Frame honored by Sustainable Farming Association
By Janet Kubat Willette
Date Modified: 04/25/2012 9:38 PM
NORTHFIELD, Minn. — Mary Ellen Frame has traveled the world and worked an eclectic mix of jobs. Now, she spends her days planting and beating back the jungle on her family's home farm.
Frame's family moved to the place just north of Northfield in 1943. Her father was interested in trees and she remembers her family working together to stick all these twigs in the ground. Those twigs are now mature trees, many of which yield nuts, some of which she sells at farmers markets in Northfield. Her family's plantings included improved black walnut, chestnut, hickory and pecan trees.
Frame describes herself as co-owner, groundskeeper and tenant of Larchill Farm. She owns the farm with her two living brothers. She lives there, harvests mainly black and red raspberries and nuts, and grows produce to sell at farmers market. She also makes jams and jellies to sell at market.
When Frame graduated high school, she left Northfield. She has lived in the South and out East. She worked as an editorial assistant for Merriam-Webster dictionary. She lived in Illinois and Wisconsin. She was the Carleton College photographer. She was director of the Northfield Historical Society and ran a restaurant business.
She spent time in Nepal where her now deceased brother ran a restaurant business.
Her brother was adopted into a number of families and she was visiting the country when she was honored by the Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota for her Distinguished Service in the sustainable farming arena.
"It was a shame, I was really sorry to miss that," Frame said.
She joined the Cannon River SFA chapter in 1988 or '89 when she returned to Northfield, purchased 10 acres from her parents and began farming, supporting her farming habit with a series of part-time jobs.
The SFA members sounded like her kind of farmers, she said, and she loves the group. Frame attends the SFA annual meeting when able and said she always learns something. Most enjoyable and interesting, Frame said, are the conversations she has with farmers.
She has held nearly every post on the board of the Cannon River SFA chapter and in the past reported chapter activities for the SFA newsletter, the CornerPost. More recently, she's put together a slide show of photographs for the Festival of Farms featuring SFA members and done other publicity.
For her, sustainable farming is three-pronged. First, it's sustaining the soil for future generations and providing for the health of farmers and eaters. Second, it's economic. Farmers need to be able to earn their livelihood from their farm. Third, it sustains communities through the association of families who rely upon one another for trade.
"Mary Ellen is the one who keeps all of us going forward in a cohesive group, even when we disagree or can't find time to communicate with each other as we should," Cannon River SFA members wrote in their nomination of Frame. "She takes minutes for our meetings, distributes posters for our events, takes wonderful pictures of our farms and events, writes all our news releases."
Her colleagues describe her as the matriarch of their local food shed.
She's a founder of Northfield's Just Food Cooperative, a natural foods grocery store and deli, and is a board member of Riverwalk Market Fair of Northfield. She's a member of the Northfield Local Food Action Network.
Frame said her main concern in starting Just Food was to create a market for people who were producing wonderful food, but lacked a place to sell directly to consumers.
Since starting, the cooperative has grown and so has access to natural foods. Back then, one Community Supported Agriculture farm in the Northfield area struggled to survive. Now, there are four or five in the area.
"It's just gone gangbusters, I'm just thrilled to see," Frame said. "Things have just changed so enormously."
She's excited to see young farmers. Her generation was told they couldn't make a living on a farm, so they left for other occupations. Now, young people from all kinds of backgrounds are getting into farming and finding a successful career. Rising land prices are a hurdle to beginning farmers, Frame said.
She, herself, was drawn back to the land.
"I always wanted to live on a farm," Frame said.
When she found her way back, she was 50, single and lacking in tractor skills. She fit her farm to her skills, using hogs in hog panel fences to help with tilling, and a lot of labor.
It was kind of like when she'd grown up.
"When I was growing up, we produced most of our food on the farm … and that was good food," Frame said.
Now, she's sharing her farm with her daughter, son-in-law and 12-year-old grandson. They recently moved from Chicago to Northfield. Her grandson is busy making a tree house near the ruins of the old barn. Her daughter plans to turn an outbuilding into a pottery studio.
Frame is optimistic about the future of local foods and marvels that Northfield is the hub, likely because of the proximity to markets.
Her colleagues in the Cannon River SFA are thankful for her efforts.
"She's the underlying grace that supports our efforts as we work to build a resilient food shed … and we are grateful for her contributions."