In Conversation with Clare Hintz

Clare Hintz of Elsewhere Farm is a systems-thinker. She sees the world as a set of interlocking pieces that create the system as a whole. And this is clearly how she views and treats the land she lives and works on. We sat down with Clare during our first week of running to talk about paying attention to the land and what happens when you do so. As we broke from the heat of the day, our conversation opened up into more than just farming-talk. What follows is our edited conversation from that day.

How did you get up here, up North?

I went to college at Northland and I worked at two farms when I was at there, North Wind Farm in Bayfield and then Silver Sage Farm in Port Wing. And I knew by the time I finished at North Wind, which was my sophomore summer, that I was gonna be moving back here. I was pretty much like, “Yeah, this is it.” I had grown up wanting to be a farmer but you don’t really know what that word is in Chicago. I knew I wanted to be a farmer, but I thought I was gonna be a wildlife biologist. Because people aren’t farmers, you know? So I got to college and the first thing I read for my English class was Vandana Shiva’s “Violence of the Green Revolution” and then I read Bill Mollison’s permaculture book and I was like, “Oh, I can be an environmentalist and a farmer! Oh, people actually do this for a living!” So I interned at Tom’s [Northwind Farm] and that pretty much sealed the deal. Not only am I gonna be a farmer but I’m gonna be a farmer here. But I had no idea what order things would fall out in. So I graduated and went to grad school, moved back to Chicago for a couple of years, saved up money, looked around for land during all that time. And the plan had been to buy a farm, keep the city job, pay off the mortgage and then move up here and farm. That lasted exactly one year and then I was like, ‘Done. Moving.’

So I quit my job [in Chicago]. I had no job [up north], I just moved up here. I pieced things together for about 6 months or so and then Mary Ringwald hired me at what was then the Lifelong Learning Center at Northland. That was great. Then for the whole rest of the time that I was at Northland I was pouring money into the farm and then working at Northland. Then I left the college to do my PHD… I don’t know why I didn’t add it up: PhD, time, full-time farming. But that’s what I did for the last four years and it worked out really well…

Then when I was doing my dissertation I was interviewing women farmers. The point was to interview farmers who were really far along in their careers. They had been the pioneers of sustainable agriculture. They had been farming for about twenty years, and they were still farming. I wanted to get their perspective, to try and figure out how they’ve persisted for as long as they have. And one of the things that showed up was it took about ten years for them to really get their game together. And I was like “Oh, 10 years! Holy cow!” No wonder the rate of leaving farming is so high for beginning farmers. It’s so hard to have farmers… You know, if you’re in the business world and not turning things around in five years then you’re really in trouble. So for each of these women they had some kind of resilience in the first ten years of their project.

You know each step you take as a beginning farmer your perspective gets bigger. Getting a sense of how you run a full-scale farm is very different than running a garden or even incubating under another farmer, or interning with somebody, because your sense of volume is totally different and you have to work up to that. So the last four years have been really helpful to sort of just be on the land and learn from the land. I’ve learned more in the last four years from this piece of land than I learned at any point in my master’s degree, which was agroecology, or my bachelor’s degree which was biology… It’s just been amazing to be here and pay attention. That’s sort of what the basic permaculture principle is. It’s always funny – you come back to the stuff that you talk about all the time. It just gets reinforced.

Can you speak to the goals of your own farm?

So the goal of the farm continues to be producing food for the region and also training new farmers and having people out on the land. And probably that’s gonna shift away from the very beginning tier of apprentices and move more to incubating people who have been in internships and wanna start their own farms. They can have land here, they can have basic housing here and then they can share basic equipment, and for a year they can farm half an acre and sell to restaurants or sell to farmers markets and really get a sense of things, save up some money and, you know, look at expanding from there.

One of the things that has really sunk home since I’ve been here and also as I’ve gone through my PhD in Sustainability Education is how important it is to be in place and learn in place. Learn experientially. It’s great to have the background knowledge, you wanna have the theoretical framework, but without the hands-on experience it’s never gonna go bone-deep. Especially for a farm. You can know all the basic theory and it’s all gonna get tossed out the window as soon as you’re on a particular piece of land because every place has a different ecology. It’s in the broader context of the Lake Superior watershed. But there’s very specific things that happen here that don’t happen in other places.

I was in permaculture design in the beginning and I kind of walked away from it for a while and just focused on more conventional agroecology, if you can say that, and then I was out here and within a couple of years I was like, “Everything I understand about medium-scale organic farming is not going to work here.” For two reasons, the soil isn’t meant for annual agriculture, so that’s fine, I was moving into perennials more anyway. But with the climate extremes that we get now I can see the difference between when I moved here in 2001 and now how much more extreme it has gotten. Rainfall is really heavy and then there’s nothing. Winds are incredibly strong. It can be super hot and then it can freeze. Everything that I do on this place has to be about resilience.

It’s been fascinating too, everything that I add on the farm adds a whole other sweep of wildlife. So this is the first time that I’ve seen cow birds on the farm. I’ve had pigs for six months and now I have cow birds! It’s really interesting to see the invitation that goes out when you do anything. Especially because I started from hayfield. It was nothing, you know. Even putting up the fences for the pigs out there, just the fence posts themselves have been great perches for hawks. Just that little bit of height in the grass… Within two months of putting in ponds I had three-quarters of the frog species in the state of Wisconsin. They just moved in. So yeah, I think what’s fascinating to me is since I’ve tossed out the ideas that I had about linear agriculture the abundance just took off.

As you keep the big picture of your land and your life work do you have personal guiding principles that you’ve found to be infallible, or hold very true?

Yeah! Permaculture design is the first one I would say. The core principles there are about building resilience and listening to nature. Just as an example, all of the market gardens that are out there in clay soil would never work with a tractor. In the first couple of years that I started them up we had a huge flood and I couldn’t plant until July. So I looked around and, traditionally native peoples would plant in the flood plains of rivers and have raised beds and water would run between the raised beds. So originally I knew about that model from Mexico but later on found out that the same agriculture style was practiced along the Bad River, so that gave me a lot of production out of a small space. I don’t have to weed it once it gets weeded in the spring. I can trap water there so in typical years I don’t have to irrigate until late summer. And then the amount of birds species that moved in once water was around, and the amount of frogs that ate all the slugs! The synergy was just like, “Whoah, crazy!” And that was just from paying attention.

So paying attention, you know, has taught me a lot. I would say those are the easy two principles. And then the resilience piece of it is what… do I have to get all of my essentials, whether that’s energy, water, food, heat. How do I create a house that does that and how do I supply the things on my farm that way… I look at every piece of the farm, how does that link up to everything else and how does that do more than one thing?

That extends beyond the borders of the farm. How does this farm fit into the broader western Lake Superior watershed? Because the only resilience that this farm is gonna have is if the whole region is resilient. So where is my energy coming from? Where are my foods going? And what’s coming back to the farm... So the work that I’m doing is not just about growing food. But also what are the economic structures? What are the financial structures? What are the community celebrations? How do those things become more vibrant? Because that’s just gonna help us weather the shocks better that are in process already.

That’s something we’re interested in talking about with folks around the lake, the idea of a changing global climate and how that affects places we know, people we know, on a very micro level. Can you speak more to what your thoughts are on the future of climate adaptation?

…Definitely makes me think about stuff in a more defensive way, I guess. So, we live on the biggest lake in the world. And everybody is gonna want that water. It is a matter of decades, is my guess, that all of those cities in the west are just gonna collapse because they’ve got no water. They’ve got no water. So there’s gonna be this whole influx of people moving here and there’s gonna be a lot of pressure on our landscape. But I think the last couple of years have shown that this community is really strong together and there’s a sense of community here, there’s a sense of identity here that is very tough to crack.

We managed to ward off a huge extractive industry in the [proposed] mine by basically having potlucks. And we are in the middle of battling a CAFO by showing off our local agriculture and having thoughtful dialogue. I think that is a characteristic that is lacking in a lot other places. So the conversation that we have in the Alliance [for Sustainability] that I think is important to keep alive is how do we create a sense of celebration and abundance here and welcome, up to a point, so that people who come here with a model of scarcity and come here with a sense of threat. Because what is the best way to counter that, is by a sense of abundance and community relationships. We need thousands more farmers here. We can accept a lot more people moving here if they wanna do the work. You can have a fine business if you wanna do the work. There’s so much opportunity in terms of, everything, from who’s gonna make our shoes to who’s gonna build our tents, who’s gonna create our kayaks. There’s a lot of room for crafts people here. There’s a lot of room for technical people and people who do every part of society, we have room for if they’re focused on the goal of creating a resilient community here.

…And you know, there’s always going to be the external threats of someone wanting to pipe out water from the lake but the stronger the relationships are around the lake, among the states, the less likely that is to happen. You know, better those people move here. We laugh all the time, my partner and I, because he’s got a bunch of friends in Chicago who are wanting to come up and visit. He’s like, “It’s dangerous up here! You know there’s ticks, there’s flies, there’s mosquitos, there’s snakes!” Well, not snakes so much. He’s just kind of giving them a hard time because they’re city folk. But that’s an interesting thing because it’s not easy to live here. You have to be tough. You have to be comfortable with bugs. Haha… It’s not good farm land! I mean, there’s farm land a plenty but it’s not like you’re farming in central Illinois where you’ve got all the top soil that used to be here that the glaciers moved. So you’ve got to be a little bit creative to make it. There’s also, I think, a huge sense of community loyalty, so buying local food. We haven’t remotely tapped out the markets here. We need to rebuild a lot of infrastructure to make things easier to do but there’s quite a bit of opportunity.

So I see climate change as an opportunity for us. It could be a threat if we don’t proactively build what we want. Have in our minds what kind of community that we want. But I think that vision is pretty strong here about what kind of community that we want. Some outside influences would like to think it’s just the sort of hippie tree huggers that love the lake. But that’s not true. There are some deep roots here that I think are pretty hard to challenge. I think that’s good. I think that’s a model that we can share with other regions… that these are the ways that you build resilience.