Mairi Doerr: Dancing with goats

Mairi Doerr of Dancing Winds Farm. Photo courtesy of Mairi Doerr.

Making a profit, taking care of the environment and quality of life. Balance all three of these components and you’re good.

– Mairi Doerr

“I wanna grow tomatoes on the front steps.
Sunflowers, bean sprouts, sweet corn and radishes.
I feel pro-active
I pull out weeds
All of a sudden
I’m having trouble breathing in.” 

— Courtney Barnett, “Avant Gardener”

The singer and recording artist Courtney Barnett turned her experience of having an asthma attack into a song. Mairi Doerr turned an asthmatic reaction to pesticides into the inspiration for a new lifestyle. Over nearly three decades at Dancing Winds Farm, near the southeastern Minnesota town of Kenyon, that lifestyle has evolved – from bed-and-breakfast proprietor to goat farmer and commercial cheesemaker to farmstay host – but Doerr’s determination to live in harmony with the land has been a constant.

Doerr had been working as a greenhouse grower and landscaper in the Twin Cities for a decade when she experienced a reaction to pesticides she had used on the job, and landed in the emergency room. Hospitalized for six days, “I took stock,” she recalls. She wasn’t making much money, and working in conventional horticulture was taking a toll on her health. “I realized this was not a good path to be on.” She went back to school and retrained to be a computer programmer, but recognized after two years it was not a good fit.

“I started to follow my passion,” she says. What she really loved was being outdoors. She worked as a canoe guide and led wilderness trips, and in early 1985 got to spend six months “farmsitting” her uncle’s farm near Hamel, west of the Twin Cities. She was hooked. She teamed up with a friend and started looking for a farm to buy.

A place on the prairie

Finances dictated that she find a livable farmhouse with land suitable for immediate farming, preferably close to her Twin Cities network of friends and family. She and her partner looked at 30 to 40 places before they decided on what is now Dancing Winds Farm. The small community was welcoming, and she loved the seven-gabled house with its open porches, the location just an hour and a half from the Twin Cities, and the expanse of sky. The name “Dancing Winds” was inspired in part by the baby goats that soon danced on the pastures, but also by the prairie winds themselves. They closed on the property in September 1985, and after some repairs to a leaky roof, welcomed their first guests soon after.

Doerr and her partner started farming organic vegetables along with running a B&B, but she also wanted access to fresh goat’s milk because of her allergies. Her first goats, Ida and Yogurt, were gifts, and a third soon followed. That quickly multiplied to nine goats, and within two years to 27. “We couldn’t drink that much milk!” Doerr recalls, and regulations didn’t allow them to advertise the milk for sale. So in 1987 she started making goat cheese. Their first barn had burned down that spring, so they added a cheese plant to the replacement building. At first, the distributor who bought their vegetables sold the cheese to co-ops and some high-end restaurants, but eventually Doerr found greater reward in selling directly to customers at farmers markets.

Finding a balance

Throughout her journey – from responsible horticulturalist to family farmer – sustainable philosophies emerged. Doerr uses a metaphor of a three-legged milking stool: Making a profit, taking care of the environment and quality of life. “Balance all three of these components and you’re good,” she says. “Make one more important than another, and you may fall off.”

In 1996, the growing register of guest visitors, requests for educational opportunities, and Doerr’s ongoing quest for a balanced and sustainable work/life balance prompted a major renovation to the original 1856 farmhouse. Dancing Winds has morphed into a farmstay, where guests can choose to feed the animals and help with chores, and now have their own kitchens to prepare meals. Trails in the woods and along fields, plus two labyrinths allow visitors to strike out on their own for adventure or contemplation. The visitors kept coming, and over the years, couples have turned into families who have turned into generations.

In 2003, Doerr retired from commercial cheesemaking, “passing the baton” to Singing Hills Goat Dairy in Nerstrand. Her dairy goats have been replaced by African Boer goats, which are raised for meat.

Now in her 60s, Doerr is running the operation with her fiancee, a chef, and contemplating Dancing Winds’ next transition. Her journey to creating “place” continues with lessons learned and memories made, but perhaps most importantly, with an ongoing dream to live in balance with the land.

FFI: Dancing Winds Farmstay,