Farming Finds a Way: Farming with community at Nettle Valley Farm

Jordan Gerard/SGH Heidi Eger laughs as she picks up one of her lambs that enjoys warm, grassy pastures. Her herd of sheep enjoys munching on grass and other food they find in the valley below Nettle Valley Farm.
Jordan Gerard

By Jordan Gerard

Spring Grove Herald

The more the merrier and the easier it is to farm with fellow farmers.

That’s the atmosphere at Nettle Valley Farm this year. Owners Dayna Burtness Nguyen and Nick Nguyen started an incubator program on their pastured pig farm, which means they invited two young farmers to live and raise their livestock at Nettle Valley Farm.

Heidi Eger and Bailey Lutz moved in this past March and brought sheep, goats, ducks and chickens with them.

Incubator program

Incubator farm programs are relatively uncommon, but incredibly valuable and useful when the right people are involved. Oftentimes, incubator programs are run by nonprofit organizations.

Any farmer can start one if they have an interest in getting help on their farm and helping out farmers who are just starting out or do not have the resources to start their own farm.

On Nettle Valley Farm, incubatees “pay” to be part of the program. Their payment is sweat equity in 20 hours of work trade a month. Eger and Lutz also have access to farmland, truck and trailer use (at a low price rate), tools, utilities and the barn. 

In addition to helping other farmers, Burtness realized they needed a hand around the farm, but not so badly that they needed to hire a full-time employee.

“We really believe the strength and future of rural Minnesota is having sustainable regenerative farms on the land,” Burtness said. “We want more farmers like that because we want to see people succeed, and we want cool neighbors. We want people to live around Spring Grove and Mabel.”

Burtness herself started out as an incubatee farmer in Northfield. She said it was a crucial part to starting her pastured pig farm because she and her husband did not have enough money, access to tractors, land and utilities to make a go of it on their own right. 

Since starting her farm in 2017, when the Herald first interviewed her, Burtness says she learned a lot. 

“Community is everything and people are everything,” she said. “All of our neighbors have been so supportive and fun to be around. They embrace our weirdness.” 

Her neighbors have been especially helpful in teaching and helping out in general.

“Especially in this neighborhood, the community is really good,” she added. “We have expert farmers, who knew more about farming by the time they were 8 than I ever will. Just extra stellar neighbors.”

She hoped the experience so far was mutually beneficial. Not only do tasks get accomplished on the farm, but having an extra two people in the house provides more “fun people to hang out with and do projects with.”

“We like living in a community more than just the two of us,” Burtness said. 

In addition to the incubator farmers staying with them, artist Sarah Thorson is also a roommate, friend and “creative force” in the house. 

She plans on opening up a home goods store in Spring Grove soon (watch the Herald for more information coming soon).

Meet Heidi and Bailey

Both young farmers arrived to Nettle Valley Farm this past March.

Eger previously did a vegetable farm incubator program with her sister and is enjoying raising her small flock of katahdin dorper sheep. She is the owner of Radicle Heart Farm. This is her seventh season farming.

The sheep are raised for meat, and they shed hair instead of being sheared, which does make it easier to take care of them, she said.

Eger is also raising two flocks of rotationally grazed chickens that will be sold for meat. 

“It’s going so well because we set our communication from the very beginning,” she said. “If other people are thinking about incubating on their farm, they should set up communication first.”

When she first started at another farm, Eger was able to figure out what enterprises she liked best. She was also able to experience a little bit of the stress that comes with farming, but she didn’t have full control of her flock until this year.

“It’s a good home situation, good living. We have the support of our home and neighbors. It’s been really great,” she said.

Down in the valley, Eger’s flock enjoys lazy days in the warm grass and eating down the tall grasses that grow there.

Lutz is raising kiko goat does, which will be bred in the fall for babies that will be born the following spring. Those babies will be bred and eventually raised to be meat goats.

Currently, the ladies hang out near the house and sample the grasses in their pasture. They also enjoy sunflower seed treats from Lutz.

She also has two goat kids (boys) that lost their mom when they were born. So Lutz has been bottle-feeding them and eventually, they’ll join the ladies in the other pen.

In addition, Lutz is also raising meat ducks. She has four different breeds of those, and half of them will be harvested for meat in August and the other half will establish another flock.

“To have the community aspect but to have ownership of a project instead of making someone else’s dreams a reality, you get to make your own, is really great,” she explained.

She chose goats and ducks for their ability to take care of themselves and express their true nature.

This is Lutz’s third season of farming. Last season she did a full apprenticeship on another farm.

“This is a really great opportunity for people who are ready to do something on your own, but don’t have the means,” Lutz said.

With new pigs arriving to the farm, there’s a lot of activity going on. Sheep will have the first go at the pastures, followed by the pigs. Goats and chickens will follow after that, but the order could vary, too.

Burtness’s egg-laying hens also contribute to the pigs. Their eggs will act as a training tool to come back in the pasture if they decide to take a free-range stroll.

Farm crisis be gone

Since Nettle Valley Farm has a little more control of what they grow and who they sell it to, the affects of the farm crisis have been at bay so far.

“There’s a very bright future in regenerative farming. We can help other people who are interested in it,” Burtness said. “It’s still risky, it’s still farming, but we’re not at the whims of tariffs or the markets.”

An incubator program can also provide excellent avenues of marketing too, through various connections.

“In the next five years of our farm, we want to start helping people sell their raised meat,” Burtness said. “People are really good at farming, but not marketing.”

She adds that people need to do what they’re good at and by helping them sell the meat, essentially knowing there will be a market at the right time, will help people get into regenerative farming.

That’s also one of the goals of Driftless Grown, a group where makers, producers, farmers, skilled-tradespeople can help each other.

“Rural Minnesota has amazing farms, neighbors and interesting people doing interesting things,” Burtness added. “The idea that some young farmers want to be independent and self sufficient is bull. The beauty of living in a rural community ... we don’t all have to do everything.”

Other opportunities also abound for future incubatees on Nettle Valley Farm. Eventually, the program will host up to four additional farmers, but for now, they’re starting out with Eger and Lutz.

Burtness says she’d love to have someone operate their sawmill and create wood products.

There’s also room for a market garden, vegetables and flowers, turkeys, specialty crops and with an existing six-acre pine and walnut tree plantation, there’s room for medicinal mushrooms as well.

“We farm differently and we feel strongly about young farmers. We hope people who come through our program will have a bright future,” she concluded.