasoned with something—but it hasn’t.

“I tell people, ‘Don’t season it till you taste it,’” Barb said.

Barb makes her sausage from the whole hog and keeps flavor enhancer MSG far from her meats. The fertilizer for her vegetable garden and pastures is her own cow-horse-chicken-hog compost. Barb weeds everything by hand without the help of herbicides or pesticides.

“The experts say you’ve gotta be a grass farmer first,” Barb said as she uprooted a pretty yellow buttercup from her pasture. Those seemingly delightful little flowers give cows mouth blisters. “Then you let the animals harvest your crop.”

The wellbeing of Barb’s animals goes back to the basics: rich soil and wholesome grasses. People’s wellbeing is the same way. During her 34 years as a registered nurse, always told her patients that a change in diet would lead to a change in health. Fresh, nutrient-dense food is the way to go, and where better to get it than locally? Barb has always had a passion for healthy eating, even when 24 of her nursing years sent her traveling the world with the Army Nurse Corps. From developing of combat strategies for surgical teams to supervising an evacuation hospital in Saudi Arabia, “I always had a garden wherever I went in the world,” said Barb. “Even if it was a tomato in a pot.”

Now Barb has made it her mission to keep her community out of the hospital by providing good, healthy food. She and her husband, Paul, returned to Onamia in 2002 to take over the farm on which Barb grew up. Her parents, Fran and Rich Eller, began the farm in 1947 with just 20 acres and a milk cow. The farm has since diversified to sell custom processed grass-fed beef and pork, pastured heirloom meat chickens, free-range chicken eggs, fresh goats milk and garden produce.

In the garden, a pink rosebush still flourishes where Barb’s parents planted it 60 years ago. A red gate, mainly to keep out goats Flodemi and her baby Felix, guards the area. The goats kindly mow the lawn for Barb, but they’ll also gobble up the spicy mustard leaves and crisp-clean kale in the garden. Barb would like to have a larger garden, but her animals take top priority.

Spritz - Sarah Milnar“Cows! Where’s my babies?” Barb shouted into her pasture, seemingly vacant save for the butternut trees wet with rain. She checks on the cows often. “Tinkerbell, Spritz, Sprite, Mr. Gump,” she called. Then through the butternut trees came the rustle of branches. The ground shook as more than 20 cows emerged from the trees. They stood nearly as tall as Barb.

Barb cooed over a particularly glossy black cow named Dew Drop. Dew Drop lost her calf in the spring, so Barb milked the cow’s colostrum and used it to feed piglets born weak in the litter. Dew Drop was a Godsend, Barb said.

But if these Godsends can come among animals, they can certainly come among people. Barb said there has been wonderful cooperation within her community to keep the area sustainable and healthy. “We have the land base to feed our people,” said Barb. “We can come together as a community and feed our people.”

And together they have come. Local growers have organized farmers’ markets in neighboring Onamia, Isle and Wahkon. Barb is the chair of the Onamia Area Farmer’s Market, and said the Initiative Foundation’s Health Community Partnership has been a great funding help with first-year sponsor Marge Agnew, president of the Onamia Area Civic Association. Barb has also been organizing shuttle system for seniors in the area to the market. Volunteer Allysa Ness has donated a van for the initiative, and Darlene Stone of MLHS plans to bring seniors from the Nursing Home and Lake Song Assisted Living. Barb is also working to start a community garden, a Farm to School program, and a way to bring good food to low-income residents.

Barb is constantly researching new methods to enrich and renew her community, and she’s extremely proud of everyone’s efforts thus far. “Maybe it’s a thing with farmers, but they just like to work together to get the job done. They know it’s hard and they need their neighbors’ help,” she said. “And I’m blessed with good neighbors.”

To view more photos of the Eller Family Farm, please see the Flickr slideshow.

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