JAKE & KERSTIN
FIRST-TIME FARMERS & BEEKEEPERS
Minneapolis, Minnesota to Shafer, Minnesota
Jake Kulju and Kerstin Hansen’s journey to the country all started with urban beekeeping. The couple was living in Minneapolis, Jake working as a copywriter and Kerstin as a lawyer and yoga instructor. Kerstin’s dad spent several years keeping hives in western Minnesota and taught Jake the ropes. When Minneapolis decided to allow urban hives, Jake jumped at the chance to start a beekeeping operation. Several years and many rooftops later, Skinny Jake’s Fat Honey was born. Skinny Jake’s Fat Honey is sold all over Minnesota, in restaurants and specialty shops. His hives sit atop breweries, apartment buildings and in backyards. A few years into the honey business the couple decided that most things they liked to do – cook, grow their own food, build things, etc. - would be better done in the country. They began searching for farms in rural Minnesota within a two-hour drive to the city so Jake could continue tending to his urban hives. They found their 90-acre farmstead in 2014, located in the lush St. Croix River Valley. The farm, like so many others across the country, had been leased out for many years to large-scale corn and soybean growers. When some of their neighbors heard they were planning on turning the farmland back into a viable working farm, they thought the couple was crazy, while others in the community encouraged their goals. With moving boxes still yet to be unpacked, they immediately got to work and ordered their first box of chickens. One year in and the progress they have made at their Sweetgrass Farm is staggering. They now raise chickens, ducks, French alpine dairy goats, heritage hogs and (of course) bees. They have a giant vegetable garden and are working on growing cover crops to rebuild the integrity of their soil and restore cropland to pasture. Together, this couple has built a life and land they are proud of, a place that feeds their bodies and souls. Kerstin still works as a lawyer and teaches yoga several days a week in the city and Jake goes back once a week to deliver honey and tend to his bees. Coming home at night to the chorus of frogs in their pond, looking out on their animals and land they are working, is the only place that truly feels like home. (JUMP TO THEIR INTERVIEW)
What inspired you to move to the country?
Jake: We wanted a bigger palette to paint from. And we wanted good food. We spent a summer doing some gardening on Kerstin's grandparent's farm a few years ago, and the quality of the food we grew—its flavor and fecundity and robustness—was a game changer for us. There is just no substitute for fresh food right from the ground. There was really no turning back after that. I remember the fennel in particular. It was massive and perfumed our home for days. Food can be so much more alive and expressive! We also like to build things. Saunas, duck houses, gardens, chicken tractors. At one point, we realized most of the things we really like doing and want to do for the rest of our lives are done better in the country. Once we realized that, we started planning to make it happen.
Kerstin: We both grew up in rural Minnesota, so it wasn't a stretch to think about returning to rural life. However, we both intentionally decided to move to the city for college, and to continue living in big cities for about ten years after that, both on the East Coast and in the Midwest. When we moved back to St. Paul from Rhode Island just after we got married in 2008, we started talking about what we saw our life like in 10 years, and we both organically came to this place of wanting space. Wanting to walk out our door in the morning and see an expanse of land, trees, living things. We could also feel the rhythm of farming. The daily rhythm of chores and tending to animals and plants, but also the seasonal rhythm of dark nights and quiet in the winter, hectic planning and movement in the spring, the bounty of summer, and the calming, slowing color of fall as things start to return to the earth. That rhythm to me is comforting, calming, and incredibly grounding. It's how we build our days into weeks, which build into months, years, decades, and it's how we want to fill our lives. Oh, and of course there is the amazing food - cheese, butter, fresh radishes from the garden, plump and delicious grass-fed chickens from our pasture, all of it. We love good food, and the best food is whole, fresh, and known. We were excited to start farming and move to the country so that we could grow our own food, for our community and ourselves.
How did you two meet?
Kerstin: We met in college, right at the beginning of freshman year. We were good friends for quite a while before we realized we were meant to live this life together. After about seven years of being close friends as well as dating each other's roommates, we finally took time to listen to what our hearts were saying to us. We made some really courageous and scary decisions, and Jake moved out to Providence, Rhode Island, where I was living at the time, to start a big beautiful romance. Seven years later and quite a few courageous and scary decisions later, we are living our dream of being on a farm!
Initially what was the hardest part about making the move? What challenges came later?
Jake: The first hard thing was being patient about starting to actualize our vision of our farm. A good friend gave me a great piece of advice that I completely ignored. He said, "take a year to get to know the land before you start any big projects." I see the wisdom in that now, but there was no way we could stop ourselves from jumping right into a full catastrophe of successes and failures. We built a hoop house in a low spot that got swamped in the spring, we planted our onions too in rows that were too crowded to effectively weed, and we brought a dairy goat home to milk before we knew how to milk her! But we also successfully bred and kidded our herd in the fall, we repaired the fences around the barnyard paddock so animals could loaf outside, and we raised and sold 50 meat chickens on pasture before the end of October!
Kerstin: I would say we are still very much in the "initial" stage. Although we dove right in, and got our first shipment of Freedom Ranger broiling chickens a week after we moved to the farm, and four dairy goats a month later, we are still, and I think always will be, challenged by new things every day. The hardest part has been feeling somewhat disconnected with our community here. We are only about an hour out of the Twin Cities, so we still see our friends and family as much as we did (for the most part) when we were living there. However, our life has changed drastically. Living in this new realm so close to life and death, so close to the earth, and so close to our food, is incredibly challenging to try to explain to even our closest friends. The nurturing of, unforeseen loss of, and then intentional taking of, life, is incredibly humbling. I honestly did not realize the impact it would have on me. It hasn't gotten easier, and I don't know that it will, but that's another aspect of what I love about living here. I think of Kahlil Gibran's On Joy and Sorrow regularly and draw so much strength from it. If you haven't read it, please do!
What surprised you most about country living? Did it meet your expectations?
Jake: I was most surprised by how much I really felt at home. I knew I wanted to move out here to do the things I want to do and grow the food I want to eat. But I soon found that the sight of trees, the bright slash of the milky way at night, the full immersion into the four seasons, and the joy of good hard work really suited us. Living here has given us a new life, and a whole new way of understanding ourselves, each other, our families, our history, and the world.
What were the hardest things to get used to?
Jake: It is hard to get used to death. When a baby chick fails to thrive, or when we find the remains of a beloved barn cat in the field left by coyotes, or a dozen other examples, it always hits me like a wall. Even when we slaughter or send our animals to slaughter, the hard reality of death weighs on me. I don't understand why it has to be this way, but I am trying to fully be part of it.
Would you ever go back to an urban existence?
Jake: I don't think so. I can go to the city and get what I need in a day or two. I can see friends, go to a few restaurants, go shopping if I need to, and see the sights or museums that interest me. Being with sunrises and sunsets; drinking fresh, cold water from a deep well; sipping gin lemonade on the back porch; snowshoeing; licking homemade mayonnaise from my cheeks with bacon, tomatoes, and bread from my own farm: I can spend the other 363 days doing that, along with driving old tractors, BS-ing with old-timer farmers, humming and hawing over the price of oats at the feed store, and just being weird out here in the way country folk are so wonderfully weird.
Kerstin: I'm definitely not ruling anything out. I'm a girl who likes to keep her options open (hello, Gemini!). However, I do think it would be really difficult to go back to living in the city - I love eating out, meeting up with friends on a whim, and going to the park, but at this point in my life I can't imagine not feeling this expanse of space every day. Since we are only an hour outside Minneapolis, it's not completely out of the question to pop into the city for a nice dinner, to see friends, or to attend an event, so I truly feel like we have the best of both worlds!
Have you noticed a change in yourself and/or your work since moving away from the city?
Jake: I am stronger. From lifting hay bales and water buckets, wrestling pigs into their pens, and scything hay, but also from holding a dying day-old baby goat in my arms, crying with my wife as we smelled the clover in the air on the day we moved-in, fixing the tractor with a pieced-together set of tools and a few phone calls to my dad and uncle, and getting up at sunrise every day.
Kerstin: Yes, absolutely. I am more content and calmer. I think this comes from the rhythm of life here, from being close to the earth, from finding moments in my day to simply stand and watch our animals be. I can often be found just standing at the goat paddock (where they can't quite see me), watching the goats do what goats do, when they don't know the humans are watching. I do the same with the chickens and the ducks. In those moments my mind is calm, my breath is rhythmic, and I feel grounded. There are fewer stimuli in the country for the mind - but more for the senses, and that is just what I need to remain in the present moment, rooted in. Living on a farm with Jake has also been, and still is, an evolution of our relationship. We are learning to communicate more effectively and differently than we did in city life. We are finding this farm rhythm together, sharing dreams and aspirations for this piece of land and these animals, and making plans. Spending so much time and consistently making decisions like this - literally life and death decisions on a regular basis (for the animals), has a way of drawing you closer to your partner and allowing you to see a window into the soul that is absolutely genuine and beautiful.
Do you have a specific space or place that helps you feel inspired?
Jake: I love being with the pigs. I get old and imperfect baguettes from a local bakery that we feed our pigs as a supplement to their pasture and forage. Every day, I toss the bread high in the air and watch it move from blue sky to green tree tops to the green/brown earth. There is something ridiculous and beautiful and soothing about watching pigs eat French baguettes in a field. It makes me love the world for allowing it.
Kerstin: Yes, there are about seven acres of woods on our property, within which are several massive oak trees. There is one in particular that is my soul space, right at the base of it, where I look up into its branches and I can feel powerful grounding energy. Near to this place we buried our first goat to die on the farm, and it's a place we walk to each full moon. For me it represents so much about what makes this place, and this farm journey special - it is the epitome of grounding energy, and the tree also goes through those rhythms we experience so poignantly here. When you stand at the base of these strong trees, you can't help but be astonished that it started growing hundreds of years ago, and is still standing. It brings up all kinds of questions like - what has this tree seen, how long will it live and what will it see 100 years from now? It's powerful! It inspires me to live with intention on this land, to make it proud, in a sense. It also reminds me of my farming ancestors, the way land used to be respected and treated, and that everything is cyclical.
How did you get started keeping bees?
Jake: My father-in-law was a commercial beekeeper in the 1980s. As I got to know him, I learned a little more about where he had hives, how he tended them, what he did with the honey, etc. One day he asked me to help him move a few bee boxes. I suited up and had the first thrill of being terrified and delighted by walking through a cloud of bees. We were living in Minneapolis at the time, and when the city made it legal to keep bees a year later, we jumped at the chance.
Are there common misperceptions about beekeeping that you would like to dispel?
Jake: The fear of being stung is worse than being stung.
Do you have any books you would recommend for people interested in keeping bees?
Jake: Langstroth's The Hive and the Honey-Bee. It is old and full of folksy wisdom, as well as interesting and detailed instructions.
What are your thoughts on the future of bees and beekeeping?
Jake: I would like to see us return to a national model of beekeeping we had pre-World War II. There were thousands more beekeepers with much smaller apiaries. I think part of the answer to healthier bees is more small beekeepers that are attentive, curious, and invested in the health of each one of their hives.
Do you have any advice or suggestions for people interested in urban beekeeping?
Jake: It is a worthwhile pursuit, but it does require a tolerance and joy for hard work. Bee boxes are heavy, you will get your share of stings, and more than a few things will "go wrong." It exposes you to a much broader spectrum of victory and defeat than you will find in regular old comfortable living. If you don't mind sacrificing a measure of convenience, you get in return the smell of warm wax on a summer's evening, the taste of fresh honey literally from your backyard, constant opportunity for conversation and connection with your neighbors, and the opportunity to witness creatures that are something perfectly designed for the world, who gather the impossible scattering of light risen from field and flower, then you might like urban beekeeping.