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Progress: Freshly ground and growing: Maple Ridge Produce finds success south of Aitkin

AITKIN--It might be easier to list what Maple Ridge Produce farm doesn't grow, rather than what it does. Erik Heimark's ambitious garden spilled over with greens, vegetables and flowers of numerous varieties in late July, nestled into a picturesq...

A roadside stand has products for sale at Maple Ridge Produce farm near Aitkin. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch - Gallery and Video
A roadside stand has products for sale at Maple Ridge Produce farm near Aitkin. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch - Gallery and Video

AITKIN-It might be easier to list what Maple Ridge Produce farm doesn't grow, rather than what it does.

Erik Heimark's ambitious garden spilled over with greens, vegetables and flowers of numerous varieties in late July, nestled into a picturesque farmstead south of Lone Lake in rural Aitkin. Amid rows of heirloom watermelon radishes, red Bibb lettuce and dahlias, Heimark beamed with pride at what he described as his greatest accomplishment this growing season: giant, bountiful tomato plants in a high tunnel.

"The fruit is so heavy, it's really weighing the trellises down," Heimark said. "We're going to get record yields out of this thing."

The plot Heimark transformed from an overgrown hay field littered with beer and vodka bottles over three years is a handful, he said, but could be twice the size and still not meet the demand of local produce consumers. And when he's not tilling and weeding, you can find the 29-year-old Aitkin native selling at farmers' markets in Aitkin and Grand Rapids, grinding grain, baking bread loaves and buns by the hundreds, brewing an unpleasant but essential fish emulsion fertilizer or tending to chickens, goats, Yuri the husky/German shepherd mix or Pippin the tailless cat. Or maybe you'll find him at Long Lake Conservation Center, where he continues to work part-time as a naturalist. Check the charmingly rustic farmstand at the end of his driveway, too. He could be restocking rabbit meat or decorative gourd birdhouses.

Heimark and his husband, Jay Rigdon, together run the 18.5-acre farm along with business partner Lauren Betz, friend Bo Martin, three employees and up to five disabled adults from the Aitkin County Developmental Achievement Center. They are some of the many young farmers supplying for an exploding customer base seeking locally grown and organic products.

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"I think it's growing like wildfire, actually. I can't keep up," Heimark said. "I'm kind of in a pickle, because how do I continue to meet the demand? ... We've gotta get more farmers, or our farmers have got to increase production, or something."

While Heimark's business is in its first years, his tenure as a farmer and homesteader is anything but. He grew up on a farm, where his parents raised small grains the family ground into their own fresh flour. After graduating from Aitkin High School in 2007, he went on to attend college at the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities and live the metro life. But it wasn't too long before homesickness overtook Heimark, drawing him back to the community in which he was reared.

Heimark became reacquainted with rural life by growing a garden at his parents' farm, the vegetables from which he sold at the farmers' market. When a particularly cold spring and summer foiled the garden's productivity, however, Heimark turned to another skill: baking.

"I started baking bread for the farmers' market, and that seemed to sell really, really well," he said. "I wanted to make sure my bread was unique."

Heimark incorporated the fresh, hyperlocal grains from his parents' fields and watched as it flew from the shelves. He began to produce different flavors, including his most popular variety, cranberry-wild rice bread. The Maple Ridge Produce staple is practically as local as it gets, made from wild rice, maple syrup, wheat, rye and eggs, all sourced from area farmers. Only the cranberries hail from outside the region.

Meanwhile, Heimark managed Gilby's Orchard in Aitkin, nurturing apples, pumpkin and squash for autumn visitors. He and Rigdon, who works as a carpenter, lived in town but hoped to find someplace with a bit more room. They learned of a property in need of a little love on 380th Avenue, complete with an outdated house decorated with gray shag carpet, popcorn ceilings and tired linoleum.

Surveying the parcel today, it's difficult to imagine its life as anything but the Pinterest-worthy retreat they now call home. A classic Volkswagen van sits in the yard near a reclaimed wood doghouse. A flower-lined path leads to the back door, where an antique red water pump turned fountain trickles. The inside of the couple's home reflects Rigdon's carpentry and design skills, featuring vintage appliances, timber beams, stone accents and farmhouse antiques.

While the home and grounds are a treat for the eye, the roadside farmstand is the star. Assembled from barnwood and carefully selected branches to form a small hut, the unmanned store features a refrigerator and freezer filled with not only Maple Ridge breads and produce, but the products of several other local farmers and makers. Visitors will find teas, jams, chickens and rabbits, bath products, firewood, gourds and more. A lockbox serves as the cash register, an on-your-honor system Heimark said both works well and is required with his exceedingly busy schedule.

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"We can't afford to sit here and watch the stand," he said. "People are remarkably honest if you expect them to be."

Eventually, Heimark plans to expand the stand into a little grocery store, one serving as another outlet for the distribution of local goods.

"We want to grow all the other local farmers up with us, so we buy and sell a lot of products from other farms," he said.

The grocery store is just one of Heimark's future ambitions. While he now rents commercial kitchen space at the Aitkin Bakery, he hopes to soon have his own storefront for retail sales of his baked goods. His breads are gaining popularity among those who've previously avoided gluten, he said, due to their incorporation of pesticide-free grains.

"I've got probably a dozen people that were sworn off gluten and they're now eating my bread just because all the ingredients are grown organically," Heimark said.

He'd love more space to produce breads for his wholesale customers as well, which include Prairie Bay Restaurant, Iron Range Eatery, Riverwood Healthcare Center, the Aitkin School District and two nursing homes. His breads can also be found in community-supported agriculture shares distributed by Sprout Food Hub in Little Falls.

Soon, farming and baking will become his full-time job, and it's clear it's one he loves, even if it comes with difficulties. He's learned a lot along the way, he said-like how hard it is to be an organic farmer, and the need to specialize in a smaller array of products. He can't wait to buy a flamethrower to torch the ever-encroaching weeds, for instance.

But mostly, he revels in how it's all progressed.

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"I've been surprised at how well it's worked out to work with other farmers, to carry their stuff," Heimark said. "When everyone is together, then it all works out really well. We're better together than doing our own thing."

Factbox

Business: Maple Ridge Produce.

City: Rural Aitkin.

Number of employees: About 10, including part-time help.

Interesting or little known fact: Erik Heimark grinds a minimum of 3,120 pounds of wheat in a year to produce enough fresh flour for his breads.

Related Topics: AITKINAITKIN HIGH SCHOOL
Chelsey Perkins is the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch. A lakes area native, Perkins joined the Dispatch staff in 2014. She is the Crow Wing County government beat reporter and the producer and primary host of the "Brainerd Dispatch Minute" podcast.
Reach her at chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com or at 218-855-5874 and find @DispatchChelsey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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