Photo by 
Robert Williams
Sustainable farming representatives PJ Breen, Noreen Thomas, Ryan Pesch, Edward Anderson, Brittany Johnson, Zachary Paige, and Dana Trickey pose with artist Jon Solinger at his “Deep Roots: Sustaining a Living Community” exhibit at the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center Friday, May 3.

By Robert Williams


Lake Lida resort owner and photographer Jon Solinger’s art exhibit “Deep Roots: Sustaining a Living Community” wrapped up its run at the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center on Friday, March 3.

Jon Solinger

Solinger’s show focused on life on 13 small farms throughout the surrounding counties in both photographic and text formats.

Solinger collaborated with members of the Lake Agassiz chapter of the Sustainable Farming Association and MANNA Food Co-op, and with the support of a West Central Initiative grant to create a gallery exhibit about life and work on small farms in the region. 

“The project is really for the benefit of the farmers, to get the word out,” said Solinger. “Who knew all this was going on? I want people in the public to get to know their options for good food that is available locally.”

Solinger worked with two farmers that have recently been featured in the Frazee-Vergas Forum: Zachary Paige of North Circle Seeds in rural Vergas and Ryan Pesch of Lida Farm, seven miles south of Vergas.

Pesch is the treasurer and Paige the president of the board at Manna Food Co-op in Detroit Lakes. They are also a part of the Lake Agassiz chapter of the statewide Sustainable Farming Association, which hosted the Deep Roots Festival last summer at Lida Farm with a tour of other area growers.

Along with portrait features, Solinger displayed those photos with a story of each farm family, along with a full transcripts of an extended interview in booklet form that will be archived permanently at the Otter Tail County Historical Museum.

“This whole thing is about what people do, how they do it, but mostly, my biggest emphasis was going to be on why they do it?” said Solinger. “You’re not getting rich on 1,000 acres of sugar beets? You’re doing this for some other reason. You have ideals. You have a mission. You have a personal reason you’re doing it. I found that usually it’s a wider idea about sustainable farming, a better way to make food production, a better relationship with the land and environment and the project is also about relationships between people. You’re not getting your food from Walmart; you’re getting your food from Ryan; you’re getting your food from someone right here.”

Solinger also focused on the community members at large, most of whom were present Friday, how they help one another, juxtaposed with the relationships of family members on each respective farm.

Solinger described his portraiture in respect to the two different mediums, whereby the photographs capture the surface-level appearances of the people and their farms, while the text element depicts a self-portrait via internal thoughts.

The art itself was purposely displayed in minimalist form on large sheets of glossy, white paper with the text wrapping around multiple photographs.

“The pictures don’t illustrate the text and the text doesn’t capture the picture; they’re kind of separate parallel portraiture,” he said.

Solinger also discussed what he learned, personally, from completing the project.

“Their work is very intentional,’ he said. “They didn’t just land there accidentally. They didn’t just take this job to fill time or make a living. They all came from some other walk of life and they decided this is what I want to do for some reason. They all had a really clear vision of where they wanted to go with local food production. It’s about community life, improving the food system and looking to the future to make progress.”

He expounded upon the culture of these producers as being generous and optimistic, while the realism of how difficult it can be, especially when trying to make changes to the big picture of food and how we feed ourselves.

“Something about this work makes people happy; it seems very satisfying to them; they are really on fire about this thing,” said Solinger. “I really learned a lot.”

The 13 farmers featured included: Dana Trickey from Oakland Township in Mahnomen County; Noreen Thomas, Kragnes Township, Clay County; Gary and Jonna Goreham, Burlington Township, Becker County; Larry Heitkamp, Meadow Township, Wadena County; Deb Jenkins, Fargo, N.D., and eight producers spread throughout Otter Tail County: Edward Anderson, Scrambler Township; Amy Beckman, Sverdrup Township; Brittany Johnson, Maine Township; Jerry Jacobson and Dmae Ceryes, Dunn Township; Zachary Paige, Dunn Township; Ryan Pesch, Lida Township, Dale Rengstorf, Scrambler Township and Kelsey Wulf, Maine Township.

Pesch, who is working his 20th year on Lida Farm outside of Vergas, also spoke on behalf of Manna Co-op, the Sustainable Farming Association and its local Lake Agassiz chapter.

“I’ve definitely seen in those 20 years, a great change in how many more people are interested in sourcing directly from producers and understanding where their food is coming from and the quality of their food,” said Pesch.

The exhibit itself came to be through conversations at the first two Deep Roots Festivals that have been held annually in September; last year’s was based out of Pesch’s farm.

“We were talking about how can we better tell the story of all these quirky and interesting people that are engaged in this whole thing from the point of view of the Sustainable Farming Association and Manna Co-op,” Pesch said. “How do we tell a wider story?”

The money for the exhibit came from Paige’s knack for grant writing and the project fit the mission of both organizations.

“A large part of our mission is building the good food economy locally,” Pesch said.

In the near future, Solinger’s art will become part of the Manna Co-op location in Detroit Lakes with enlarged photos decorating the walls of the store.

“It’s going to have an application beyond just an art exhibit; it’s going to have some degree of commercial purpose,” he said.

Paige spoke about his farm North Circle Seeds and how he is working to close the loop on sustainability by creating his seed production system, along with the idiosyncrasies of seed saving, harvest time, maturity and genetics.

“We’re selecting seeds and foods that thrive in our short season environment from all over the world,” he said.

Paige is also completing construction on a seed education house on his property in rural Vergas where he is hosting one-day and two-day seed saving courses for college students and individuals.

Other speakers included Thomas, who spoke about her certified organic farm north of Moorhead and the importance of family, along with the success farming has produced for her children. Noreen and her husband Lee have been featured statewide and nationally. Doubting Thomas Farms is a six-generation farm that has been in Lee’s family since 1878.

“The kids all found jobs on the farm and I let them fail; I let them try things they were interested in,” she said. “One kid went to the University of Minnesota, no debt. He paid it all with the farm business.”

Doubting Thomas Farms consists of the work of five different families and farms producing organic oats, wheat, blue corn, barley, soybeans, garden produce and certified-organic eggs, along with a USDA researcher on-site.

Grazier Brittany Johnson discussed solutions to farming issues on a worldwide scale and how she is combatting that locally. In the next year, she is taking 15 acres of conventional soy, corn rotation and turning it into a multi-seed hayfield and native grasses. She highlighted the control of nitrates her field allows.

Stout Farm, Johnson’s 40-acre sheep farm, specializes in meat and wool production. Her meat is butchered locally at Mills Locker Plant in New York Mills.

“I love that I get to feed people and I’m really proud of my lamb and people really love it,” she said. 

Dana Trickey fulfilled a dream to have her own maple forest by purchasing 40 acres. She learned the original teachings from White Earth tribal elders and also worked with a Michigan producer during the pandemic to learn the process of making maple vinegar and other products of fermentation.

She stressed the wonders of wild food and the positive effects of connecting with the land.

Solinger commented on how Trickey was an anomaly in an already very diverse group of people in that she does not plant or harvest, instead she works by foraging.

“I think that’s so interesting that there is so much food everywhere, you just don’t see everything,” said Solinger.

“The woods have everything we need if we’re mindful of taking care of it,” said Trickey.

Rolling R Ranch north of Pelican Rapids was represented by PJ Breen, son-in-law of owner Dale Rengstorf, and he discussed the Bison raised on the ranch and how the animals are intertwined with the climate in this area.

The ranch work began with raising sheep and hogs, which Breen described as more work than its worth in northern Minnesota.

Breen related the amusing family legend that Rengstrof was walking into the coldest north wind that ever blew in Otter Tail County and he got to the barn, stomped his feet and was trying to feel his face again and he said, “God, the only thing that should love it up here is buffalo…oh hey!”

Bison evolved in this area and thrive on the grasses in Minnesota weather and conveniently the way bison are raised best is to be left to themselves.

In the late 1980’s, the herd began with a few bison and has grown to 300 today. The meat it shipped nationally and internationally. It is also available locally at Heart O’ Lakes Quality Meats in Pelican Rapids, the summer farmer’s market and at Manna.

Wrapping up the exhibit was Edward Anderson, who told a number of touching tales about his orchard where he produces Anderson Apples, Norwegian to the core. The history of his land was his grandparents emigrated from Norway and purchased 80 acres north of Pelican Rapids for $1,000. The land was handed down to his father and eventually to Anderson and his youngest brother.

Anderson was inspired by Budd Andrews, a tree, plant identification and wild food expert from Pelican Rapids who is now 102-years-old. Andrews helped create Anderson’s love for apple orchards.

Anderson began with 50 trees and has kept his orchard small now having three times as many.

“I never planted this orchard to make a lot of money; that was never my intent,” he said. “I planted it because I wanted it to be beautiful.”

Anderson’s words summed up much of Solinger’s intended meaning of the exhibit, as did all the speakers. Complementary to each different version of sustainable farming was a distinct love for the land, produce and animal and the work involved in all the different variables.