“But how did you find Braham, Minnesota??”
If I had a dollar for every time I have answered that question, I would have enough money to take you out to breakfast at The Park Cafe on Main Ave., which is actually very reasonably priced. Nevertheless, it is mildly astonishing to most local people that we not only vacated the Golden State, but then emigrated to Braham, Minnesota: population 1,800 (if we round up). There are a million little reasons why we chose Braham, but not one solitary, cohesive reason. We didn’t throw a dart at the map or plant a finger on a spinning globe, but we did take into account as many things as two adults can possibly manage.
When most normal people pull up their proverbial tent stakes and relocate, they have a predetermined destination, whether across town or country. Our situation was different than most; we knew exactly what we wanted our end-location to be like, we just didn’t know exactly where it was. Choosing a place to purchase our once-in-a-lifetime, forever property; raise our children; look for work; and start a business, with the entire lower 48 on the table, was a daunting proposition. Let me tell you friends, there aren’t enough hours in a year to read all the small-town wikipedia pages necessary to make that kind of a decision. Because we weren’t starting with a preordained ending location, we had to come up with a number of search parameters; “Must Haves,” if you will. Not only did our “Must Have” list include the normal move-up house things, but we also had to consider the acreage for the actual farm that would come along with it.
The main, most important component to our initial location search was directly related to starting our pasture-based family farm. If we were planning to have a business that depended mainly on having enough nutrient-rich forage for our grass-fed cows, pigs, and chickens, we needed to move to a place in which the grass was actually greener than our current city lawn. Our farm needed to be in a climate that provides enough precipitation each year to grow healthy, nutritious pastures – no irrigation needed. On the other end of the climate-related see-saw was the length of the growing season. We did not want to be so far north that our animals would be wintering for half the year, nor did we want to be far enough south to necessitate dealing with 100 degree, 95% humidity days and tornadoes.
Another location consideration dealt with the inevitable travel that our cross-country move would provoke. We had to be no more than 100 miles from a major airport; this was all but non-negotiable. The majority of our family-and-friends network is back in California, with some outliers on the East Coast. Other than some good friends up in Duluth and down in Kentucky, all the farm visitors will be arriving by plane. Being close to an airport was also on our radar for future business opportunities. Because we were looking to purchase a farm in an (obviously) rural area, where our neighbors would potentially have their own grass and their own cows, we would need to branch out to more metro areas in order to market and sell our grass-fed beef, pork, and chicken. These climate and airport parameters narrowed our search down to two areas – within an hour’s drive (in any direction) from Des Moines, Iowa and Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Now that we had two (albeit large) circles on the map, we were able to focus more on actual real estate listings and small towns. We combed through listings for the better part of a year, focusing our attention on the houses, outbuildings, and other infrastructure that came along with the acreage that was for sale. We knew that this giant move was going to take up a large portion of our resources (both monetary and emotional), so we looked only at farmsteads with at least 40 acres (preferably with a portion in woods for the future forested pork) and existing outbuildings (such as barns and sheds) so that we could hit the ground running, as much as possible. With budget parameters in mind, we were willing to look at fixer-upper houses and farms, but we had to be able to move in and live relatively comfortably right from the get-go. The balance between housing and acreage priorities was a difficult one: so many properties had gorgeous houses on too few acres, or perfectly proportioned pastures and woods with only a “cozy hunting cabin” on site. We got fairly efficient at evaluating properties based upon a listing browse, but that still wasn’t giving us a feel for the small towns that we might, in fact, actually inhabit. Chris and I looked through hundreds of listings and decided we wanted to take a midwest small-town tour of sorts in the summer of 2017 in order to see some small towns for ourselves and possibly narrow our search areas for our spring/summer 2018 move.
After booking our plane tickets (SMF>DSM and then MSP>SMF), we realized that we would be (possibly) moving a year earlier than originally anticipated. We scrambled to get in touch with real estate agents in the areas we were planning to visit, and (with the help of Instagram and then Jason Bergen’s network) ended up arranging seven farm visits in three different states over the course of our four-day trip.
The first stop on our Midwest Farm Tour was our emotional favorite. For years we had daydreamed about being Iowans; in the weeks before our departure, we walked around asking each other, “Is this heaven?” “No. It’s Iowa.” Iowa did not disappoint, in terms of sheer dreaminess. Rural farmlands in the height of summer are one of my most favorite views. I could have completely filled my camera roll with pictures of swaying, green cornfields, brilliant blue skies, and puffy white clouds. On this Midwest Farm Tour, we vowed to eat only at local, mom-and-pop restaurants – no chains – so we could get a better feel for the communities that we were visiting. Hands down, our favorite meal of the trip was breakfast at The Grove Cafe in Ames (“Just like home, you don’t always get what you want”). If you are ever in the area, do yourself a favor and stop in. The early bird gets to eat with the local farmers, and the pancakes are amazing. We drove from Des Moines to Ames to meet with Jason, and then spent the better part of the day in the car. Our three Iowa listings were spread out over 237 highway miles, and so the day we spent with Jason was both scenic and long. The first farm had a teeny, 1970s-era house that stretched the outer limits of our “move in ready” requirements, but came also with two old, chippy painted hay barns that made my heart skip a beat. The things these barns had held and seen; to be the steward of history like that was something I had never really imagined until that warm, humid morning. As we had discovered in our farm search, most farm properties come equipped an oddity, unique to only that farmstead. This one was no different, as it had a county road running right through the middle of the property. The house rested on one side, and the barns on the other. The barns themselves were perfection, but it didn’t strike us as the perfect place for Yellow Hutch Farm to be.
Next on our schedule was a listing I had fallen in love with months earlier. Lacona, Iowa had a little, yellow farmhouse on 80 acres. The acreage was perfectly portioned out – half was in pasture and half was wooded. The property lines were splendidly normal, and the outbuildings were immaculate. And… the house was one of the smallest I had ever seen. It consisted of an amalgamation of two turn-of-the-century farmhouses that had been on the property separately until one was drug (with horses!) and attached to the other up in the rafters. We looked in the attic and could see the top of the original roof. It was impossibly tiny; not a single closet in the whole house. The kitchen and living room area was big enough for our dining room table or couch, but not both. The stairs up to what would’ve been the kids’ bedrooms were scarcely larger than a pull-down attic ladder, and I could nearly touch all four walls in the baby’s room without moving my feet. Dear reader, if prayer could move walls or add storage space, we’d be Iowans. Chris spent the majority of the visit ambling around outside, admiring the perfect acreage; I spent the entire viewing pacing off rooms and nearly convincing myself that we could, in fact, live without closets. Ultimately, the only way Lacona could’ve worked for us was if we had an extra $200,000 or so in the bank to build a big house on another part of the property while we converted the little house into our Yellow Hutch Farm store. With reluctance, and after another completely unremarkable showing in southern Iowa, we said goodbye to Jason and headed east to western Wisconsin
Wisconsin, as a state, had many marks in our “Pro” column. We actually know some residents, (more than we could say for Iowa), after a visit to our friends’ Wisconsin farm several years ago, Chris had developed a love for both cheese curds and the topography of the Driftless region, and as residents, we would be able to root unabashedly for the Packers. We looked at two properties near our friends – one was a shade on the small side, acreage-wise, and so never really had a chance, and one (“the big farm”) that Chris had marked as the place on our tour with the most potential.
The big farm was 80 acres (all spread out behind the house and up a hill), with a four bedroom, one and a half bath house at the end of a half-mile driveway. Our friends, with whom we had stayed the night before, lived 15 minutes away. We would certainly have close social connections if we chose this farm, but electronic ones would prove to be more difficult. While in western Wisconsin, we discovered that we got absolutely no cell coverage whatsoever. Our friends also cautioned us that the internet service was spotty, at best. This disconnectedness appealed to the introverted side of both of us, but made us leery about this as a location to start a business – something that requires a lot of internet data and a strong cell connection. Also, this farm happened to be exactly between two small towns. We could send the kids to school in either direction, but each trip would’ve been about a 20 minute drive (so, 30 by school bus). Even though this place was definitely the most remote, we still devoted a lot of time to viewing the big farm. In the house alone, we spent enough time to not only get a feel for the 1970’s floor plan, but to also plan out the first two remodeling projects we would need to do. This farm, like the first one in Iowa, had a large, turn-of-the-century hay barn that stirred feelings that this city girl didn’t know she had. There is something so picturesque about those old outbuildings; I know that they were and are functional spaces, but I appreciate their aesthetic enhancement to farms also. When we left the big farm near Colfax, Wisconsin, I am pretty sure that both Chris and I had made peace with its secluded location and mentally arranged the furniture, filled the pantry, and planted the garden.
The last day of our Midwest Farm Tour was spent in east central Minnesota seeing three farms with Jeff Gross. Our first stop was a small family farm being sold after the owners had been there since the 1960s. Everything was cleaned out and smelled of fresh paint, but instead of seeing it as a potential place for my own family, it made me sad. It was so very clearly “grandma and grandpa’s” farm, being sold because no one in the family could or would live there; I mourned for the generations of kiddos that wouldn’t get to celebrate holidays in the same places as their forebearers. The Wisconsin farm was still in the forefront of our thoughts as we drove to see the farm in Braham, Minnesota.
The farm that would become Yellow Hutch Farm was both markedly different from and interestingly similar to the others that we had seen on our trip. It too was 80 acres, with a nice mix of pasture, woods, and a pond. Unlike some other farmhouses we had toured, the house was modern, built near the turn of this century rather than last, and plenty big enough for us to move right in. The would-be pasture acreage was all in grass hay – so much better for the soil than row crops – and it was laid out in a perfectly logical, picturesque rectangle. We could practically see our cows, hogs, and chickens out on the pastures. Chris and I walked around the property, took in the towering silos, modern dairy barn, and about 25 barn cats, and realized, independently, that this place would in fact be a perfect spot to start Yellow Hutch Farm. While there were no chippy-painted hay barns here, the two pole barns were in good condition and Chris could make use of them right away. The dairy barn had been functioning recently – we could lease it out to a neighboring farmer, modify it and use it for storage, or (in the long-term) remodel it into a Yellow Hutch Farm Store. I was sold on this farm after seeing a walk-in closet and nearly-finished basement (studded and insulated walls + egress windows = potential); Chris was convinced once he realized that the start-up labor required to get the farm ready for animals out on pasture was much less than it would have been in Wisconsin. The location of this farm was the element that finally tipped the scales in favor of Braham. This farm is on Quail Street – a road that heads directly into town. The drive from the farm to school is at most 10 minutes, and to boot, we had full cell service during our walk through. Chris and I boarded the plane to California with Minnesota on our minds; we had our hearts set on Quail Street.
The ride between falling in love with our farm and holding the keys to it was a bumpy one (as all real estate transactions are), and something that I’ll share more about in a later post. Looking back on all the farms that we saw on the internet or in person, I am certain that we made the right choice for our family and our farm. We have been Braham, Minnesota residents for exactly 10 weeks today, but I feel like we have always been here. Every single person we have met is not only nice (Minnesota nice is a real thing, y’all), but genuinely interested and attentive. The schools here are amazing and have welcomed our babies with open arms. We are so thankful to have landed in a community that is so kind, neighborly, and gracious. All of these positives are things that we would never have been able to research, either through the internet or on a real estate showing. We chose Braham because of the farm that happened to be here, but we most assuredly lucked into an amazing community for our family. Whenever someone asks me, “But why Braham, Minnesota?” I confidently and honestly say, “Because this was absolutely the best place for us to be.” ~Lauren