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Organic farming learned through ‘trial and error’

By Staff | Jun 29, 2009

“It’s a dream life…with a few nightmares thrown in for fun,” says Heidi Thompson of her involvement in organic farming.

Thompson’s Painted Hill Farm is an organic farming operation situated on 47 acres south of Wells. It is the result of a vision and a lot of hard work by owners Chuck and Heidi Thompson.

The Thompson’s journey began in the early 1990s, when, as a newly-married couple, they immersed themselves in the lifestyle that accompanies living in Minneapolis as students. At this time, Heidi was attending art school and Chuck was completing his apprenticeship to become an electrician.

After a few years of the hustle and bustle of city life, the country began calling louder and louder to the couple.

“Chuck had been raised on a small acreage in northern Minnesota where his parents raised a few chickens,” says Heidi. “I always wanted to live on one, so we were getting the itch to get away from the city.”

The couple says the clincher for them to move from the city and try something new came to them one night while they were watching a documentary about how animals were raised in feed lots and in confinement facilities. The documentary went into detail about the slaughter process, showing how sick animals get into our food supply.

“After the documentary was over,” says Heidi, “I looked at Chuck and said, I think we should grow all of our own food.” She knew she could never again look at meat in the same way at any grocery store.

Five years later, in 1998, the couple moved to a hobby farm near Zimmerman, where they restored an old house and began their journey into food production. Though they continued working full-time at their careers for the next nine years, the Thompson’s spent all their free hours at the farm learning, trial by error, how to be farmers.

It was while the couple was living on their ‘practice farm’ that their food philosophy began to take shape. In essence it reads:

Thompson’s Painted Hill Philosophy

It is our goal to know where our food comes from and how it is grown.

We will grow as much of our food as possible. What we can’t grow, we buy locally and organically grown.

We purchase only those foods with the fewest ingredients. We believe that simple is best.

We avoid fast food like the plague. Just because food is easy and inexpensive doesn’t make it good.

We will continue to learn the best, most nutritious and most humane way to raise our food and to share that knowledge and the goods produced with others.

By 2007, Chuck and Heidi realized if they wanted to be full-time organic farmers they would need more acreage than the current ten they had. So they set out to find the perfect setting.

“We searched for sites in Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin for a farm with more than 40 acres,” says Heidi. “I came across three that had potential. We bought the third one which was in Wells.”

That was two years ago. The couple has been busy ever since updating a small house they currently live in while gutting and remodeling a larger home on the building site. Chuck also continues commuting to the Twin Cities, as needed, to assist his brother who is an electrical contractor there.

“While I was doing decorative painting (drawing murals) in a plantation home in South Carolina a few years ago,” says Heidi, “I came across the name of a wine while having lunch. It was called ‘Painted Hill.’ I liked the name and since I still do painting and our acreage is on a hill, Chuck and I decided to call this place ‘Thompson’s Painted Hill Farm,'” explains Heidi.

In order to turn the land into an organic farm, the couple uses no chemicals on the property, the livestock can’t be given antibiotics or hormones and their feed must be organic.

“We are not your typical industrial farm,” adds Chuck. “We try to raise everything we eat.”

Heidi also cans and freezes the garden produce to tide them over through the winter.

There is room enough for everything from chickens to cattle on the farm. In fact, they also raise mule foot hogs, turkeys, chickens and Muscovy ducks. At one time they also had pygmy goats and a couple of peacocks.

“The last two years have been a real learning experience,” says Chuck. “It’s been pretty much a comedy of errors for us. But like becoming a brain surgeon, one can learn farming too.”

Even though the couple owns a tractor, their most helpful piece of equipment is the four-wheeler. Otherwise, Chuck says all the animals get fed by a bucket or feed themselves by grazing in the grass.

Every day is an adventure for the Thompsons. Thanks in part to the zany animals living on the farm.

Chuck says each type of animal has its own unique personality.

“We have discovered directing chickens to their coop is like herding cats,” he says of the almost impossible task. “They have very tiny minds of their own.”

Chuck classifies hogs as ‘escape artists,’ pygmy goats as ‘nut cases,’ horses as ‘slow learners’ and turkeys as ‘fragile and stupid,’ but very social animals.

“They (turkeys) follow you around, fluff their feathers and talk to you,” says Chuck.

The first year the Thompsons were in operation, they pre-sold all of their turkeys. Their delight turned to dismay as one evening they discovered 12 of their turkeys roosting in a tree. Since turkeys can’t fly, Chuck had to get and climb up a ladder, grab the turkeys by their legs then hand them down to Heidi. The couple learned turkeys cannot swim either, as they found one bobbing in the pig’s water trough.

Not wanting the turkey to die, and since it was already pre-sold, Heidi fished it out of the trough, ran to the house and wrapped it in a towel.

“It was like squeezing out a sponge,” recalls Heidi. Water poured from its feathers and drying it with a towel wasn’t working. The bird was suffering from hypothermia! Heidi put it on the kitchen counter, got her hair dryer and began drying it while fluffing its feathers and singing to it. Happily, says Heidi, it lived…until butchering day.

The Thompson’s also raise the Irish-heritage Dexter breed cattle. The cattle-escape story is one of the nightmares the Thompsons would like to forget.

But the couple is quickly learning the art of farming and animal management. Painted Hill Farm no longer is the scene of as many comedy of errors and their products are becoming more recognizable and in demand.

In addition to settling in, Heidi, in particular, has been busy marketing their organically raised products through mailers, newspapers, farmers markets, her book and even Facebook on the internet.

“Every week our business is picking-up,” says Heidi.

They raise the animals then take them for slaughter and processing to Geneva Meats before selling the frozen product at various Farmer’s Markets in the area in addition to Blue Earth’s Rainbow Food Co-op.

“We also set-up every Friday in the former Food-N-Fuel parking lot in Wells, where we grill burgers and brats as well as sell our frozen meat from our refrigerated truck,” explains Chuck. They have discovered people will come rain or shine for their product. Seemingly, people arepicking-up on the Thompson’s call to ‘buy local.’

The couple also has a store on site at their Painted Hill Farm if anyone wishes to shop there.

In the future, the Thompson’s hope to add interns or apprentices to their Painted Hill Farm.

“We are part of the Sustainable Agriculture Association,” says Chuck. “It would be nice to have these interns learn while assisting us with the farm work.”

Although Chuck maintains his electrician skills by commuting a few days each week to the Cities, he also likes the freedom and no time-card punching the farm life allows him. As his wife says, “we’re in control of our own destiny.”

Looking back, Chuck says he would have started smaller and slower with his organically raised livestock.

“The first year we had 80 pigs, 300 chickens and 15 head of cattle we had processed for sale,” says Chuck. “Marketing, then selling all that meat was a real challenge for us. The only good thing about it was it did give us inventory.”

The Thompson’s say the life and farming style they have adopted is probably not the easiest, but it is the best and they learn new lessons everyday.

Some of the lessons they have learned since the advent in 2007 of Painted Hill Farm are:

* Nature will surprise you when you least expect it.

* Don’t let chickens out until after sun-up.

* Fox learn your habits.

* Never assume anything.

Additional lessons, reasons and stories about country life and ‘real’ food recipes may be found in the book, “It’s a Dream Life…with a few nightmares thrown in for fun,” written and illustrated by Heidi L. Thompson.

Heidi admits she likes the solitude of being on the farm. The quiet time gives her the opportunity to prepare for a showing of her paintings beginning July 9 which will run through August. This is a great opportunity for her, since jobs for her decorative painting have slowed in recent months due to the economy.

“I like the peace of mind knowing Chuck and I are raising animals in a natural way,” says Heidi. The humane treatment given their animals was one of their main objectives in becoming organic farmers.

Going along with this are two sayings or mottos they often use. In fact, Chuck has one imprinted on a tee-shirt which says ‘Organic…it’s not just for Hippies anymore.’ The other saying Heidi likes is ‘We look forward to feeding you…naturally.’

The couple says they are beginning to get many repeat customers and their business is growing slowly but nicely.

“Thompson’s Painted Hill Farm is our way of making a positive impact in the world, for our neighbors and for ourselves,” summarizes Heidi.

In her book she writes, “And this is how life unfolds on our farm: we work hard all day and get a great night’s sleep. I see the sun rise and set over fields of grazing animals. I enjoy the satisfaction of growing real food. I feel safe in the country and I am starting to change people’s minds about food. What’s more, I love that Chuck and I are doing something, once commonplace, is now unusual.”

Painted Hill Farm is truly the achievement of a dream for Chuck and Heidi Thompson.