Wiens’ passion is agronomy, research and much more

Teaching others about healthy eating and sustainability keeps him very busy 

By Tina SnellStaff Writer

Mel Wiens retired in 2001, but one would never know it by his busy schedule.

When Wiens left the University of Minnesota, he left with a degree in agriculture and his first job was teaching in Cannon Falls.

He learned that “Teaching high school classes was not for me,” he said.

It was in the early 1970s when Wiens and his wife, Lorna moved to the Staples area for his new job as research coordinator at Staples High School. That position transitioned to the Staples Community College.

Mel Wiens, Staples, points to his pasture, beyond his community supported agriculture plot, where he keeps his beef cattle.
Mel Wiens, Staples, points to his pasture, beyond his community supported agriculture plot, where he keeps his beef cattle.

“In the early 1980s, I had 35 researchers and 10 students working for me,” he said.

Wiens, originally from Mountain Lake near the Iowa border,  and Lorna purchased an eight-acre corner plot north of Staples.

“It couldn’t be irrigated because of the corner,” he said. “The owner wanted to get rid of it.”

Wiens named his little piece of land Acorn Ridge He remembers a neighbor he had as a child who had named his farm Oak Ridge. He always said he raised more ducks than anyone else in the area.

“That’s what I wanted to do, raise more ducks than anyone else,” he said. “And, if you use your imagination, there is a ridge in the pasture. Since I am a small operation, and acorns are small, I named my farm Acorn Ridge.”

While Wiens is involved in all manner of agriculture, his most recent claim to fame is being featured with Derek Olson, owner of The Bistro in Wadena, at the State Fair.

Olson learned about the 11th annual Minnesota Farmers Union Minnesota Cooks program and was interested in becoming a part of it.

Mel Wiens raises ducks and geese. The ducks are sold to individuals and to The Bistro in Wadena to be part of the menu.
Mel Wiens raises ducks and geese. The ducks are sold to individuals and to The Bistro in Wadena to be part of the menu.

Using those who support a sustainable food system, the event pairs farmers and chefs who use the farmer’s fresh food in their restaurants.

When Olson learned he was accepted as part of the program, he asked Wiens to come along as his farmer since he has supplied The Bistro with ducks for several years. Together they created a duck confit salad with wild rice. Confit is made with the leg of the duck, cured with salt and slowly cooked in its own fat. It was a hit with the crowds at the fair.

The event was set up outside the grandstand at the State Fair Aug. 25, and every hour different duos   would demonstrate cooking with locally grown or raised ingredients.

“This wasn’t a competition, but a demonstration,” said Wiens. “While Olson prepared the salad, I answered questions from the moderators. Then samples were passed to the audience.”

All the chefs and their local farmers educated the audience on using unusual items when cooking plus encouraged people to cook healthier using locally grown products.

“One chef used beef tongue and another used goat meat, cheese and milk,” said Wiens.

Wiens now works closely with small farms in the Staples and Verndale areas plus chairs the Staples Area Farmers Market Association which sponsors other markets in Verndale, Hewitt and Maddens Resort.

He also maintains a small community supported agriculture (CSA) garden, growing what people want.

“If I don’t have it, I can find it,” he said.

At Acorn Ridge, Wiens grows asparagus, rhubarb, radishes, spinach, romaine and lettuce. He offers beets, carrots, corn, melons and both summer and winter squash to his customers.

“It’s a diversified operation,” he said.

While he’s not an organic farmer, he does not use genetically modified seeds. He uses manure from the ducks and geese he raises to fertilize his land.

“I try to be as self sustaining as possible,” he said.

Wiens’ week is busy. On Tuesdays he works with the Statewide Health Improvement Program (SHIP) and Meals on Wheels in Verndale. The programs pay the farmers a set price per pound, determined each spring, for their goods.

The two programs supply food to people in both Wadena and Todd counties. Wiens also stops at the Verndale Farmers Market on Tuesdays to help.

On Wednesdays, Wiens is at the Farmers Marked in Hewitt and delivers to The Bistro in Wadena.

Friday, he delivers food to the Brainerd Hub system that sells to both restaurants and the Brainerd and Pierz school systems.

“I also collect produce from other local farmers who supply the Meals on Wheels and SHIP programs,” he said.

Wiens also sells produce to the Lakewood Health System in Staples.

“I wanted an active retirement and had a hankering to do this,” he said. “I loved the research and the testing of products when I was working, and have now extended my passion to Acorn Ridge.

Wiens raises about 100 – 150 ducks a year, some beef cattle, geese, has an apple and plum orchard and also supplies a few people with space to grow their own food.

He also still has his fingers in the dirt at Central Lakes College by growing and experimenting with alternative crops such as amaranth, tiff, white wheat, spelt, different cabbages and more.

Wiens also works with the University of Minnesota and its 4-H program.

Wiens passion is to educate others on sustainable farming and healthy eating.  He loves teaching about agronomy, while learning about new growing styles at the same time. With a hoop house on his land, and another in the works, he is teaching others the benefit of extending the growing season.