Cultivating new ideas: Farmers, entrepreneurs pushing the bounds of what can be grown and raised in northern Minnesota

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Shrimp, wine and hemp.

Minnesota farmers are more likely to grow commodity crops such as corn, soybeans and wheat, but some people aren't satisfied with traditional farming. They want to branch out, grow something new, see what it's like to raise a quirky crop. Like shrimp or prawns, wine grapes or industrial hemp, all in Northeastern Minnesota.

"There is a trend in Minnesota among farmers, that they love to push the boundaries, and experiment with what we can and cannot grow here," said Karen Lanthier, member services coordinator with Minnesota Grown. The 30-year-old organization helps member farmers and growers market their products.

For instance, Lanthier said, "years ago, the common wisdom was that you can't grow wine grapes in Minnesota. But today, we have 42 vineyard members in the Minnesota Grown program."

Amid the fall harvest time, those experimenters are taking stock of their season and planning for next year. For Rich Las, that means harvesting hundreds of pounds of freshwater prawns he raises in a hoop-style greenhouse.

"My dad liked shrimp, I liked shrimp, so I figured, why not?" said Las, who lives near Orr, Minn. Las didn't like the controversial and often dirty conditions in which most prawns are farmed in Southeast Asia, so he thought about raising his own. "I ordered some up, and went from there," he said.

That would be about 8,000 two-week-old larvae in two tablespoons of water that are shipped from a farm in Texas. While the crustaceans are technically a freshwater prawn, Las usually refers to his catch as "shrimp," since that's what most people would recognize.

Far northern Minnesota isn't natural shrimp spawning habitat, so Las had to re-create the specialized conditions the shrimp require. First up: a 1,000-gallon tank in his garage that's heated to a balmy 84 degrees. The freshwater shrimp spend about 45 days in the small tank, eating a powdered shrimp feed. Finally, it's on to the big tank, a 14,000-gallon, 20-by-50 foot tank that's four feet deep and kept at 82 degrees.

Then follows months of feeding, feeding and more feeding, while the shrimp eat and molt, eat and molt. The shrimp cling to a netting suspended in the warm water after they molt, to hide from their tank mates, who might decide to make a meal of them.

Las estimated that the two tablespoons of larvae would grow into about 400 pounds of adult shrimp. If he has a good harvest, he plans to add another large tank next year, to turn "Up North Shrimp" from his hobby into more of a business. He sells the shrimp locally and delivers to Hibbing, Minn., and Virginia, Minn., generating new customers through his Facebook page and by word-of-mouth.

If he continues to be successful, he hopes to construct a pole barn so he can raise the prawns year-round.

He sends his young daughter and son in to harvest the quick-moving adult shrimp.

"We drain most of the water, the kids put their boots on, and we give them a bucket and a net," Las said. "They love doing it."

As for Las, he said just about everything about raising the shrimp is enjoyable. "I like feeding them, I like watching them grow," he said. He was surprised at how fast the adult shrimp can rocket around the tank, he said.

"Their tail is so big, they just give one 'flick,' and they're gone," Las said.

Vineyard on the Range

Becky Reini and her husband, Allan, were thinking of things they could do after the couple retires. They like to make wine, and Becky Reini's parents own some land near Buhl, Minn., so maybe ... a vineyard?

"I throw out ideas like this, and usually they are shot down within seconds," Becky Reini said. "But this one wasn't."

While wine vineyards are suited to more-temperate climates, the University of Minnesota has developed some cold-hardy varieties "that should survive 40-below weather," Reini said. So 250 grapevines went in the ground last summer, and this year the couple tended and trained the vines along a five-foot-high trellis.

"It's something to challenge us, but not overwhelm us," Reini said.

Complementing the vineyard is a small flock of miniature sheep that the Reinis said will help keep the weeds down between the rows of grapes. The 10 "Babydoll Southdown" sheep, which are just two feet high at the shoulder, will one day roam the vineyard, nibbling grass and other unwanted vegetation. But right now, the vines aren't quite tall enough to escape those nibbling mouths, Reini said.

"There are two sheep that have a taste for grape leaves," she said. "They will just lick them right off the vines, every leaf they can get to."

It will take a few more years for the vines to put forth enough grapes to actually make wine. When that day comes, Reini hopes to bottle it as a medium-bodied red. They recently talked with a vineyard owner in Carlton who has been growing grapes for about six years, but they think they may have the northernmost vineyard in the state.

"It's been a steep learning curve," Reini said. "The sheep have taken front and center. We've never had livestock before, so lambing was an adventure."

The family is learning everything they can about wine, about lambing, and about wool.

Part of the attraction has been putting Reini's parents' property just south of Buhl to a multi-generational use, she said. In addition to the flock of sheep and the future winery, Reini's brother and family also have a thriving artisan bread-baking business headquartered on the property.

"We will be the one-stop Communion shop," Reini joked.

Industrial hemp

Don Wedll is learning a lot about a crop that once grew well in Minnesota, before it was outlawed—industrial hemp.

Wedll is experimenting with growing hemp alongside environmentalist and writer Winona LaDuke. LaDuke holds a permit from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture to grow hemp, which, according to the federal government, is still a controlled substance. Industrial hemp, which has very little of the chemical that makes marijuana a controlled substance, is grown for its seeds or fibers. The seeds are often used in foods, and the fibers can be made into a strong fabric and other products.

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture is in the second year of a pilot program to see if there is enough interest in growing hemp as a cash crop, said Andrea Vaubel, the department's assistant commissioner.

They had seven producers join the program the first year. That jumped to more than 40 growers who planted hemp on about 21,000 acres this year.

"It's really gone well," Vaubel said. "We feel this is like any other agricultural commodity, and we think Minnesota has real potential."

"We feel this is a really good product for growing in Minnesota," Wedll said. "Years ago, the industry was pretty productive, but then it was banned."

He is raising a plot of hemp in Crow Wing County in central Minnesota while another of LaDuke's friends has a hemp plot near Saginaw, Minn., just east of Duluth. The partners are learning a lot about growing hemp, Wedll said.

Don't plant it after the summer solstice, or it won't grow well. Don't try to plant the hemp seeds with a machine designed for corn kernels. And the hemp plant seems to need some additional fertilizer, rather than growing fertilizer-free, as Wedll had hoped.

But Wedll, LaDuke and others are persisting.

One challenge is what to do with the hemp once it's successfully grown. For growers who want to harvest hemp seeds for the oil, there are no regional processors, Vaubel said. Processing companies are wary of investing in such a thing as long as the question of hemp's legality is still in limbo, Vaubel said.

"The future is a question mark at this point," Vaubel said, though she remains optimistic and loves talking about the project.

Vaubel said industrial hemp could one day follow the path of soybeans, which were once grown as a small specialty crop and today are a commodity powerhouse in Minnesota.