GRAND MARAIS—Over the quack of ducks and cluck of chickens, Erin Blegen is preparing for another spring at the small hobby farm she started with her husband Josh nearly a decade ago. Self-described as 19th century homesteaders at heart, they produce a large percentage of their own food while raising three kids. Yet Erin and Josh are largely a byproduct of a new generation of back-to-the-landers. They learned virtually all their farming practices from watching Youtube videos or reading books. Erin writes a blog, runs an Etsy, loves the internet and Amazon Prime, but wouldn’t be caught dead in the city. It’s a new contemporary version, all wrapped up in two worlds, of rural living.
Erin was born and raised in Cook County. She spent part of her childhood living on Maple Hill and the other half in Grand Marais. Growing up, Erin remembers a property out of town with a few 100-year-old log cabins and no running water. In her thirties now, she’s never really left behind that idyllic, quiet piece of land. Josh on the other hand grew up in Marshall, Minn. He wasn’t raised around animals, but sometimes found himself in corn fields hunting for deer. Without any familial connection, farming as a lifestyle seemed out of reach for Josh.
Fast forward to 2009; Josh and Erin met while working in St. Cloud. After dating for some time, Erin convinced Josh to come up for a fall deer hunt on the North Shore. Although Josh had never processed an animal, never even had a pet, he quickly fell in love with the boreal forest and hunting for his own food.
The radical idea to simplify their life and move north materialized in 2010 when a small, one room cabin with a crib and bunk bed became available off Pike Lake road. For two and half years the Blegens lived roughly in the crowded space, one time without a roof through a soggy June. Yet there was value, Erin insists: “Everybody needs to live like that once in their life.”
Nowadays, the Blegens live down the road with three kids—and a waterproof roof—on an eight and half-acre farm they purchased in 2013. Josh and Erin now process hundreds of animals a year: sheep and chicken, turkeys, ducks and pigs. Because neither were raised farming, much of what they’ve learned has been self-taught.
A YEAR ON THE FARM
A typical year at the Yellow Birch Hobby Farm starts with maple syrup season in February and March. After a long and restful winter, the process of hauling sap and boiling 160 gallons a week is involved and demanding. Later in April and May, broiler chickens, turkeys, and pigs are purchased, and the garden is laid out for planting.
June at the Yellow Birch Hobby Farm is the busiest month for gardening—and that’s where you’ll find Erin 99 percent of the time—because the northern frosts finally vanish. In July, blueberries and raspberries begin to bloom and the chickens are butchered. August and September are an important and exciting time for the Blegen family because the baiting and hunting season begins for bear. Erin and Josh fill their freezers exclusively with either home-raised or hunted meat.
In September, life on the farm is still busy as the kids climb back onto the school bus. The garden must be pulled and the tedious process of canning begins. As the land transitions to colder temperatures, the entire month of October is reserved for butchering pigs. Come November, Erin and Josh jump into deer season, hoping to bag red meat for the year. And finally, the winter months of December, January and February are quiet and basically indoors.
“Literally all we do in the winter is eat. I cook, I bake, and I eat,” laughs Erin.
Although most folks see a simple lifestyle as stress free and cheap, it is often full of long hours of hard work and counter-intuitively quite expensive. But for Erin, “It’s being able to live in a time where everybody tells you fast and easy, you don’t have to work for anything, [and] I like to be able to take a stand against that…You don’t have to live the way everybody else lives.”
One of the main priorities embedded into the Blegen’s independent lifestyle is the value of hard work under open air. They don’t want to raise entitled kids addicted to cell phones and screen time.
“It’s more important to me than anything,” says Erin. “Raising people that are hard workers and are able to do for themselves.”
Equally as important on the Yellow Birch Hobby Farm is raising really good food. “You should know where your food comes from. My kids have grown up with it. I mean it’s just so normal to them when I reflect on it,” says Erin. “They’ve had every manner of animal on our kitchen table and I like that.”
There’s a difference in the way people are learning to live off the land today. It is a new pathway—a generational folding together of old and new. For Erin and Josh, learning how to process pigs on Youtube or ordering seedling starter pots off Amazon is just another day as a do-it-yourself farmer in 2019.
To check out more about the Yellow Birch Hobby Farm, find recipes, and read about the Blegen’s self-reliant lifestyle, visit: yellowbirchhobbyfarm.com.