The Big Woods Farm
Dave Medvecky was working on a power line project near Cambridge in Isanti County in the mid-1970s when he saw a For Sale by Owner sign outside a small farm that looked appealing to him. Dave wrote down the phone number meaning to give the owner a call. A year later, Dave hadn’t gotten around to calling when he saw the owner’s obituary in the local newspaper.
Dave contacted a neighbor who had been appointed executor of the estate and learned that the farm would be sold by auction and that the bee hives on the property needed attention. Dave volunteered to care for the bees and made plans to bid on the farm. A few weeks later, Dave and Bev were proud owners of the 40-acre Big Woods Farm. Since then they have acquired another 200 acres nearby, making for a nice 240 acre spread. The place was an enrolled Tree Farm when the Medvecky’s bought it and they have maintained the relationship.
Most of Isanti County is in the Anoka Sand Plain, suitable for pine. The area around the Medvecky’s farm has heavier, clay soil and was called the “Big Woods” by local farmers in the early days because of the huge maple, oak and basswood growing there. The original owner named the place, The Big Woods Farm, a name the Medvecky’s have kept.
While Dave was working, he’d spend his spare time in the woods at the farm. He learned that it takes a full winter season to thin five acres of woods. At that rate, he spent eight years covering the entire 40 acres. Then, in 1995, Dave was laid off from his job and went to work full time on the farm. “Now I work out in the woods from sun up to sunset and love it,” Dave says. “One question is what would happen if I were to get hurt out in the woods? I don’t have a cell phone because I’d probably smash it somehow while working. But, without the phone, Bev wouldn’t come looking for me until after dark.” Good reason to be careful in the woods!
Through the years, Dave has found markets for most of what comes from his woods. “Maple syrup is the easiest product to sell. People ask to be put on a waiting list for it. Last spring was a total bust but we’ve had good years, too. Our best was the year we produced 90 gallons of finished syrup.”
“One problem with producing maple syrup,” Dave says, “is that you have to be in the woods during breakup when the roads and trails are most vulnerable to damage. It seems that some years we’ve spent most of our maple syrup revenue on fixing up the trails after the season.”
Somehow, Dave got connected with a woman who calls herself The Nature Lady. She collects rustic items and resells them to floral shops in Dallas and Austin, Texas. She was at Big Woods Farm recently and loaded up on birch logs, branches and bark plus mushrooms that grow on birch trees and hornets nests Dave found in his woods. Dave and Bev’s 14-year old grandchildren, a boy and a girl, helped load the woman’s truck and saw Dave collect the money. “It is good for the kids to see that you can make money from the woods but I had to warn them that most sales aren’t as easy as this one.”
Dave has a local fellow bring in his Wood Mizer saw mill several times a year. They saw lumber for a local outfit that makes flooring and paneling. Also, logs with figured wood, ones with what normal mills would call defects, are sawed for local bowl turners.
In all, the Medvecky’s have more than two dozen other customers who buy everything from cherry wood for smoking on grills to logs for export to Japan.
One of Dave’s favorite customers, is the Ebner family in Elk River. Five members of the family, who are the 5th generation in the business, make wooden berry boxes. The do it all by hand with no outside help. They do have machinery that is approaching 100 years old. Like the flour mills used to be operated, all of the machines are run off belts from a single shaft that is powered by one three-phase motor. The berry boxes have seen an increase in popularity thanks to the organic fruit market. Recently the Ebners received an order for one million boxes! On average they buy three semi loads of basswood from the Big Woods Farm each year.
What to do with the wood scraps?
The Medveckys have always heated their home, and all their hot water, with wood. Their only back-up system is a second wood burner. Recently Dave bought a new outdoor wood furnace from Classic Sales located just down the road in Isanti. At some point in the near future, the U.S. EPA will ban the current models, smoky models of outdoor furnaces and require that all new models be a more efficient type that produces less smoke. A problem with the efficient type is they require seasoned wood for fuel. Dave says, “As a tree famer, we always have wood scraps we can use for heat but they are not dry. I bought this new furnace so we can put into operation when the old one, that is 25 years old, needs replacement.”
Bev also has a little business going. She maintains a huge garden that produces flowers and vegetables to sell locally. Her biggest seller is asparagus which, according to Dave, is as easy to sell as maple syrup. Bev has 400 feet of asparagus rows in her garden. Another of her major products is peonies. From a few plants obtained from a relative 25 years ago, Bev now cultivates over 250 peony bushes. Vegetables include tomatoes, strawberries and peas. Bev plants one row of sweet corn every week for eight weeks so she has sweet corn available for two months.
Since they purchased the place 35 years ago, the Medveckys have never used any fertilizer or pesticides on Bev’s garden or anywhere on the farm. Dave says, “I guess this makes us organic, although we have never applied for certification.”