Meet the teenager who has an incredible vision for organic farming!
by Alyssa Zaczek – SCtimes.com
Alex Bertsch is just your average 16-year-old organic farmer.
“All of my friends are going out on the weekends, but I’m at home staying up until two or three in the morning washing my greens,” says Bertsch, flashing a shy smile. He owns and operates Epic by Nature, a half-acre organic farm on his grandfather’s 15-acre property in Milaca.
The farm, which is tended entirely by Bertsch, does not use pesticides, herbicides or chemical fertilizers on any of the crops, and he is passionate about using non-GMO seeds. He sells produce at a Sauk Rapids farmers market and to a downtown St. Cloud restaurant.
“I’m planting a lot of open-pollinated, heirloom and hybrid varieties,” Bertsch says. “I’m using manures, composts and wood chips to build the soil instead of just spraying a chemical on the soil. I’m actually building the soil, putting a lot of compost in to build up the fungal colonies and bacterial colonies in the soil.”
A junior at Sartell-St. Stephen High School, Bertsch throws around terms like “non-GMO” and “fungal colonies” with the confidence and knowledge of someone who has been farming all their life. And, technically, he has been farming for most of his life; his interest in farming began at 10 years old, when an activity book sparked something greater.
“I was reading one of those survival guides, and it had a blueprint for a water filter. So I made it, but I used popcorn as one of the layers in the filter. When the popcorn got wet, it all disintegrated and I could see the seeds.” Intrigued, Bertsch “raided the house for black beans and pinto beans to plant.”
His parents allowed him a 30-by-10-foot plot “in the most undesirable part of the yard,” according to Bertsch. He began planting there and grew his interest in organic farming through YouTube videos and podcasts produced by start-up farmers.
His mother, Carolyn Bertsch, expressed wonder at her son’s resourcefulness. “I don’t have any idea how he made things grow in that plot, but he figured it out. The seeds he planted he bought with his own money, or what he harvested from my fridge.”
She described one of her son’s projects that took place around the same time he began farming in their backyard, in which he rigged up an organic fertilization and filtration system using a pond insert, an old water softener, pieces of gutter, Solo cups and plastic tubing.
“He put goldfish in the pond insert and controlled what they were eating by making their food,” says Carolyn. “And because he didn’t have the resources or money to buy seeds, he was growing things he found in my pantry, like pinto beans and garlic. There was a time where you’d hit the bottom step in our house and just get smacked in the face with the smell, because Alex was growing garlic in his bedroom.”
Clearly, it was time for an upgrade.
Alex Bertsch’s goal with Epic by Nature is to bolster the environment, not strip it. A member of the competitive environmental knowledge team Envirothon, Bertsch is as conscientious as he is enterprising.
“It’s not like with conventional farming where you put it in the ground once and then you harvest it,” says Bertsch. “With my type of farming you’re out there every week, harvesting and rotating crops that demand a lot of attention.” Bertsch says the rotation of his crops is important to the ebb and flow of nutrients in the soil.
“It’s natural, it’s also regenerative. I’m trying to plant in a way that actually helps the soil instead of taking away tons of nutrients. So people can feel good, that they’re buying something that actually gave back to the earth instead of took away from it.”
Although Bertsch says science and history are among his favorite subjects, his agricultural knowledge is self-taught, and with college on the horizon he is considering a business major.
“It’s really easy to put something in the ground, but a lot harder to get into the business side of things.”
But for now, business is booming for Bertsch, who sells his greens and veggies at the Sauk Rapids farmers market every Saturday.
“I have a couple of regular people who come to the farmers market and buy my greens every week,” says Bertsch. “There’s one woman who put my spinach into her son’s lasagna. She was sneaking it in!”
The Central Perk coffee shop in downtown St. Cloud will be the first restaurant to purchase greens from the teen.
“In the fall we hope to start switching some of our (produce) over to his organics,” says Alan Scherr, who co-owns Central Perk with his wife, Odessa. “He’s a very, very nice young kid. Very good for the community.”
Central Perk is making special efforts to accommodate Bertsch’s produce; the cost of buying local organic produce is significantly higher than buying corporate-grown.
“We’re working on it. We’re trying to figure out how to factor it into our pricing without having a huge increase,” says Scherr. “But it’s local, so I really like the idea of it. Hopefully, in time, if a lot of us (work to buy local), it will bring the cost down, because right now, to buy local, it has a huge price tag.”
Bertsch has aspirations of expanding the farm in size and hiring employees. In the meantime, he is focused on creating the healthiest produce he can, for both the environment and the human body. A swimmer who also runs track, Bertsch feels strongly about helping people live healthier lifestyles.
“I’m not using pesticides, or spraying my greens with all kinds of chemicals that are then getting into your own body. And who knows what kind of havoc that’s wreaking on your body?” Bertsch shakes his head. “I want people to feel good about eating my produce.”
And Bertsch himself feels “pretty good” about his success so far.
“I’ve been trying to get more knowledge than sales. ‘Learning before earning’ is the phrase I’m always trying to incorporate into my life. I’ve really had a good time experiencing not only the high points but the low points. Sometimes it really, really sucks when it’s 1 a.m. and I’m only halfway done prepping for the next day, when I wake up early and make a couple hundred bucks at the market. But I feel really blessed that I’ve been given all these opportunities. It’s not just me, it’s everyone who has given me the opportunity to do what I’ve wanted to do since I was 10 years old.”
“I do it to not only grow food, but grow community and grow great, organic, sustainable, affordable food for everybody, so everybody can live epically.”