The Nick and Elaina McMillan family are putting down roots in more ways than one.
As owners of Fresh Roots farm and gardens at 2415 Fuller Ave. on Cumberland’s north side, they uprooted themselves from successful employment in the Twin Cities to raise their 7-year-old sons Ryker and Townes to be in touch with their environment.
Their dream of starting a market garden extends beyond growing delicious, organic produce. It extends to building a business that will nourish their family, customers and community for years to come.
Nick, who is originally from White Bear Lake, was an MRI technician working in the basement of Regions Hospital for 13 years. Elaina, who is originally from St. Paul, was leading a product marketing department at Health Partners.
In her blog, titled Adventure This Life, a Philosophical Take on this Adventurous Life, Elaina shares how her childhood dreams are being fulfilled.
She said the magic and wonder of spending 2 weeks each summer on her mother’s cousins bee farm, 360 acres of rollling hills, woods, prairie and pond that she described as ‘heaven on earth’ never left her.
She wrote “I spent hours on end outdoors with my little cousins making forts in the tall prairie grasses, racing through the woods on ATVs, catching gardener snakes for a local pet shop, and then frogs to feed the gardener snakes, exploring an old dilapidated barn that defied all safety regulations, and seeing how close we could get to the pond before our feet would get sucked into the mud.”
She, with husband Nick and their young sons decided to chase after and recapture that childhood dream.
“Joy. Freedom. Connection. Sustainability. We’re seeking a way of living that is adventurous, courageous, and authentic — a life that nurtures the land along with our creativity and passion. A life that allows us to be present more as a family and more engaged with nature.
“Homestead. Market garden. Hobby farm. Business. These are many of the names we’ve called this dream, to ourselves, our neighbors, our friends, and our family.”
She blogged, “There are a million paths to any destination, this is our path.”
Once they decided they wanted out of big city living, they narrowed their search for their introduction to country living to an area no more than 1 1/2 hours from their Twin Cities so grandparents could still play an active role in their children’s lives.
They looked near and far, high and low and eventually settled on an urban farm on the outskirts of Cumberland, a city they had never heard of and described as “in the middle of nowhere.”
Her blog describes their first impressions and what clinched the deal.
“It didn’t happen all at once but the excitement grew and grew with each step across the property, each new breathtaking view to behold: the pond, the apple orchard, the pine plantations, the rolling hills, and my absolute favorite, the butterfly garden,” she wrote.
“Now, bear with me for a second. The butterfly garden was the most dreamy thing I’d ever seen. It was bursting with colorful flowering perennials overflowing a winding zen-like walking path that led to an old twisted tree — perfect for the most romantic tree fort. And then there was the screen house with a wooden swing in it overlooking it all. But it was the butterflies at the koi pond that got me most of all.
“I stood there at the point of combusting with the overwhelming beauty of it all. As I watched the tiny golden koi fish dart between lillypads, that’s when the magic really happened. No less than 15 Monarch butterflies flittered boldly all around me. I hadn’t seen so many butterflies at once in the natural world, maybe ever.”
Elaina said it felt “serendipitous” and “meant to be” because “Chasing Butterflies” was the title of her first ever published piece of writing as an adult and since then, whenever she gets distracted Nick says she is chasing butterflies again.
The house needed some work, the sewer system needed replacing, their well water gave them brown water at first, but the couple has persevered, conquering each obstacle in their path.
The same is true for their greenhouse and garden behind it.
They cut and removed 40 trees, roots and all, to make room for their growing space. The boys helped, happily earning $1 for each 5-gallon bucket of rock they picked. They studied up and dug in on fertilizing, composting and soil testing.
Nick called a worm farm he started, consisting of 2,000 worms in a tote in the house, and the fact that they could eat a 5-gallon bucket of food waste a week, “just wild.”
Elaina said, “Our values started shifting. We started to care about our foods. It created a level of awareness about how we consume.”
To be responsible, respectful stewards of the land, they made the decision not to use chemicals to kill weeds, instead covering the beds with black tarp, which makes the weeds and grass die off.
Last summer was spent growing test crops of carrots, radishes, beets and greens. They learned the hard way that fish meal in the garden attracts bears, so they invested in fencing.
They have also lost some of their garden crops to insects, including the cabbage fly, so they will invest in screens in an effort to preserve more of next year’s crops.
Their greenhouse is 30-foot by 50-feet and is set up in front of their garden.
In the front portion, there is a germination chamber that is temperature and humidity controlled, and Nick has designed and built seeder tables. From there, the plants go into the ground.
The back part of the greenhouse features a Denmark-style of terracing for both tomatoes and cucumbers. This year they are growing three types of cherry tomatoes— black cherry, yellow and a red one called Skura.
The green house also has equipment for washing, spinning dry and packaging their salad greens.
The McMillans have applied for a grant for a second greenhouse, as Elaina explained in her blog.
“The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has a Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) that offers funding in the way of grants to new farmers who would like to or are using sustainable farming techniques that promote conservation of their land. We decided to apply for a grant to help us purchase another greenhouse since the more covered crops, the longer the growing season, and the more food can be produced.”
Whether they get the grant or not, Nick expects they will expand slightly , but their main goal is to get better, not bigger.
They are plenty busy enough as it is. Wednesday is harvest day for Thursday’s farmer’s market at Barron, and Friday is harvest day for Saturday’s farmers market at Spooner.
For this summer their crop list includes lettuces (arugula, spinach, spring mix, kale), micro greens (radish, peas, and broccoli), Sunflower shoots, red and golden beets, radishes, carrots, turnips, garlic, tomatoes, and cucumbers, to name most.
Elaina explained, “We chose most of our crop list based on their Days to Maturity (DTM). In other words, how many days it takes from the time you plant till you can harvest. The lower the DTM, the more times you can harvest in a season. This is one way to help create profit.”
Isn’t it amazing how in just a couple years, they are already not just talking but planting and reaping the fruits of their labor.
“This building-a-business thing has been challenging and overwhelming, but also very fulfilling,” Elaina wrote in a blog. “I mean, we’re actually dreaming out loud and in action.”
On the social media posts, Elaina expresses her gratefulness for the support of customers and communities that have welcomed them and their produce.
“Customers, you are directly contributing to the fulfillment of our dreams, and it fills up our hearts,” she posted.
On another post, she said, “We feel so incredibly lucky and blessed to get to do this family business of ours.”