Thomas leads way in local organic farming

KRAGNES, Minn.
Noreen Thomas, middle, talks with Bryan Bishop, left, and Jon Tetlie, right, about their native bee study at Doubting Thomas Farms on Monday. Thomas and her husband, Lee Thomas, own the organic farm north of Kragnes, Minn. Carrie Snyder / The Forum

KRAGNES, Minn. - One black lamb, a large Pyrenees-Collie sheep dog and a handful of chickens follow Noreen Thomas around her farm here.

It’s her parade.

Thomas, who co-owns Doubting Thomas Farms with her husband, Lee, is a leader on the farm and off.

The 58-year-old farmer pioneered the local organic movement 10 years ago, and she’s worked to build a sustainable agricultural community that encourages consumers to know their farmers and their food.

The motivation behind her efforts is the promise of something new – a new generation, a new day, a new way of thinking.

“There’s the next generation to assist. They are more like me than my generation,” Noreen says. “For so many of them, it’s (farming) in their bloodstream. When we go to the organic conference each year, there are so many young faces. They’re really passionate about good food.”

Noreen’s youngest son, Carsten, is part of the “next generation” she talks about. He works on the family farm and helps Noreen grow the mushrooms that’ve become popular on restaurant menus in Fargo-Moorhead. Carsten, 21, says his mom taught him to farm “a different way.”

“She taught me that hey, if you sell directly to the person, it’s better for you and the consumer,” he says. “Her whole thing is health and the community. She once said that the community is a reflection of the people, and the farm and how we do things impacts the community.”

To encourage community members to learn more about agriculture, Noreen and her family invite people to tour the farm. The constant activity means muddy boots rest in the farmhouse entryway and housework waits if there’s hay to bale or animals to feed.

“I might have dust bunnies. But the flipside, if I was hung up on that stuff, then I wouldn’t have people out,” Noreen says.

A Girl Scout troop is learning about flowers at the farm by planting zinnias and other blooms for Noreen’s daughter’s fall wedding. Noreen pays the girls for their work, and they’re learning how to plant and care for flowers.

“It’s a sneaky way of getting women in science,” Noreen says.

Concordia College entomologist Bryan Bishop and his students also have a project at the farm studying native bees. They’re learning what farmers can grow to attract native bees, which have been pollinating flowering plants since before honey bees were introduced from Europe.

Noreen calls the projects “living science” and says people learn more by doing.

Her hands-on, practical approach to education and farming has won her accolades in the agricultural community, the most prestigious being the University of Minnesota’s Siehl Prize for Excellence in Agriculture. Noreen claimed the award in 2004 for her commitment to agricultural education, and she’s the first and only woman to win the award but doesn’t want to be the last.

‘A GOOD LIFE’

Besides promoting organic food and farming, Noreen advocates for female farmers. She says women often pursue farming because they’re interested in the health aspect and feeding their families.

In North Dakota, female farmers make up 26 percent of all farmers, and in Minnesota, 25 percent, according to the 2012 Census of Agriculture.

“I think the women are connected to the children and the health, and usually when there’s organic change, it’s females pushing it,” she says.

Teaching people, all people, to feed themselves by growing food is one of Noreen’s greatest interests.

“The most basic, simple form of independence is growing food, even if it’s in a container in an apartment or it’s a community garden. If you’re denied that, you’re dependent on everything,” she says.

For her, a good life means promoting organic, local food and embracing the difficult yet rewarding life of a farmer.

“It’s a good life. It’s an uncertain life,” she says.

Before she met her husband, Noreen worked with the U.S. Department of Agriculture as a researcher and the North Dakota Department of Health as a lab technician. Her life then was different; she dressed up more, she says, and didn’t care for plants. Adjusting to farm life was difficult at first, and she often felt isolated.

“The paycheck is fall, and if it hails on you, too bad,” she says. “You’re marrying a family’s business. I used to say, ‘He farms, I don’t.’ ”

She learned to farm, and realized that she had to “invent things to make the world” come to her, she says, such as inviting people to tour Doubting Thomas Farms.

Besides farming, Noreen is a board member and founding member of Prairie Roots Food Co-op, a member-owned and operated natural foods cooperative that plans to open a grocery store in Fargo-Moorhead. Noreen also received a Bush Fellowship for $75,000.

STARTING SMALL

Ten years ago when Doubting Thomas Farms started organically farming, Noreen didn’t see a strong interest locally in the concept.

“People were mean. Very mean. People weren’t supportive,” she says.

But there were some local chefs who embraced the concept, like Andrea Baumgartner, a former chef at Hotel Donaldson and Green Market in Fargo. Noreen remembers the day, a decade ago, when she and her three kids went to Baumgartner to see if she’d buy their organically raised pigs.

“The kids hid behind me, and they were terrified, and I was terrified,” Noreen says.

Baumgartner was happy to buy the locally raised organic pork, and the women formed a friendship.

“The team at the Hotel Donaldson, we were all excited about the idea of using local foods and regional food producers. To have somebody doing it connect with us, I was very grateful for that,” Baumgartner says.

The relationship with Hotel Donaldson continues to this day, and Noreen says that Baumgartner saying yes to the pork “started it all.”

Now, Baumgartner brings her young son to the farm a few times a year so he can experience the “welcoming and assuming” nature of the farm.

“I think a big part of what she and her family want to do and are is to be very open and supportive of providing really high-quality local foods in this community,” Baumgartner says.

In the future, Noreen would like to host a convention in Fargo-Moorhead for beginner farmers so they could learn from their peers.

“It’s not about formal education. I think that paradigm is going to be broken,” she says. “If you want to farm sheep, learn from a sheep farmer. You can read all you want but when that lamb is coming you have just minutes.”

Although it’s hard to balance her farm work with her other projects, Noreen says she wouldn’t want to her life to be any other way.

“Sometimes I have to turn the volume down or shut it off because I can’t do it all,” she says. “But the new, the next steps drive me.”

“Women of Influence” is an ongoing series exploring the women in our community who have the most impact and influence. Each profile will explore a different element of influence and redefine what it means.