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Pioneers of New Generation

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Slavic Heritage Farm: A Place of Beauty

by Raylene Frankhauser Nickel


Along a quiet lane north of the village of Anamoose lies an unassuming farmstead. You might pass by without a sidelong glance if it were not for the artful sign announcing the name of the place: Slavic Heritage Farm.

Drive in for a closer look, and you’ll soon find this home of Mirek and Julia Petrovic is as unique as the ethnic design of the farm sign. On winter days, you’ll see children playing in the snow and several kinds of animals gathered about hay bales in the barnyard.

In summer, the place vibrates with life. Mirek and Julia go about their work, while each of their children also sets hands to some task: Ivana, 13, and Leona, 10, help with the milking of the goats; Milana, 7, and Evan, 6, bottle feed the goat kids and gather eggs from the chickens. The children help, too, with the tending of the sheep and of the Jersey heifer, Harriette, and the horse, Luna. Even Adrian, 2, reaches for small tasks.

And of course, there is always the care of the large garden, the strawberry patch, and rows and rows of berries.

While Mirek works at wood-crafting projects on the farm and construction assignments from clients, Julia ferments dairy products from the goat’s milk, stores food from the garden, and prepares vegetables for sale at farmers markets. She also bakes breads and her trademark kolaches for the markets and for the volunteers who come from all over the country to spend time working and learning at Slavic Heritage Farm.

On quieter days of winter, after homeschooling the children, Julia has time to reflect. “I was recently looking at photos from summer, and my jaw just dropped,” she says. “The flowers, the garden, the vegetable stand on the farm, it was all so beautiful! And I thought, ‘Did we really do all that?’ ” A good question, indeed, coming from a wife who just four years ago had driven past the farmstead with her husband to observe little but a long-abandoned, raccoon-riddled home surrounded by outbuildings in need of repair.

The Petrovics had been looking for a simple home in the country. In the very disrepair of the place and in its setting amid the solitude of a deeply rural farming community, they glimpsed a vision of the new life for which they’d long hoped.

They had earlier lived in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, where Julia worked as a paralegal and Mirek operated his own construction business. Both were recent immigrants: Mirek from the Czech Republic, and Julia from Russia.

Neither had experienced farm life, but both had grown up learning to garden and preserve food. As their metropolitan lives in the United States unfolded, they began to miss deeply the heritage that had shaped their childhoods.

“I grew up in a city next to the mountains, and I played with my friends in the woods all the time,” Mirek says. “I learned to appreciate solitude and being in a space all by myself. There was freedom in that.”

The Petrovics wanted to give their children the chance to know such freedom in a place where they could run and play at will.

“We also wanted our family to have the nutritionally dense food that would come from our own garden,” Mirek says.

Beyond that, the Petrovics hoped to offer their family a simplicity of life that would remove excess financial pressure.

 

“In New Jersey, we had mortgages and far too many bills every month,” Julia says. “That was normal; all our friends talked about the same pressures. But Mirek and I would say to each other, ‘It shouldn’t be this way.’ ”

Thus, they began to envision a new life. They hoped for a simpler, quieter place where they could grow their own food, and where their children could have personal freedom and meaningful work.“We knew we couldn’t afford such a place in New Jersey,” Mirek says. “So we took it on faith that there must be a place for us, and we would discover it.”

Armed with a vision, they set about their quest for a rural setting of their liking. They did it by quitting their jobs and touring the country in an aging Airstream motorhome. Working through the national network, World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, over the span of a couple of years, they took short-term volunteer assignments on 14 farms in states such as Pennsylvania, Washington, California, and some northern states including North Dakota.

So it was that they happened to drive past the 12-acre farmstead that – with remodeling and repair, and the stocking of animals – was to become their home, Slavic Heritage Farm, served by Verendrye Electric Cooperative.

Aside from producing food for their own use, the Petrovics hope to also earn the lion’s share of their livelihood from the small farm. Along with Julia’s baked goods, the marketing of organic garden produce – from the farm as well as at local farmers markets – is a business already under way.

And soon, the farm’s organically grown raspberries, strawberries, currants and honeyberries will mature into producing crops, along with the aronia berries, a particularly healthful fruit.

“We hope to have a crop of raspberries next year, and most of these will be available for customers to pick,” Mirek says. “We will harvest the other berries ourselves for value-added products.

“Working together as a family, that was our dream,” he adds, “and this place offers us that lifestyle. As a family, we work at small-scale farming – growing produce and berries, and running a goat dairy.”

To provide themselves and other small farmers with more diverse markets in addition to local sales, the Petrovics are developing a privately owned food hub headquartered in Anamoose. With its startup supported by local and state grants, the food hub will serve as a produce aggregation and marketing center for small-scale producers.

“We hope to build a community of vegetable and fruit farmers and to build an outlet for them to sell their products,” Julia says. “We hope to encourage people to grow locally and buy locally, so that small communities can be economically viable and alive.”

Such is the vision they hold for their own pioneering farm. Indeed, with sustaining physical work and social lives interwoven with neighbors, church, musical events, and youth activities, Julia says, “Life is vibrant here!”

You can visit the Petrovics at www.slavicheritagefarm.com.

Raylene Frankhauser Nickel is a freelance writer and author living in the Kief area.