A New Generation of Farming – and Winemaking – at Taiga Farm in Ironwood
In the early 1900s, thousands of settlers moved into the Upper Midwest to farm lands that were recently cutover by timber companies. Many challenges and hardships would befall these early farmers, from the short growing season to extracting stumps and rocks from their fields. Most of these early attempts to farm clearcut lands ended in hardship and misery. This is a story of an Ironwood Township farm and vineyard finding success in one of these underused farmsteads.
Throughout Ironwood Township, remnants of small-scale farming from nearly a century ago are evident throughout the landscape. Fallow fields and wind worn barns stand out in stark contrast to the surrounding second growth forests. For the past eight years, however, Taiga Farm and Vineyard has transformed one of these former farmsteads. Since July 2013, Darrin Kimbler has owned Taiga Farm and Vineyard in Ironwood, Michigan. His journey in becoming a farmer began, quite literally, by following in his grandfather’s footsteps.
“I started as a kid on my grandparents and parents farm down in Kentucky,” said Darrin, “and that's where I grew up. I was out picking up potatoes behind grandpa as soon as I was old enough to walk. But mostly, it was tobacco growing up. I paid for my first car in high school with tobacco money. I don't recommend it. It's one of the hardest ways of farming.”
Later, Darrin studied at UW-Madison. There, he met his future wife, Eve. The couple moved to Ironwood when Eve was offered a position with a local clinic. They bought an old farmstead and christened it “Taiga,” a Siberian word for northern forest, and a subtle nod to Darrin’s botany and forest ecology degrees. Darrin started in earnest to transform the old farmstead.
“It’s been here since 1930,” Darrin reflected, “because that's the inscription on the masonry in the basement where the original house stood. When we moved here, it hadn't been farmed in about at least 30 years. They just sort of maintained the open space by mowing it periodically. We had to put a lot of infrastructure and capital into the farm to make it a working farm again.”
Whereas earlier farmers mostly raised dairy cows and grew potatoes, Darrin’s plan was altogether different. First, he would raise the cold-loving Icelandic sheep raised for fleece, meat, and breeding stock. Second, Darrin would grow wine-producing grapes, starting on a small scale with vineyard expansion and commercial wine production as a potential long term goal.
“I call it my test vineyard to see if I can grow wine grapes up here,” Darrin explained, “and so far, we've been pretty successful. But it takes a number of years to get started. We do have five varieties of wine grapes. We have three red varieties and two white varieties. We process them here, we have a Crusher, de-stemmer here, and then we have our press, and then we have our fermentation tanks. I have had wine.”
Part of the vineyard’s early success can be attributed to the weather influencing effects caused by Lake Superior. With Taiga Farm and vineyard located within Lake Superior’s snowbelt region, Darrin takes advantage of the heavy lake-effect snow and the accompanying cool, moderating weather. It’s in this unique “microclimate” where Darrin’s grapes are thriving.
“Lake Superior, I call it the big refrigerator,” Darrin explained. “It moderates the climate. So we are warmer in the winter here, and then we're a little bit cooler in the summer than you are further south. So you kind of moderate the temperature, and you get the lake effect snow, that deep snow, which helps protect a lot of our plants throughout the winter.”
A century earlier, many farmers struggled with the challenges posed by this microclimate and turned to hunting and fishing to make ends meet. Fortunately for Darrin, teaching the next generation how to successfully farm in a cold, snowy climate is his other job.
“My day job is actually the Agricultural Educator for UW Extension in Iron County,” Darrin said. “My goal is to get enough produce producers up here to put me out of business. I have no problem with competition. I can continue moving my vineyard right through the area where the produce is grown.”
This involves teaching the next generation farming techniques, emerging technologies and best management practices. In doing so, Darrin is teaching prospective farmers, not only how to successfully farm within the Lake Superior watershed, but also how to be good stewards. While farming in the Upper Midwest a century ago was met with hardship and misery, it is now met with a bright and positive future, a future where farmers may continue to provide the community with fresh vegetables and meat, possibly paired with a bottle of wine from Taiga Farm and Vineyard.