Hilltop Pastures Family Farm

14 08 2009

By Meredith Hart

We waited at the top of the hill as Tom Austin trudged his way through the knee-high grasses illuminated orange by the setting sun. He was off to round up the Austin’s 20 prized grass fed cows that were currently grazing in a forested area behind their sloped fields. In the meantime, we edged closer and closer to the large turkey pen, as the twitchy, nervous birds scrambled back and forth in a tight pack, interested and terrified by us at the same time. Tom’s wife, Sara, kept an eye on their four kids as they lingered nearby, giggling at the site of the family’s flock of chickens and searching for new eggs.

Hilltop Pastures - by Meredith Hart

The young family didn’t always raise animals on this hilly 40-acre piece of land. They got the idea to start the farm in 2002 after reading a book by Joel Salatin about the struggle of the small grower against the big bad American food system. From then on Tom could hardly go to a grocery store without feeling duped.

“I’m never going to buy anything from industrial agriculture again,” Tom said, chuckling. “I don’t trust it.”

It was that sentiment that led to the founding of Hilltop Pastures family farm in Fillmore County, MN, just 15 minutes from The Pig Cometh - by Meredith HartLanesboro. The farm, which started with chickens and slowly acquired a slew of pigs, turkeys, and cows, has remained uncertified organic from the start but considers itself “going beyond organic.” Every animal on the Austin’s gorgeous property lives its life in the open air eating the very basic of foods straight from the ground: grass. Ever since the start, they knew that pasture-raised animal meat was the smarter option for not only the animal but the consumer and the land too. The income can’t hurt either.

“We realized we could benefit the environment, benefit our own health, the health of those around us, and maybe we could make a buck,” said Tom. The Austin’s relationship with Angie and Scott Taylor at Pedal Pushers Café in Lanesboro, provides the buck in exchange for meat and eggs, as well a strong friendship that extends from the two sets of parents to their similarly aged kids.

Although the two couples are business partners, they seem more like old friends, which is exactly how Tom and Sara intend to run their enterprise.

“We are extending a real arm from our family,” Sara said, about their relationships with customers. “We want them to trust us.”

Hilltop Egg - by Meredith HartSo far, the response has been great, especially to their exceptional 25 pound turkeys that have been known to fully cook in just four hours as opposed to the five or six hours of typical birds. Angie’s favorite is the Hilltop chicken eggs that she discovered at the Lanesboro farmers’ market and quickly incorporated into the Pedal Pushers menu. When she first tasted them and realized they tasted the way eggs should, Angie exclaimed, “I gotta meet these people!” She eventually also made the Austin’s grass fed beef a staple for their burgers.

In addition to Pedal Pushers and the local farmers’ market, the Austins sell their products at three Lanesboro bed and breakfasts and the Midtown Farmers’ Market in Minneapolis.

The lessons they have learned running their farm and business have also extended to their children. Their daughter, Sami, a sweet, strawberry-blond little farm girl, manages 25 chickens on her own and has never been afraid to get muddy in the pigpen. Their son, Caleb, a two-year-old flirt, was a little too young to take care of animals on his own but it was clear to see that he was comfortable around creatures that had significant height and pounds on him.

Finally after twenty minutes of waiting, those strong, heavy animals slowly emerged from the woods, following Tom out to where we stood. The cows first arrived in a small group, just five or so of the most curious, but eventually increased to about Big Gulp - by Meredith Harttwelve, as a few more moseyed over lethargically. They ranged in color from the traditional black and white to a striking copper and stared at us as if they were channeling our thoughts. Most likely, it was because they were expecting a treat.

As Tom spoke about his animals it was evident that he was passionate about the work he and his wife were doing. He spoke frankly about what he felt was wrong in the food industry and how the simplest technique of letting animals graze in the open air was clearly the only way to practice respectable farming while nurturing a superiorly healthy product.

As their kids ran around them, smacking into things, shrieking in joy over a toy car, Tom and Sara maintained their composure, knowing that what is natural should stay natural, kids or animals. Each Caleb Austin - by Meredith Hartday on the farm animals are treated humanely and the land is slowly healed. The products that leave the farm head to places like Pedal Pushers that truly appreciate not only the quality but also the ecological, nutritional, and community-centered thought that comes with it.

“People want to connect to a real farmer with a real farm with real food,” said Tom. And with every sale, that is what the Austins are doing.

To view more photos of Hilltop Pastures, please see the Flickr slideshow.


Lanesboro’s Local Flavor

13 08 2009

By Sarah Milnar

Good Food - by Meredith HartHidden in the gorge of southeastern Minnesota’s rocky, tree-speckled bluffs lies the historic town of Lanesboro. With roots as deep as 1800, the town exists not only as a pictorial haven for travelers, but as an open-armed community willing to share its abundance of resources and hospitality.

It’s a town spotted with bed and breakfasts, where welcoming innkeepers know guests by name. It’s where the hum of spinning bike tires fills the air as cyclists pass through town on the 60-mile Root River State Bike Trail. It’s where local artisans display unique crafts, and a live theatre draws in nationally-renown performances. It’s where mountainous ice cream cones are considered the small size, and where locals wave to strangers on the street.

But after just one day, you’re no longer a stranger.

Residents and tourists agree that Lanesboro’s local food community builds much of that connection.

“Local eating strengthens community and communication between locals,” said Julie Kiehne, executive director of the Lanesboro Area Chamber of Commerce. “It also increases pride in products that are raised here and consumed here.”

Lanesboro is located in Fillmore County, which has roughly 1,500 farms supporting an infrastructure of growers, producers, marketers, and agriculture suppliers. Many small Amish farms also advance the area’s commitment to sustainability. The farmers’ market is a popular weekly event, and many restaurants, like Pedal Pushers Café, take advantage of the abundance of fresh foods. Pedal Pushers owners Scott and Angie Taylor also attach importance to meeting the people that grow the foods they serve in their cafe. As Julie says, the openness of the Lanesboro community gives the Taylors, residents and tourists the ability to visit with the “local flavor.”

The local flavor: Anita and Harvey Bue

On a grass-fed hamburger plate with a side of roasted baby red potatoes and coleslaw, the Bue family of Peterson, Minnesota, provided Pedal Pushers with cabbage for the slaw. The cabbage comes crisp and sweet straight out of the Bue’s chemical-free Beans from the Bue's - by Meredith Hartgarden.

Cultivating his fourth-generation family farm, Harvey Bue believes farming is in his blood. “Every generation tries to make the land better,” he said “We’re just caregivers until we pass it on.”

Harvey said farming the 400 acres is a team effort between his wife, Anita, and his 14-year-old daughter, Ashley. Their mission is to educate consumers about where their food is coming from by selling their produce, meats, and farm-fresh eggs locally. Pedal Pushers is one of their central patrons. Bues also supply the café with a portion of the 350 to 400 eggs the family’s chickens lay each day. “Anita walks right in the back door, sticks ‘em in my cooler and says ‘Thirty bucks,’” said Angie of the cartons of eggs she gets each week.

Pedal Pushers and the Bues have developed a close relationship over eggs, and they know that by buying and selling locally they’re supporting each other. “As Angie does well, us producers are doing well, which means we’re spending money locally,” said Harvey with an enthusiastic nod. He works hard to uphold his local mission.

The local flavor: Anita and Keith Brown

On a sunny afternoon many years ago, little Justin wobbled up to his mother with a wheelbarrow full of carrots. “Mom, I think we should join a farmers’ market,” he said.

Now at age 21, little Justin towers over his mother—and he’s selling carrots at the Lanesboro Farmers’ Market. “He’s got it all The Browns - by Meredith Hartplanned,” said Anita Brown of her son, who intends to come home to work on the Brown family farm after graduating from the University of Minnesota. Seeking a major in applied plant science and agroecology with minors in integrated pest management, agronomy and applied economics, Justin is well on his way to successful farming. But the vegetable garden he’s had since he was a kid? “It’s more just for fun,” he said.

Fun as it may be, Justin provides Pedal Pushers with fresh garden produce, especially juicy red tomatoes that Angie uses to top her grass-fed beef burgers. Although this year’s cool growing season has been tough on tomatoes, last winter Anita canned 200 quarts of the ripe reds. Anita also gets the family through the winter by canning lip-smacking raspberry rhubarb jams, a commodity Angie hopes to add to Pedal Pushers’ breakfast menu.

“It’s a good place to grow everything,” said Anita of their 1854-homesteaded family farm. “Kids too.” Although the Browns’ three children may get tired while working on their 160-acre farm, they’ve never gotten tired of it. “Taiya,” Anita asked her 13-year-old daughter, “Have you been bored this summer?” “No,” Taiya replied melodically. Between caring for animals, tilling the garden, and building award-winning gazebos for the Fillmore County Fair, there’s always something to do.

The local flavor: The Amish Community

A dirt road passes through waves of ribbed cornfields in Utica, Minnesota. It winds to a small plot of open land at the mouth of a large barn. On one side of the lot automobiles dusty from the journey heave a sigh of relief as their engines are shut off in the heat. From the ground on the other side of the parking lot rise rails and posts. Tied to them are horses, and harnessed to them are buggies.

This is Amish country.

The Amish have inhabited Fillmore County since the 1970s, making their livelihood by logging, crafting furniture, baskets and quilts, and farming. For the last two summers, Amish and non-Amish have gathered in at the old carriage barn in Utica for the weekly Country Fresh Produce Auction.

Atop a wooden stall that raises as tall as a grown man sat a white-haired auctioneer. He tipped his curling straw hat as he Amish Buggies - by Meredith Hartadjusted the microphone that projects his twanging voice across six rows of bleachers filled with hungry bidders.

“Ooooooh we got green beans, six-pound bags of green beans,” he called hastily to the bidders. “We’ll start the bidding at one dollar, one dollar can I get a dollar?”

Fillmore County residents raised bid cards as a bearded man wheeled a wooden cart piled high with bags of green beans from behind the stall. Four other men in straw hats and suspenders lifted the bags with strong hands for the bidders to see. Cards rose and fell. “We gotta pick up the pace here so get with it,” cried the auctioneer. He finally sold the bags for $1.75 a piece.

Most of the produce is Amish-grown, but non-Amish farmers like Anita Brown occasionally bring their produce to auction to save time at farmers markets. Although produce often sells cheaply, area residents are hopeful the auction will increase in popularity. “I want it to take off for them and for everyone in the area,” said Anita. Angie even plans to integrate some of the auction produce into Pedal Pushers’ menu, and hopes others will find their way out to Utica for the auction.

Although they often keep to themselves, the Amish of Fillmore County are willing to invite the greater community to share in the unifying force that transcends all cultures: food.

To view more photos of Lanesboro’s Local Flavor, please see the Flickr slideshow.

Pedal Pushers Cafe

6 08 2009

by Sarah Milnar

Pedal Pushers Cafe - by Meredith HartTwo-year-old Jack Taylor scooted himself up onto a bench in Pedal Pushers Café. “Choo-chooo,” he murmured as he ran Thomas the Tank Engine’s wheels over a fork, which shot out from under the plastic train and made a clinking noise as it landed on the floor. His father scooped him up and sat him down in front of a steaming hamburger and roasted baby red potatoes. His mother, Angie, balanced Jack’s 11-month-old brother, Nick, on her knee and grabbed a potato off the plate. Jack grinned from across the table.

Scott and Angie Taylor gathered for a quick bite to eat with their family between shifts at Pedal Pushers Café, the 1950’s-style restaurant they own and operate in Lanesboro, Minnesota. They call it “The ‘good for you burger’ joint.” The Taylors have made it their mission to feed their customers the same good, healthy foods they feed their children – and they do it by sourcing locally.

“I love knowing where everything comes from,” said Angie, who beams with excitement when she can point out the source of just about everything on Pedal Pushers’ menu. But between managing a restaurant that serves 60,000 to 70,000 people a year, 12 hours a day, seven days a week and chasing her children up and down the stairs to their home above the restaurant, there’s no question about it – this woman’s got energy.

Angie leaned forward on the table, intent to share her zeal for local foods while keeping a scanning eye on tables to be cleared, coffee cups to be topped off, and her children. Angie began her career in restaurants as a teenage waitress in her hometown of Preston, Minnesota, and continued serving her way through college. But after 25 years of managing other people’s establishments, Angie decided it was time to start a restaurant of her own. In February of 2005, Angie opened Pedal Pushers Café at the site of an 1880’s general store. Two years later, Scott, a former financial consultant with a flair for food, took over as head chef.

Scott and Angie always knew they wanted to avoid the big industrial restaurant scene. But the push to go back to basics began when Scott read the label on the box of frozen chicken nuggets his kids were begging him to make multiple times a day. He had no idea what some of the ingredients were.

“It’s supposed to taste like food. It’s supposed to be food,” Angie said. “People have forgotten what real food tastes like.”

In efforts to wean the community back onto real food, the Taylors make everything on their menu from scratch. But the push to go local came one day when Angie ran out of eggs and had to make a last minute run to the Lanesboro Farmers’ Market. She bought brown eggs from Sara Austin of Hilltop Pastures Family Farm, and was impressed by the rich color and superb taste. Farm fresh eggs led to local produce, and local produce to grass-fed meats as Angie discovered the homegrown possibilities of the Farmers’ Market.

Inside Pedal Pushers - by Meredith HartPedal Pushers began to localize their menu in 2006, but when a couple asked them to cater their wedding with 100 percent local foods, an idea struck Scott and Angie. Could Pedal Pushers go completely local? Now the Taylors have changed their menu to use local produce when it’s in season and all locally grown, grass-fed meats. Their breakfasts are 100 percent local. Saturday nights bring the “Lanesboro Local” special featuring items from the Farmers’ Market. Although some U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations keep Pedal Pushers from using all locally made items, Scott and Angie decided there’s no going back.

“It’s gonna happen. It’s on the list,” said Angie, throwing her hands up and drawing the list in the air. “Being willing to accept new ideas is what makes it possible,” Scott added.

Now Angie is constantly on the phone coordinating orders with 10 to 12 different farms and praying that the weather warms up so everyone’s tomatoes will ripen. Sometimes she’ll wake up in the middle of the night fearing she’s missing an item for the coming week. Buying locally is slightly unpredictable and a bit more stressful than relying solely on a corporate food vendor, but the Taylors agree it’s worth it.

“We’re developing enough relationships to realize this stuff is out there,” said Angie. “We want to serve real food, and you need to work with the farmers to do that to the fullest extent.”

It’s those bonds with the farmers and her community that make the late nights, early mornings, and frantic last minute phone calls worth it. Often times farmers and their families will drop by for a piece of Angie’s home baked chocolate cream pie and a cup of Peruvian Fair Trade Organic coffee that’s fresh roasted on site.

“I love when my customers are giving me my food,” said Angie.

Angie also loves knowing peoples faces. Meeting the farmers face to face brings Pedal Pushers’ local mission full circle. But in a historic town whose revenue comes half from agriculture and half from tourism, Angie is quick to strike up a conversation with a family of out-of-towners. And she can barely drive down the street without waving keenly at a familiar passing driver. Scott and Angie have built such a friendly reputation around Pedal Pushers that they have a strong group of regulars. A crew of white-haired fellows help themselves to coffee each day around 3 p.m. They leave exact change in the back and sit on a bench outside the restaurant to shoot the breeze.

But Angie and Scott know their customers appreciate the quality of the food. “The satisfaction is seeing customers come back because they’re choosing a healthier option,” said Angie.

Pedal Pushers PlateThat steaming plate Scott made up for his family was certainly an option healthier than most. A grass-fed burger from Tom and Sara Austin’s Hilltop Pastures rested on a whole-wheat bun from the Franklin Street Bakery of Minneapolis. Scott topped the burger with tomatoes from the Peterson farm of Anita and Keith Brown, leaf lettuce from Andrea Mueller of Green Compass Farm, and onions from Nancy Gardener of Preston. Nancy also provided the baby red potatoes, which are Pedal Pusher’s second most popular side order behind their fresh cut French fries. The cabbage of the sweetened coleslaw came from Anita and Harvey Bue of Peterson. The family washed down each bite with smooth skim milk from Bob and Jeanette Kappers’ Big Red Barn in Chatfield.

To the Taylors, the local food featured on their menu isn’t just from farmers, but from friends. Now and then Scott and Angie eat dinner with the Austins of Hilltop Pastures, and their children play together.

“These are the relationships we built,” said Angie. “These are the families Scott and I decided we want to support and work with.”

But customers agree it’s the Taylor family that is making Pedal Pushers such a Lanesboro tradition. Angie’s daughters Katlyn, 12, and Allyson, 10, are beginning to help out in the café. Customers are watching little Jack and Nick grow up. The Taylors are constantly working to open the doors of their restaurant and home to the community.

“We’ve got a six-member family that we’re extending to 600,” said Angie. “We don’t know how many people it’s touched.”

To view more photos, please see the Pedal Pushers slideshow.