Wright County Farm Family of the Year
“It’s wonderful to be recognized,” said Amelia Neaton. “We are a small farm doing great things.”
Nick Neaton said, “We are a different kind of farm, a small farm that operates differently than the traditional Wright County farm. This is an opportunity for us to showcase our farm, to showcase our good, clean food.”
The Neatons, of Woodland Township south of Waverly, are the 2020 Wright County Farm Family of the Year, honored by a committee of the University of Minnesota Extension of Wright County.
“We both have the same vision,” said Amelia, “we want to grow our own food and grow food for our community.”
Sweet Beet Farm
Since its beginnings, Sweet Beet Farm has worked with a philosophy of that “builds on our collective agrarian heritage by connecting with our family, friends, and neighbors; tending the earth for sustained fertility and biodiversity; appreciating nature’s pace and natural tendencies; and supporting life on our farm – in our home and in our fields.”
Sweet Beet Farm, though, did not start out at its current location in Woodland Township.
According to the Sweet Beet Farm website, the Neatons started farming in 2009 when they rented a quarter-acre field and provided produce to the local community with a small farm stand.
“That same year, we worked on neighboring farms by day, gaining insight and experience that provided us with skills and knowledge, and by night, returning home to work in the fields of our own.”
Nick spent two years working at Gale Woods Farm as a farm educator, while Amelia spent her first two years in the Watertown area working for local orchard and apiary Ames Farm. She then spent two summer seasons working at Riverbend Farm, learning under the guidance of Greg and Mary Reynolds.
In the spring of 2010, Nick and Amelia found a farmhouse to rent. They then were farming an acre at the Neaton family farm and an acre at the rented farmhouse.
In 2014, they purchased a 10-acre farm site and home, south of Waverly.
Now, Amelia could work her own farm with Nick, who also is the Community Services Director for the City of Delano.
They spent two years transitioning the farm to organic production and gained organic certification in 2017.
For those two years, their fields were planted with cover crops. The crop roots pulled up minerals deep in the soil, and the cover crop was plowed under each year to create a strong biomass.
Organic certification requires water and soil testing, as well as, complete and detailed paperwork.
“We want to pass on this land,” said Amelia, “healthier than when we started, with clean soils.”
Sharing farming with their children, Albin, age 4, and Hugo, age 1, is an important part of their focus.
Nick sees COVID-19 as exposing the weak links in the food system.
Nick said, “Small farms and farmers markets are booming. Farms like ours are providing food directly to the consumers. We are growing vegetables directly for people.”
Changes at Sweet Beet Farm are underway this spring caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. With COVID-19, the Neatons are reinventing their delivery system, which at this time, is still quite fluid.
Customers can view items available that week on the Sweet Beet Farm online store, make selections, place their order online, and then come to the farm to pick up their order. Orders can also be picked up in Watertown and Delano.
Another change under consideration is possibly limiting the number of volunteers.
In the past, volunteers could come out to the farm to work in the fields and help prepare the harvest.
In keeping with their focus on the community, Amelia said that they would work with the schedules of the volunteers to make their experiences with farming enjoyable and productive. Work-share options were also available.
“Many came to spend time outside, to make social connections, and to work with the dirt,” said Amelia.
The volunteer system this year is being evaluated for workable adaptations. They want the community still involved, but that involvement may change over the next couple of months.
“We take growing food seriously and safely,” said Amelia. “Our customers can trust us. Their food is not being touched by a lot of people. It is more work for us, though!”
A third change this year is taking a break from farmers markets. People come out to the farm more to pick up their vegetables, giving the Neatons more family time with their small children.
Having more of their business at home is a benefit for them.
“It is more work,” said Amelia, “It requires more communication with our customers and being more organized with their orders. But there is not as much wasted. There are no leftovers like there is at the end of a day at a market.”
To extend the short growing season in Minnesota, the Neatons have built a high tunnel and a greenhouse.
A high tunnel on the farmstead is hard work, said Amelia. “But it is very productive.”
Vegetables are planted directly into the ground in the high tunnel.
One crop of radishes, arugula, and other leafy greens were planted the first week in March. All have already been harvested.
Now peppers, tomatoes, lettuce, and green onions are growing. When those are harvested, cool season crops will be planted and then harvested in December.
The high tunnel uses passive solar for heat. When it is only 10 degrees outside, said Amelia, it will be 60 degrees in the high tunnel.
A 24x48-foot greenhouse is used for seeding. Since the greenhouse can be heated to between 60 and 70 degrees, seeding in containers began in March.
The Neatons have a seeding list which designates what seeds should be planted each week.
“I love spreadsheets,” said Amelia. “I do that planning in the winter.”
The seedlings for later transplanting include bedding flowers, vegetables of all kinds, and herbs.
Beyond the buildings, the Neatons have two-and-a-half acres in production.
Throughout the season, those acres will see rotation of crops, sometimes beds produce three crops in one year.
“We had to figure out what kind of system,” said Amelia, “will be the most efficient with the tools we have.”
While no day is ever typical on a farm, Amelia, the head farmer, begins the day early in the morning with her two little sons by harvesting crops that are ready, watering the plants in the greenhouse, and doing fieldwork until around 11 a.m.
Then during the hottest part of the day, she does office work inside.
Late in the afternoon, she again waters the crops in the high tunnel and the greenhouse.
In May, people who have preordered stop at the farm in the late afternoon to pick up their orders.
Nick considers himself to be the “hired hand,” but also Amelia’s teammate and partner.
When he gets home from his job in Delano, he will help with the transplanting and the tractor fieldwork.
Beyond the Farm
The Neatons are active in planning policy and advocating for beginning farmers through several organizations.
“These organizations,” said Amelia. “are part of our community of farming peers and mentors that have encouraged, inspired, and reminded us how we are part of a bigger picture in the food system.”
Amelia has been doing policy work revolving around beginning farmers and land access with the National Young Farmers Coalition.
Nick and Amelia have both served on the Crow River Sustainable Farming Chapter Board, each for six years, organizing educational and social events revolving around food and farming, including the annual Garlic Festival, which has been canceled this year.
Contacting the Farm
More information about Sweet Beet Farm can be found at sweetbeetfarm.com or on Facebook.
Upon request, a biweekly newsletter is sent out with directions on how to buy and how to pick-up the farm products.
Farm Family Program
The Farm Family Recognition Program in Wright County days back to 1980.
Families are chosen, one per county, by local University of Minnesota Extension committees based on their commitment to enhancing and supporting agriculture and for their contributions to the agriculture industry and their local communities.
Farm Family nominees must be a Minnesota food producer actively involved in agricultural production with one or more agricultural enterprises, or have made significant short-term progress and/or innovative contributions with their agricultural endeavors.
The Neaton family will be honored at Farm Fest, currently scheduled for August 4 – 6 in Redwood County, and at the Wright County Fair, currently set for July 22 – 26 at the fairgrounds in Howard Lake. They will also be honored at a future Wright County Board meeting.