Like a lot of working people, the first thing Khaiti Khaleck does when she gets up is make some coffee. After that, her day goes to the birds -- and a bunch of other critters.
"First I have to collect the duck eggs, no later than 5 a.m. or the crows will steal them," she said. "Then I have to feed, water and love up the ducklings, turkeys, goats, chickens and dogs, and play with the pigs a little. Then water the garden, milk the goats, then go make goat-milk soap and some feta."
Khaleck, chief mother hen at tiny Living the Dream Farm outside Osceola, Wis., is one of a growing number of young adults who are ditching city careers in favor of the farming life -- the small, sustainable-farming life, that is.
For decades, rural families have worried about losing their young folk to urban temptations; 40 percent of farmers today are 55 or older.
But as the eat-local movement has mushroomed in the past several years, so have community-supported agriculture (CSA) farms, which provide weekly deliveries of produce, eggs and sometimes meat to nearby city dwellers.
Wisconsin ranks second among the states in number of organic farms, with 1,222, according to the USDA's first national survey of organic farmers, released in February. Minnesota is seventh with 550.
Twenty years ago, only two CSAs served the Twin Cities. This year, nearly 60 are listed with the Land Stewardship Project, a Minneapolis nonprofit that promotes and supports sustainable-agriculture efforts.
Keeping pace with enthusiasm for farmer-delivered foodstuffs is Generation Y's attraction to working the land. Many CSAs offer apprenticeships to greenhorns eager to trade in cubicles and team meetings for open sky and loamy soil. Some do it as a one-time-experience summer job, others with an eye toward a permanent livelihood.
Turtle Lake trio
East on Hwy. 8 about 25 miles from Khaleck's place, a hopeful threesome is busy digging into their own dreams of farming success. Emily Scifers, 31, the old farmhand of the bunch with several years of experience on farms and a lifelong interest in gardening, is transplanting rows of broccoli from greenhouse flats into a recently tilled field with her partner, Ross Peterson, 32. A passionate newbie, he talks about one day building a bicycle tractor "so we wouldn't have to use fuel to run it." The couple's ambitious plan was to plant more than 40 different types of vegetables in 120 different varieties, even though so far they only had eight friends signed up as CSA members.
"We have to overplant like crazy so if some things fail we can fill in with the others," Scifers said.
Across the driveway, Evan Dvorsak is tending to his turkeys and two grass-fed Jersey cows, Alyssum and Althea.
"Turkeys are notorious for dying on you," he said, checking on a heat lamp near his flock. Dvorsak, 29, left his job working with autistic children in Minneapolis public schools for this rented plot, and found housemates Scifers and Peterson through the University of Minnesota's agriculture listserv.
Besides weeding, shoveling manure and feeding livestock, new farmers also have to spend a lot of time on their laptops.
"Networking is really important because you need a market for your products," Dvorsak said. So is blogging, apparently: One thing most CSA farms have in common besides whimsical names is their own blogs.
The blogs and/or Facebook pages are a means of support and community-building between farmers in what can be a lonely profession, but they also serve to attract new CSA members and keep current ones feeling like a part of the process. Khaleck, 30, who used to be vegan and thus against the killing of animals, wrote a moving entry last fall at ltdfarm.com about her first turkey harvest.
"It's a mistake to try just chopping off the head, their necks are too strong for that," she said, recalling her first kill. "You cut the throat and then hold them and talk to them as they're dying."
From the air, Khaleck's cozy 1.8-acre farm probably looks like a crazy-quilt oasis amid a gaggle of ugly subdivision homes. In her smallish 160-year-old farmhouse, newly hatched ducklings nestle in a box under a heat lamp in the bathroom. Slabs of tasty salted feta cheese lie curing next to jars of fermenting plum wine on the dining table, and a box of goat's milk soap sits ready to bring to the farmer's market. The house is a tidier extension of the barnyard, where a maze of fences divides the species and keeps them from raiding the garden.
"One thing you can't mess around with is fences," she said in the tone of someone who learned it the hard way. "Got to have good ones."
Don't quit your night job
Most people trying to launch a CSA farm have at least one income from another job supporting them.
"My farm pays for itself, but not enough for a salary," said Khaleck, who has 18 people in her CSA, more than double from last year but not nearly enough to support herself on. She works part-time at a co-op. Peterson is a nurse's aide at Hennepin County Medical Center. As any would-be farmer naive enough to romanticize the lifestyle quickly finds out, it's hard work with uncertain returns, and probably years of it before the break-even point.
Dvorsak's parents "weren't crazy about seeing me leave a union job with benefits for this," he said. "But it's by far the most creative job I've ever had. At the moment I'm working on 'How can I get by this week without spending any money?' I've had to relearn thrift, that's for sure."
Dvorsak, who had to sell his newborn calves sooner than he wanted to, will be the most cash-strapped member of the household for awhile because his bean and garlic crops, along with his turkeys, won't be ready for harvest till fall, and he can't yet sell his unpasteurized (and delicious) milk and cream legally, so he gives it away. He also faces one more challenge that his housemates don't.
"It's not so easy to meet women out here," he said. "You can go ahead and let people know I'm single."
Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046