Ken Hammarlund has been tending to his family’s 15-acre plot of nursery, farm and untouched woodland north of Esko for over 40 years, and now he’s ready to open the space up to community events.
“It's like a little mini-arboretum,” Hammarlund said of the property he’s filled with native plants over the years. “It's really fun for me to do and now I'm ready to share it with more people.”
He’s the owner behind Hammarlund Nursery, which has been in the community since 1957, back when his parents, Joyce and Ken, started the business as a retail nursery in the middle of Esko.
Hammarlund remembers going to that nursery almost every day as a kid. And since then, he’s experienced the family business take on several different forms, including a sod farm in Wrenshall in the early 1970s before his family bought the property where the nursery sits.
“You don't realize that so much of your time on Earth has passed and then here you are with a forest that you were able to design yourself,” Hammarlund said, pointing to trees he planted as seedlings as a kid. “So it's really cool.”
These days, Hammarlund and his staff of four have many new projects in the works. They include growing his first crop of industrial hemp for a company that makes CBD products, establishing a small vineyard behind the nursery, assembling entertainment spaces and hosting events.
In June, he hosted a summer solstice supper that sold out prior to the night of the event. The evening was filled with fresh food, an old-time country and bluegrass band and a farm tour.
“It was totally successful. Everybody that came was very happy,” Hammarlund said of the summer solstice supper.
A few months before the supper, Hammarlund and a friend built an outdoor stage out of cedar logs from the property and a refurbished tin roof from a nearby barn that collapsed under snow last winter.
Hammarlund grows his specialty crop of heirloom tomatoes in a greenhouse connected to his house. It’s also the site of an indoor stage in the case of rained-out events. He hopes to lease the entertainment sites to people who want to hold food-related events.
“We're not going to be a caterer or a chef or have a commercial kitchen or anything like that, so it's just the space available for food events,” Hammarlund said.
The greenhouse can also make a great site for a pop-up yoga class, like the one Julie Deters instructed this spring among Hammarlund’s tomatoes.
Hammarlund sells about 4,000 pounds of tomatoes a summer, primarily to Northern Waters Smokehaus and Lake Avenue Restaurant and Bar, both in Duluth. After he meets the restaurants' demands, he calls up customers interested in buying his tomatoes. Anyone can be on that list, he said.
The jump from growing heirloom tomatoes to learning how to grow industrial hemp, both without using chemical fertilizer, is a fairly intuitive jump for Hammarlund. Still, it comes with its challenges. He’s in his first season of growing industrial hemp after Liquid Lion, a Minneapolis-based company that makes CBD products, approached Hammarlund about growing the crop.
“To grow for CBD is way more complicated than one might think,” Hammarlund said.
That’s because hemp seeds can produce male and female plants, but only the female plants create the oils with medicinal qualities. This means male seedlings need to be weeded out. Otherwise the male and female seeds will mix to produce seeds instead.
The Minnesota Department of Agriculture authorized Hammarlund to grow industrial hemp for a part of a pilot program to study the growth, cultivation and marketing of the crop. First-time applicants into the program must pass a criminal background check. Growers are also subject to state inspections.
The 2014 Farm Bill allowed states to start a pilot project and Minnesota received its permit from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in 2016 to start a statewide pilot program. The 2018 Farm Bill legalized industrial hemp as a crop.
In addition to growing industrial hemp and making the nursery more accessible to the public, Hammarlund is also in the midst of establishing a vineyard on the property. He plans to have St. Croix Vineyards make a unique brand of wine using grapes from his vineyard.
“Eventually, we'd like to have a vineyard tasting room here, too,” Hammarlund said. “We've already talked to the town board about it and we're still in the process of getting the correct licensing for the vineyard and so on.”
He also collects pollen from mugo pine trees on his property to make a health supplement filled with amino acids called pine pollen tincture, under the brand name Utopia Borealis.
Hammarlund said he always knew he wanted to stay with the family business and work with plants since he was a kid working for his parents. He remembers riding the school bus and watching for his favorite spots on the route where he could identify maple trees and other plants from the bus window.
“I wanted to work with plants and I was always excited,” Hammarlund said. “It's been a really great journey and I feel so lucky to be where I'm at, but I can tell you the amount of work is a lot. It's seriously a lot.”
His mother, Joyce, retired, but still does the bookkeeping for the nursery. His father, also named Ken, more or less retired from a partnering business called Hammarlund Landscaping 10 years ago. They often combined forces on projects, including landscaping at Bayfront Festival Park in Duluth, his favorite project to date.