Spring 2016 Farmer Profile: Q & A with Kathy Zeman

 Kathy Zeman of Simple Harvest Farm Organics 
(Nerstrand, MN)

“If it ain’t simple, we can’t do it,” shares Kathy Zeman with a smile about her 20-acre diversified organic operation she’s been running as a solo woman farmer for the past 10 years. 

While her farm business approach of simplicity adds up to her success, Kathy’s vision for the future of our food system and landscape is far from minimal.  Blending farming moxie with a mission to leave this world a better place, Kathy brings drive and dedication to everything she cultivates, from raising her free range chickens to improving state policy via her hat managing the Minnesota Farmers’ Market Association.

The core of Kathy’s zeal and leadership roots in education.  “I call myself a ‘food farmer’ to emphasize that I raise the kinds of things you can actually eat,” she explains.  “Too much of what we see today are commodities far removed from our plate, so most of us don’t connect the costs of that production with our responsibility for the planet.”  


Kathy specializes in meat and eggs which she sells direct to local customers and to wholesale markets. A solo woman farmer with no full-time staff, she also runs a homestead vegetable garden, orchard and milking set up.  Kathy also serves on the Minnesota Local Food Advisory Committee and is an expert resource on questions on Minnesota food regulations such as operating businesses out of your home kitchen under Minnesota’s cottage foods law.

Spend the day with Kathy on her farm for women farmers on Tuesday, August 23, 2016. This workshop is part of the “In Her Boots: Sustainable Agriculture for Women, By Women” series facilitated by the Rural Women’s Project, a venture of the Midwest Organic & Sustainable Education Service (MOSES).  Tour the pasture-raised livestock operation, including chickens, turkeys, geese, ducks, meat rabbits, pigs, dairy goats, dairy and beef cattle, and learn about cover crop management. 

Read on for to learn more about Kathy:

Do you come from agricultural roots?
Cows were my life growing up, rooted on my family’s Minnesota farm outside Owatonna in Steele County. When I turned seven years old, I was given the responsibility of raising all our calves and I did that until college. For a 7-year span, I didn’t lose a single calf, as long as it was born alive. That did mean I missed some school – but not an education.

So you really like cows, eh?
A friend once told me that one day when I smile at a guy the same way I smile when I see my cows, that will be the person I marry. Hasn’t happened yet.

Previous occupations before the farm?
Extension educator, communications director for the Minnesota Pork Producers Association and a senior computer systems analyst for Federated Insurance. 

What’s your land stewardship philosophy?
We should ask the land what it wants to grow, not the other way around and tell it and force it to do something it naturally isn’t meant to.  Our farm sits on highly erodible land which isn’t good for some crops but works great for grasses and the grazing we do.

Guilty pleasure?
When I need a time-out, I do crosswords and hidden object games online.

Land stewardship is rewarding to you because:
I seriously feel this planet is in trouble and nothing is more critical right now. I know I can make a difference in protecting my land and leaving this piece better than I found it.

How does your day start?
At 5:30 every morning you’ll find me sitting in my big chair having a coffee with cream from my Jersey cow, puppy on my lap, watching the morning news.

Personal hero?
My dad was an absolute master at livestock. Dad really loved what he did and he made farming fun. Like when we needed to pitch manure out of the barn – and we used forks, no skid loaders – he cranked up the music and we all had a good time.

Unusual accomplishments?
I lived a pretty privileged childhood. I wish more kids could spend their summers in dairy barns, judging cows. That’s where I learned my critical thinking skills. And my family was active in all sorts of agricultural organizations, which gifted me with some interesting opportunities, including serving as the Governor of Minnesota Girls State, National Holstein Girl, Princess Kay of the Milky Way, state champion dairy judging team, coached state and national champion dairy quiz bowl teams.

You brother is part of the farm enterprise?
My brother, who has Downs Syndrome, came to live with me as a young adult in 2001.  He helps run “Nick’s Eggs,” which is a project he can do and manage and is our biggest enterprise on the farm. He also is an artist at Interact Center in St. Paul and spends three nights a week with my sister’s family, so I tell him has the perfect life: country bumpkin and city slicker. People with disabilities hear a lot of “no’s.”  Here on the farm and at Interact he hears a lot of “yeses.”

What advice would you give someone starting out in farming?
Take the time to think through what you’re good at and what you do not want to do.  Do not be afraid to say there are things you’re not good at and make the decision to hire those projects out.  I learned quickly I can’t do it all and there are folks who can do it much better than me. And then, most importantly, figure out what your farming (life?) principles are – otherwise you’ll just keep shifting principles to make money…and then you’ll lose sight of why you started in the first place.

You’ve always been so active on the agriculture policy side.  Why is this important for landowners and farmers?
If a law affects your land or farm business, you should be the one who knows it better than any other regulator.  This allows you to rightfully and respectfully be on the same page in discussions and it will also quickly open your mind to what might need to be changed in legislation. In farming, we often talk about the 3-legged knowledge stool needed to succeed: Production, Financial, Marketing. I think it’s a 4-legged stool; we need to add Legal.

Farming and conservation resources you recommend?
We live in a fabulous time where we have access to so much information online.  The key is to never accept just one answer and to look at it from at least three different resources.  I love the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES), Chelsea Books, Acres, Growing for Marketing, and the American Pastured Poultry Producers Association.