Jo Rapatz

31 07 2009

by Sarah Milnar

Josephine Rapatz’s graying hair flew wildly behind her as she emerged from behind the house that had been blocking the wind from her face. She collected the hair from behind her head and wove it skillfully into a braid. There was dirt under her fingernails. She’d just been weeding.

“When you start playing with dirt when you’re little, you never stop,” she said.

Jo learned to play with dirt with her grandfather, on the same 58-acre farm she and her husband, Allen, currently own in Onamia, Minnesota. Her father bought the land just after World War II, but her grandfather had owned an adjoining farm since 1908. Together, the family has always valued homegrown food and sharing labor and resources.

“It’s a moral thing,” said Jo. “Growing up in the country, you see that everything you do affects something else. It’s an ecosystem, and growing up that way builds that into your values system.”

Jo shared her labor and resources with Mille Lacs Health System by providing fresh Swiss chard, green onions, radishes, parsley and garlic for MLHS’s Local Foods Meal. Jo also contributed her old-time recipe for creamed chard, which she said the “old folks” of MLHS’s nursing home would love. They did.

DSC_7808The recipe came from an aluminum file cabinet on Jo’s kitchen counter. “I tell the kids, ‘If there’s ever a fire, the first thing you grab is that file,’” said Jo as she gestured to the neatly labeled stacks of drawers. There are recipes for everything from Jo’s father’s Dutch family bread to a cornbread-topped meat pie with round steak strips, squash and onion she calls “tamale pie.”

It’s those old-time, homegrown recipes that Jo says have kept her healthy through the years. Although she’s recently developed diabetes, most likely from genetic causes, doctors initially didn’t think to test for it because her diet was so wholesome from the food she produces and cooks herself. “Most people don’t realize that you can eat very well and very satisfying when you have diabetes,” she said. For examples, Jo makes great-tasting pudding with a third of the sugar. She also makes her own ketchup, an item that has an unexpectedly high amount of sugar when bought at the grocery store.

Jo learned from her upbringing on the farm that processing food destroys fiber and takes out nutrients. “I spent many years saying ‘you could make that,'” Jo noted as she positioned stainless steel coffee maker on the front burner of her natural gas stove. She likes old stoves. Electric burners won’t heat low enough to simmer anything properly. Jo makes just about everything from scratch. She will order rice and beans from co-ops in 25 to 50 pound bags, but buys few things from the grocery: balsamic vinegar and avocados.

Jo comes from a family of innovative cooks, and can’t remember a time when she wasn’t inventing and exchanging new recipes on the farm. Cooking used to be an aspect of socialization when farmers hired help during the harvest. Trading labor with neighbors always involved a meal. It was a celebration, she said. When restaurants and a healthy produce selection at the grocery were few and far between, Jo said people had to grow their own food. “If you wanted to have a nutritious meal, you had to make it yourself,” she said.

DSC_7811The walls of Jo’s kitchen are lined with shelves, just deep enough to hold mason jars filled with homegrown herbs and spices. One side of the kitchen is entirely dedicated to teas. The raspberry leaves, rose hips and juniper berries leave a sweetened musk in the room that is only overtaken by coffee brewing on the stovetop. Jo turned off the burner and retrieved a jar of fresh goat’s milk from her basement cold room. The milk came from the farm of Jo’s childhood friend, Barb Eller.

“If you want to be healthy and enjoy your food, grow you own,” said Jo as she spooned the white cream from the top of the milk into her coffee. “Or buy it from someone who is growing it in a healthy way.”

Jo knew she had a call to organic farming from a young age. She was always her grandfather’s “right hand man,” and had a hard time staying away from the country when she attended the University of Minnesota on the St. Paul campus. As she completed her design degree, she supplemented her textile courses with horticulture courses. Jo caught on quickly. Although she became well versed in landscaping and growing techniques, she said at the time the university did not focus on organic farming practices. That’s when growing healthy food became a question of ethics for Jo.

“I knew it wasn’t sustainable to be putting chemicals on the soil,” she said.

Ever since Jo bought the farm from her father, she’s upheld the organic lifestyle. She weeds by hand, except when she lets her chickens run loose in her sweet corn and asparagus patches to weed for her. She calls them “chicken tractors.” Jo also rotates her crops and keeps chemicals off the farm. She even sprays her apple trees and grape vines with her natural, homemade jalapeno sauce to keep deer from eating her fruit without needing pesticides.

Jo likes to know the source of her seed, and she wants it organic. She saves seeds from every plant she can, and gathers heirloom varieties from neighbors, friends and family. Among her heirloom seeds are tomatoes, squash, and four 400-foot rows of garlic. “I like garlic,” said Jo with a chuckle. She keeps apple trees, raspberries and blueberries growing at another property in Onamia. Jo occasionally sells her product at area farmers’ markets, but because her farm is visible from Highway 169, travelers headed north to their cabins often stop at her door and ask if she’s got anything to sell.

DSC_7824“The economy is changing. Lifestyles are changing,” said Jo. Travelers are interested in pulling into the small farm on the highway to buy fresh produce. They want to check out the cattle barn Jo’s father crafted out of aluminum with a handsaw before electricity came to the area. And they want to come back for more. “People are realizing that processed food is not healthy, and they’re starting to buy locally.”

Jo hopes this will bring a better economy back to the local community of her family’s heritage. Jo’s sister has a farm close by, and her aunt owns the farm next door. Farming has always been a family affair. “If you’re going to have a family that’s a healthy family, you need to work together and you need to eat together,” said Jo. “When you work together you’ll understand each other better and be a healthier social person. And we all enjoy good food.”

To view more photos of Jo Rapatz and her farm, please see the Flickr slideshow.

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