Kathy Draeger: From Urban Center to Rural Remote

When Kathy Draeger was last interviewed for the Minnesota Women’s Press in 2003, she was working on issues related to water quality and land restoration. She was the statewide director of the University of Minnesota’s regional sustainable development partnerships and adjunct professor of agronomy and plant genetics.

“When that article was written,” she says, “my family was living in the heart of St. Paul, and I was engaged in issues impacting both rural and urban environments. In 2007, we bought the family farm in rural Big Stone County Minnesota and moved our now family of five out to the western edge of the state and onto the Tallgrass Prairie.”

The farm is Draeger’s “real-world laboratory for sustainable farming practices, clean energy, and climate action,” says Draeger, who initially took a farm class with her husband from Land Stewardship Project to begin the journey and set goals for farm life. “This has been a grand adventure in farming, family, and community. Our goals included land and habitat restoration, clean energy, carbon sequestration, and healthy free-range kids,” she says. “One specific goal was to restore habitat on our farm and attract back the Meadowlarks, once abundant, that had been absent for decades. We are happy to report that the songs of the Meadowlarks are now common on our farm.”

The first winter Draeger and her family lived on the farm, they installed a wood boiler — a high efficiency outdoors furnace — in the backyard after deciding that the most climate friendly approach to heating their house would be to harvest dead trees from the property and use them for heating.

“Heating with standing dead wood is carbon neutral as the decomposing wood would emit carbon as well. During the heating months, the wood boiler heated our home and our hot water. In 2007, we filled the propane tank twice,” Draeger says. “We installed the wood boiler in 2008 and it would be another 10 years before we needed to put heating fuel into the propane tank.”

In 2009, Draeger decided to take 30 acres of farmland out of production and restore the wetland and upland habitat. It has since become home to migrating waterfowl, such as geese, swans, ducks and geese.

“It teems with life — frogs, birds, foxes, deer, as well as a lot of little critters,” Draeger says. “We invested the proceeds from putting the land into permanent habitat easement into a small, farm-sized wind turbine. The 10kW turbine provides all of the power we use on our farm and we are able to return some power to the grid.” They use grid power when the wind is not blowing.

Over the years, Draeger says they were able to certify 80 acres for organic crop production and have raised crops like edible black beans and barley. “In addition, we put about half of our farm into rotational grazing for grass-fed beef. Those paddocks have thrived with life, including an incredible diversity of pollinators, songbirds, and wildlife. We raise low-line Angus beef that grazes most of the year and then are fed organic hay from our farm in the winter,” she says. “As a soil scientist, I watched the changes to our soil health and soil carbon capture with great interest and even surprise.

“A couple years ago my husband handed me the soils analysis from four parts of our farm — two grazing paddocks and two organic row crop fields. When I read the results, I literally jumped off the couch in amazement.”

Draeger says that there are actions we all can take to have a positive impact on the planet, including purchasing food from local sources. “If you eat meat, check to see if it is 100 percent grass fed and local. If you have the opportunity to invest in community clean energy projects as the source of your energy, do that as well,” she says. “Since we have radiator heat in our home, our family has adapted to living without air conditioning, except in one room. There are small conservations that we can do every day if we all look at our habits and lives.”

Overall, Draeger says that living sustainably has had its challenges and has required a lot of time and labor, including multiple trips to the ER for stitches and broken bones. But, regardless, Draeger and her family have found success in their climate-friendly living.

“The move from urban center to remote and rural has been good for our family and this land,” she says. “We are grateful to be able to be a part of a rural community.”