Juggling a life between farming and accounting, Mariah Heine, 24, is happiest when she’s on the farm.
She decided, after graduating with an accounting degree, that the farm is where she wants to live to continue the legacy begun by her grandfather.
With her husband, Wyatt, the couple live just a quarter mile east of the Mikkonen Farm near Frederick.
To supplement her farm experience, she works part-time as a clerk for the city of Frederick and spends the winter doing tax work.
“For now, I’m like a hired hand as I have a lot to learn from my dad, Lonny, and his brother, Rory," Heine said. "My brother, Jayden, and I learn what to do from them and dig in to get the work done.”
The Mikkonen farm began as a conventional farm back in 1944 with her grandfather, Ray, and his brothers, Larry and Alvar. Her dad and her uncle, Rory, returned to the farm in the mid-80s. In 1989, the farm was certified for its organic production as Mikkonen Organic Farm.
To be certified organic means the business has been inspected and found to produce products that are free of synthetic additives like chemical pesticides and fertilizers and do not use GMO (genetically modified organism) seeds.
The Mikkonen farm has about 1,700 acres. They fallow (leave idle) some ground each year, planting about 1,300 acres. Once the plants start growing, fields are cultivated for weed control.
Heine grew up in an atmosphere steeped in sustainable agriculture practices.
“The cultivator has guards to protect the plant while the shovels dig dirt between the rows," she explained. "You have to watch to make sure the cultivator is throwing up dirt to cover the small weeds but not too much so it doesn’t cover the growing plants. You have to learn how fast to drive to keep the dirt in the middle of the row. It takes time to learn. In a normal year, each field would be cultivated three or four times.”
This fall’s wet conditions and snow have challenged producers of all kinds. Thursday afternoon, Heine waited for the heavy frost to leave the soybean plants. Then she and her brother, Jayden, climbed into the two combines while Rory handled the trucking and grain cart.
She soaks up the information as she learns the trade.
“Because we don’t use chemicals, we end up with weedy fields," Heine said. "When we drive the combines in the field, we have to go a lot slower with our machines. Our yields aren’t as high as conventional farming but the price we get for our crops is greater per bushel.”
As established growers, her dad and uncle developed relationships with buyers in Fargo, Minnesota, Iowa and even Missouri for their crops. They have a proven reputation for quality organics with many return customers.
“We can’t take our trucks to the elevator and dump our grain,” Heine said. “We have contracts for what we grow and our products get trucked to those locations.”
She learns from the challenges, especially this year. In the future, she’ll take on more of the management roles as she contributes to making decisions for the farm.
“I’m learning every day and reading all the time, trying to absorb as much as I can about farming,” she said. “I’m excited to learn so I can carry on the family legacy.
“If organic farming were easy, everyone would be doing it. It isn’t easy, but it is rewarding. We believe organic crops are better for us and our operation. That doesn’t mean that conventional crops are bad, they just aren’t the market we are going after. We believe in the value of progress, science and technology, but we choose to limit how much of the synthetic science is put into our ground and on our crops. We want to provide for our customers the most natural crops possible.
“Growing up, I had no real plans for what I wanted to do," she continued. "I came home to help in 2014 for the summer during college and loved being here. I grew up knowing that farming depended on the weather but didn’t know how critical it is.”
While coming back to help earlier, it was in 2015-16 that she committed to farming.
Heine uses her accounting degree as one of the many tools in farming.
“I think keeping an eye on costs is something that is an integral part of farming," she explained. "You have to know what this practice will cost per acre; you have to figure out if you try something new, how many years will it take to get a return. Numbers are important.”
This year she helped plant organic wheat, barley, oats, soybeans, black beans, millet and corn.
“The black beans are definitely my favorite," she said. "This is the third year we’ve been growing them. Once we combine them, we run them through a ‘quick-clean’ machine before putting them in the bin. This pulls out the weed seeds.”
The black beans are pretty rare in this part of the country. When talking to people about what I do, I like to share that we grow these beans," she said.
Being on the farm, she has to wear multiple hats.
“I’m both a farmer and an accountant," she said. "During tax season, I’ll introduce myself as an accountant but will likely mention that I farm in the summer. It’s a good balance that keeps me busy. Farming gets me away from a desk and gives me a purpose to work the land that God gave us.”