By Nancy McNab, Eden Valley Chamber of Commerce
We met with Steve and Jamie Ries at the Fresh on 55 farm and, when Steve showed up with a box of freshly picked strawberries, I knew it was going to be a great interview. And the strawberries were amazing. It’s hard to ask questions and eat, but we managed nicely.
Steve and Jamie Ries took quite the path to Eden Valley. Jamie grew up in Glenwood, Minn., and moved to Arizona, then on to Oregon where she met Steve. While he still has family in Oregon, Jamie’s family in Minnesota was expanding and she wanted to return home to be closer to them. They moved here seven years ago – during the winter we had 38 days below 0. They questioned their wisdom and decisions but, lucky for us, they stuck it out.
If you know them and see their life today, it might be hard to imagine Steve as a “suit and tie” guy, having been employed with corporate radio groups in his pre-farmer life. He gave all that up to move with Jamie to Minnesota seven years ago. I don’t know if I was supposed to let this secret out, but Steven Ries has other talents as well, so if you find yourself in need of an MC for an event, I hear he’s your guy. Even with all the responsibilities on the farm, Jamie still has her full-time day job with Advanced Process Technologies in Cokato where she does marketing and event planning. Fortunately, she is able to work fewer hours in the summer when her time is definitely more needed on the farm.
Steve and Jamie started with Frank’s Greenhouse, her -family-owned farm located in Pennock, Minn., where they learned the business. They lived in her sister’s basement, then in a motor home on Eden Lake. One day, while visiting with a local farmer at a Farmer’s Market, they learned that that farm was possibly for sale and the rest, as they say, is history.
History of the farm
As you know, we like to share a little history on the location of the businesses we showcase. The federal government granted a 10-mile corridor to the railroad. The Soo Line Depot was built in Eden Valley in 1912. They sold lots to help finance the railroad. The Fresh on 55 farm and many other homesteads along the tracks were a result of this process. So here goes – in 1925 Sylvester Clark owned this farm. In 1953, Sumner Hurd bought the farm (he was the Eden Valley Peace Officer from 1952-1954); his wife was a Bennett. She and Jim Haag’s great-grandmother were sisters. The Bennett family had three homesteads along the railroad west of Eden Valley. In 1954-1955, Bernard “Bunny” and Helen Haag rented the farm from Sumner Hurd. Bob Haag lived there as a child. He tells me he started attending the country school during this time and had to ride the bike to get to school in the summer (he learned by going to the top of a hill and getting pushed down the other side). In the winter, they got a ride as far as the railroad tracks, jumped out, and tied their sled to the back and were pulled home. We agreed it was fortunate we survived our childhoods. At some point in here, Melvin Utecht rented the farm as well. Until this time, it operated as a dairy farm. Pete and Laura Mae Ackerman bought it in the ’60s and started raising turkeys. Mike Langmo bought the farm in the late ’70s and continued to raise turkeys. And that brings us to today. I want to thank Bob Haag, Jim Haag, and Pete Korman for filling in the blanks for us. Gotta love the history.
Six years ago, Steven and Jamie Ries bought the 78-acre farm on Lakewood Road, west of Eden Valley, from the Langmos. Some of the equipment used on the farm came from Jamie’s grandfather’s farm and are still used. Their antique potato planter and strawberry planter are both still in use, and an old-time corn cultivator (International – Super-C – early to mid ’50s) was used in their early years but has since been retired. Last year, Steve and Jamie had 27 acres planted in produce. This year, they reduced that to
15 acres and planted 12 acres to feed their Wagyu cattle, something new to them and new to Minnesota.
The big picture
I had no idea, when I visited the farm, how much more there is to it. They have three turkey barns, processing their birds through Jennie-O in Melrose; they are mostly sold as whole and fresh turkeys. Did you know you can scan the code on the turkey and “meet your farmer?” It will tell you what farm your turkey came from. How cool is that?
In addition to turkeys, 40 head of Wagyu beef, and 15 acres of produce, you will also find 750 apple (7-8 varieties), cherry, and apricot (yes, apricot) trees, a variety of canned goods throughout the year extending the season, and now honey too. The Ries “Farm to Fork” program involves more than you would possibly imagine.
We’ve all seen the cute little vegetable stand near the corner of Hwy. 55 and Hwy. 22. It will now be located near the Eden Valley Motel. The stand will appear again in mid-July providing us with fresh vegetables and fruit through fall. Vegetables are picked fresh and stocked daily. During sweet corn season, it is often stocked four times a day (or more when Chief Ernie Junker calls to tell them the stand is empty. Don’t ya love that Ernie is always looking out for us?) The special thing about the stand is that it is on an honor-system and works well. It warms my heart to know I live in a place where that would work.
More of their “Farm to Fork” program involves CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). You can go online or email them to activate your membership. You will be assigned a “pick up” location where you will pick up a box of fresh produce every week or every-other week. Some of the items you may find in your box early in the season are potatoes, tomatoes, cauliflower, broccoli, basil, head lettuce, collard greens, cucumbers, radishes, beets, eggplant, and peppers (including bell, sweet, hot, and super-hot). That’s just a sampling of what comes. Box items change with the -seasons, typically running from July through mid-October depending on Mother Nature, and we know what kind of mood she’s been in this year. They said this is the first year that they have had to water crops. They still have a few memberships available for this year. You can also purchase bulk produce for canning and pickling. (See contact information at the end of this story. )
One more cool thing about their “Farm to Fork” program: they live in the newer home on the farm, but right next door is the original farmhouse that has been converted into a “hot-house.” Many of the crops they plant are started in the old farmhouse.
Last year, Farm to Fork supplied 72 families through the CSA program, delivering three days a week. On top of everything else, Steve and Jamie do their own deliveries.
I asked what “a day in the life” looked like. They start at 5:30 a.m., coffee, check email, and then off and running. They pick in the morning and pack the CSA boxes, then Steve delivers the west route including Willmar. Jamie delivers her boxes going east to her day job, traveling through Annandale to Cokato. It made me tired just to hear it all.
Where’s the beef?
About four years ago Steve started researching Wagyu beef and they now have 40 head. Their Wagyu beef is locally raised, premium quality, with exquisite taste. Steve and Jamie Ries are active members of the American Wagyu Association. When they started, they were one of only nine farms in the United States raising 100% Japanese Wagyu beef. Steve found a producer in Oklahoma who has mentored and guided him through all the steps, processes, and decisions involved in raising Wagyu beef. They currently have 100% Japanese Wagyu but are planning to crossbreed with American Herefords, creating “Wag-fords.” American beef takes 14-15 months to raise while Wagyu takes 30 months, adding dramatically to the cost of raising them ($5,000 to $6,000 invested in each animal). The Wagyu-Hereford blend will take about 24 months to finish.
Steve and Jamie currently supply Wagyu beef to Valley Inn in Eden Valley. As it is not always available, it’s not on the menu yet so be sure to ask. When they have it, they offer sliders and 1/2 lb. burgers. I was lucky enough to try the sliders recently and, I tell you, the flavor was fantastic. Steve and Jamie also supply Wagyu beef and farm-fresh produce to The Bait & Hook in Cokato as supply is available.
Steve spends what little spare time he has left, after the mountain of bookkeeping involved and all his farm chores, visiting with restaurant owners, marketing their “Farm to Fork” program, and growing the business.
Astonishingly, they do all of this with one full-time employee, some part-time staff, and a few dedicated volunteers called in when seasonal crops are ready. Hiring is a challenge for them, just as it is for the rest of the country right now. In addition, they have had other challenges as so many people running a farm do. Their barn burned down in 2019, and even though the fire department was on-site within seven minutes of the call coming in (called in by the train engineer going by at the time), it was a total loss. Fortunately for all, it was empty at the time of the fire.
Steve and Jamie are also involved in their church and the community. In addition to being Chamber members and active members of the Assumption Church, they have partnered with Chief Ernie Junker for the last three years, donating product and helping to pack full Thanksgiving meals for numerous area families.
When asked what their biggest challenges or worries were, Steve said that, having come from the corporate world, his biggest concern now is “his wallet.” It’s truly easier when spending decisions come from someone else’s budget. I was happy to hear that they were able to go on their first vacation in seven years, and well deserved. Their favorite memories to date are watching kids help and learn about produce and farming, and when their first Wagyu calf was born.
When asked what they felt about starting a business here, they said Eden Valley has amazing people.
I hope you get the chance to meet these great folks and, if you are lucky, they may show up with a box of freshly picked strawberries.
We invite you to check out more about Fresh on 55 and Eden Valley Wagyu and to shop their online stores at these locations:
Facebook: Fresh on 55, Garden Fresh, Eden Valley Wagyu.