Northeastern Minnesota has been on an economic and population roller coaster ever since European settlement. Loggers clear-cut most of the white pine. Then iron ore mining took off, peaked in the 1970s and pulled back in subsequent decades.
Through it all, there's been farming. Even in Embarrass, Minn., where the growing season seems to last only minutes.
"If you're going to live in northern Minnesota you might as well live in the coldest spot," said Mary Ann Wycoff, who raises pigs on a farm with her husband. "Right?"
Embarrass is world-famous for winter temperatures that can slide to nearly 60 below zero — and some of the people who live there are proud of that. Despite the long, cold winters, farming has always been a part of life in the Embarrass area. This time of year, some of the local farmers get together for a delicious celebration.
They hold a fundraiser to help underwrite the nearby Tower Farmers Market and a local emergency food shelf. The event, which happens this Friday, is organized around the BLT, with Wycoff's bacon playing a prominent role.
She and her husband raise pigs that weigh up to 300 pounds, so there's just a tiny bit of extra fat on them.
That's hog heresy in the rest of the pork industry, where farmers have spent decades designing a more svelte swine.
"What they did is they switched to a very, very lean pig to meet with cholesterol guidelines and stuff," she said. "But that's when pork started tasting not as good."
Wycoff said the Tower Farmers Market is a necessary antidote to farm life, which can be pretty solitary at times.
"When you get there," she explained, "you've had a hard day and the pigs got out and you're fixing the fence and the people are appreciating you and your product — it's worth it. And then you remember why you're doing it."
Another Embarrass-area farmer, Janna Goerdt, raises vegetables. She built three plastic greenhouse-like structures that greatly extend the growing season.
"Lots, at least six weeks," she said. "Sometimes two months, depending on the weather."
One of her trophy vegetables is an heirloom variety tomato called Prudence Purple.
"And when it's ready to go it'll be a gorgeous pink, huge, beefsteak tomato," she said. "It's the ultimate BLT tomato."
Goerdt's tomatoes join Wycoff's bacon on the fundraiser sandwiches. Goerdt said she's delighted that she has a life with her twin boys and her Chicago-born husband in the area where she was born.
"It's not just a place, not just a random suburb," she said. "It's a place with such a unique identity that I think people really miss it once they leave."
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