Farm to table sustainability stories: Iron shoe Farm in Princeton, MN

“I was not a farmer by trade, but it’s in my blood” ~Carla Mertz

It has been my goal over the last two years to connect shoppers/diners/home cooks with the origin of their ingredients through my writing. I feel that documenting the journey from farm to table is important and it is why I am so thrilled to have the opportunity to share the stories of local farmers like Carla Mertz, Owner of Iron Shoe Farm in Princeton, MN. What follows is a meaningful narrative of hard work, dedication and resiliency. One where farmers like Carla have had to cultivate alternate methods of reaching out to buyers during the chaos of a pandemic while continuing to maintain their busy day to day farm schedules.  Online ordering and a new mobile pantry are just a couple of the innovative ways she has been marketing her products (and the products of other purveyors as well) during this time. She communicated that while farming during COVID-19 has been quite a shift, it has also brought with it the opportunity to shine a light on the crucial aspect of sourcing food locally and the importance of looking out for each other.

Carla is staying focused on the positive. Her strong sense of responsibility and the aspiration to do good starts on her her farm, with her family and extends to the broader food community. She is extremely knowledgeable about the importance of sustainable agriculture and its relationship to the production of healthy, well-bred animals. She is an advocate for other Minnesota farmers and businesses. Partnerships are important, especially now. If she doesn’t have something that a restaurateur or customer is looking for, she doesn’t hesitate to connect them with someone who does.  This is the just one example of the helpful collaborations that are taking place.  

This focus on connection has its rewards.  It has been well received by some chefs/buyers in the twin cities because they’ve learned that they can use Carla as a distributor. It’s also been a wake up call for us as consumers, who have seen empty grocery store shelves during this pandemic. We have become keenly aware that farmers are not just on the periphery of things, they are a bright light on the horizon during an unprecedented time. They are absolutely indispensable.

Carla and her husband purchased the farm in 2013. They had been exploring the idea of starting a hobby farm. This was partially due to a family member who was struggling with an illness and the knowledge that growing and harvesting their own food could contribute to numerous nutritional and health benefits. What started as a dream has grown into a full fledged, sustainably run farm business.

Read on to learn more about Iron Shoe Farm and the incredible things that Carla and her family have been curating there over the past 7 years.

 The Farm Tour

“The red barn is a symbol of agriculture in America” ~ Carla Mertz

It is the backdrop to life on the farm. Carla credits the previous owner with bringing their beautiful red barn back to life. It was re-roofed, the foundation had to be lifted and it was repainted prior to the her family purchasing it.

The Memorial Garden

Carla, her husband and daughter created a memorial garden on the property.  They wanted to add an element of visual interest near the barn. The intent of the garden is to honor the past, the present, and the future.  “The people that were here before us, the here and now and those that reside here in the future.” The  flowers are all edible. The varieties include: Bee Balm, Marigolds, Pansies, Italian Violas, Dianthus, Alyssum and more.

Carla harvests the flowers in the fall, dries them, and makes tea bags. She also sells some of the dried flowers to Twin Cities pastry chefs.  They use them for decoration on their desserts throughout the year.

Animal Proteins

“We pasture raise all of our animals! From Beef, pork, chicken, ducks to turkey. All are raised ABF (antibiotic free) and hormone free. We source local spent grains from lupulin and Aegir Breweries as a supplemental feed source to lower our carbon footprint and keep this product out of our landfills” ~ Iron Shoe Farms Website

The Hogs

3 years ago they started with 2 hogs. They are a farrow to finish farm. This means that all of the piglets are born at Iron Shoe Farm and they remain there until they reach market weight. They co-own their boar with another farmer who raises the same breed of hogs, so this creates a high level of consistency in regards to quality and flavor.

At Iron Shoe Farm they raise Mangalitsa and Red Wattle Heritage Hogs. They are outside year round. They have steel huts for shelter as the hogs require some dry space. There is ample room for them to roam and keep busy.  Carla and her husband are looking at building a new structure that will have 10 paddocks and will be 3 times the size of their current space. This will be a centralized hub and it will have all of the necessary feed and watering components.

The red wattle pig is a domestic breed of heritage hog that originated in the United States. It’s known for it characteristic red color and the wattle that is attached to each side of the neck.

The mangalitsa hogs were originally bred in Hungary. They have a thicker, wooly coat and they also have a higher fat content that keeps them insulated. They do really well in our Minnesota climate. Carla’s hogs are raised slowly, allowing them to gain weight over time.

Fun Fact: Exactly 3 months – 3 weeks – 3 days is the gestation period for sows.

The Cattle

When they decided to add beef cows to the farm Carla had a friend bring some of his out to their farm to get to know firsthand what it was like to have cattle.  They wanted to be clear on the care and structure necessary to raise them responsibly.  

They tried some different breeds and settled on Lawrence Hereford’s. They currently have 8 cattle on the property, this includes a 2 year old bull that they rented ( see the first and center image directly above), it is his first time on the property. They rented the bull for calves for next year.

“The modern Hereford is coloured dark red to red-yellow, with a white face, crest, dewlap, and underline. Herefords with white flanks and white markings below the knees and hocks are also common. Most animals have short thick horns that typically curve down at the sides of the head, but there is a polled strain in North America and UK (Polled Hereford).

Mature males may weigh up to 1,800 pounds, while mature females may weigh around 1,200. They are muscular, moderate to long in length of side, adequate in length of leg, large in size, trim, and smooth. They are also well developed in the regions of valuable cuts – the back, loin, and hind quarters or round. These cattle are known for their vigor and foraging ability and for their longevity, many females live and produce calves beyond the age of 15 years. Bulls are capable of remaining profitable at stud to the age of 12 or more” ~ The Cattle Site (www.thecattlesite.com)

Fun fact: They had a calf born the day before my visit.  It’s a girl! Baby’s weigh 75-100 lbs at birth.

The Chickens

Chickens were what they started with on the farm. They ended up having way more chickens and eggs than they could use so they began selling them to friends. The pasture raised eggs are gathered daily. There are currently around 50 chickens grazing in the outdoor structure and 400 more inside (in-progress). They have raised around 2000 chickens this year (1000 less than planned due to a drop in restaurant sales related to COVID). The growth in terms of the number of chickens added has been approximately 500 per year.

Fun facts: “Pasture-raised chicken meat tends to be higher in iron, higher in Omega 3, have a lower Omega 6:3 ratio, and be higher in antioxidants (Vitamin E, for example). Pasture-raised eggs have higher Omega 3s, a lower Omega 6:3 ratio, increased vitamin D, and more antioxidants.” ~ http://www.apppa.org

The Microgreens

“We grow our microgreens year round and indoors! These mighty microgreens not only look beautiful and have flavor intensity there are huge health benefits!” ~Iron Shoe Farm Website

Pictured below are: Pea microgreens, Bulls blood beets and

Grants and Projects

Iron Shoe Farm received a grant through the NRCS and the USDA for the fencing and the pipeline in 2015.  There was also a rotational grazing project that they qualified for. Rotational grazing has been proven to boost pasture health, soil fertility and ultimately contributes to the improved health of the cows as they have access to fresh air and more space to roam. Additionally, they were recipients of a livestock improvement grant in 2016.   “There are great programs out there and you just need to know how to access them” ~ Carla Mertz

They received assistance with their pasture grasses. The Sustainable Farming Association educated them on the type of seed they should be planting and how to build soil health. The Cattle have certain spots that they gravitate to for grazing, wallowing and keeping cool. There are currently several paddocks on the farm that are used for rotational grazing.

The soil is tested twice a year, in the spring and fall. This is done at the University of Minnesota.

Cooking With Local Ingredients

I have been focusing on creating dishes at home that include as many local ingredients as possible. Iron Shoe Farms has been an amazing source of fresh, locally sourced products. Carla collaborated with Kim Hayes (The Furlough Farmer and owner of Alpha & Omega Farm, also located in Princeton, MN) on the creation of their mobile pantry. It has items from approximately 75 local producers on it. See the Iron Shoe Farm website for details on the availability of products, the weekly location of the pantry and how to order.

Below are the descriptions and the images for just a few of the dishes that I’ve cooked up utilizing the ingredients sourced from both Iron Shoe Farms and mobile pantry:

Pasta with Iron Shoe Farm bulk sausage, mushrooms and shaved Parmesan. The rigatoni pasta is sourced from Sunrise Flour Mill located in North Branch, Minnesota.

Breakfast sandwich made with the leftover bulk sausage (from above gallery) and topped with an Iron Shoe Farms sunny side up egg and cheddar cheese.

Turkey legs on the grill that came from the mobile pantry and are sourced from Peterson Turkey Farm/Ferndale Market.

Morning latte made with milk from Autumnwood Farm, this is a dairy operation located on the south side of Forest Lake, MN.

Summer corn risotto made with sweet corn purchased from the mobile pantry.

One dozen eggs from the chickens at Iron Shoe Farm.

Shakshuka made with eggs from Iron Shoe Farm.

Burger Night on The Farm

At Iron Shoe Farms, the support for local farmers and chefs extends to outdoor dinners on the property. They schedule numerous themed meals throughout the season where guests can experience farm raised food, cooked by talented local chef’s. Below are the photos of a burger night that we attended in June. Chef Mik German cooked Hereford beef burgers flavored with his signature 14 Spice seasoning blend.

Minnesota Cooks

Carla is also closely involved with the Minnesota Cooks organization.

Minnesota Cooks™ is a program created by Minnesota Farmers Union, devoted to celebrating and highlighting the partnerships between Minnesota’s dedicated family farmers and talented chefs, cooks and restaurant owners from around the state who work tirelessly to highlight farm-fresh foods on their menus.” ~ Minnesota Cooks Website

Thank you to Carla for a marvelous tour and for taking the time out of your very busy morning to share the amazing things that you are bringing to the table at Iron Shoe Farms!

To my blog readers, COVID-19 has affected so many facets of the local and global food industry. Farmers and restaurateurs have experienced a sharp decrease in income due to business closures, interrupted access to food deliveries secondary to supply chain issues and reduced spending by customers (also spurred by job loss and financial insecurity.) This has illuminated the awareness of how essential it is to buy from our local farmers and food purveyors. They are our growers and culinary connectors. They have a vested interest in our economy and in feeding us well. It is critical to remember that when we purchase food from our local farmers/purveyors that we are positively supporting our extended community and the environment.

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