Project organic

It was a dark Sunday night in July 2004 when Minneapolis chefs Philip and Desiree Dorwart drove up to the farmstead that would become their Wadena home. The couple discovered the 35-acre property only that evening after taking a wistful glance in...

It was a dark Sunday night in July 2004 when Minneapolis chefs Philip and Desiree Dorwart drove up to the farmstead that would become their Wadena home. The couple discovered the 35-acre property only that evening after taking a wistful glance in a real estate guide while staying at a cabin near Perham. They called Albers Realty and headed out for a visit.

"We pulled up to the driveway and ... holy mackerel, everything seemed to be falling apart," Philip said about their initial impression.

The 1867 farmhouse was covered in gray asphalt siding. Junk filled both the original house and an addition on the north end. Three feet of manure filled the barn.

Although the abandoned buildings and land bore ample evidence of a decade and a half of neglect, the visionary Dorwarts saw potential in the peaceful property.

"Just the presence ... spoke to us," Desiree said.


Beautiful trees and remnants of fencing lent personality to the place, she said.

"It had a feeling as if it had been loved once," Desiree said. "When you go into a place with ... that kind of allure you kind of get sucked in."

The charming country place sucked the Dorwarts not only into a rural oasis, but into a whole new life -- an existence that is centered on quality of life rather than the hectic work schedule they worked in the restaurant business. In Wadena, Philip, 35, and Desiree, 36, have built a farm dedicated to holistic land management. And they have discovered a sense of freedom and community that contrasts to their life in Minneapolis. A few surprises along the way, including the original structure of the home, have also validated their adventure in farmland ownership.

Both of the Dorwarts have a background in the culinary arts. The busyness of their careers and a love for locally grown organic produce played a role in their move to join the ranks of rural farmers.

Philip served as head chef at Table of Contents in Minneapolis where he won Restaurateur of the Year 2002 and Best Chef awards. Desiree is a culinary instructor at The Art Institutes International Minnesota. She also has a bachelor's degree in psychology and is obtaining her doctor of psychology degree.

At one time Philip ran two restaurants, which Desiree helped him open. He worked an "ungodly" number of hours ranging from 65 to 110 hours per week, they said. And when he wasn't at work he was getting phone calls.

"We just wanted to spend more time together in a quality setting," Desiree said.

The couple got out of the restaurant business and began their own catering company called Create. They also recently opened a new dining studio in Minneapolis to rent to private parties. Owning their own business allows for greater flexibility in their schedules, particularly for Philip.


Restaurant work is really hard, Desiree said. They wanted to slow their pace of life down and learn to appreciate every day. Farming Beginnings classes run through the Land Steward Project helped them to define this quality of life goal.

"So once we found this," Desiree said about the farm. "That's quality of life for us, is having this project we can work on together."

The "project" Desiree and Philip are working on, encompasses their future career goals and the renovation of the farmhouse into their permanent home. The farming classes they took after buying the land introduced them to established farmers. It also helped them to understand what is involved with different farming practices.

Right now they have decided to develop a small grass-fed beef operation over the next several years, Philip said. They would also like to eventually make artisan cheeses. Building the farm and renovating their home and the barn is part of a 10-year plan, he said.

The couple named their property Gemini Farms and are currently growing organic vegetables for use in their catering business and for sale to restaurants and friends in the Twin Cities.

They have used the "astronomical" amount of manure left in the barn to replenish the depleted sandy soil in their garden, Philip said. The Dorwarts grow heirloom varieties of tomatoes, beets and carrots. They also grow chard, Japanese cucumbers, amaranth and six kinds of potatoes including Yukon gold, three kinds of fingerlings and red and purple potatoes. In addition to cultivating their garden they have discovered wild fruits and vegetables on their property including plums, raspberries, asparagus and grapes.

Maintaining the natural state of the farm and using sustainable farming methods are important to the Dorwarts.

They don't mow a lot so there are natural grasses for the insects to live in rather than making their home in the garden.


"Why run your mower if you don't have to," Philip said. "To us it looks great."

Desiree added, "I like it natural."

Not all wild elements on their property are welcome, though. The Dorwarts are glad their dogs Dulse and Tank enjoy chasing rabbits and deer. Dulse in particular is a good rabbit catcher, Desiree said.

Many of the box elders that grow like weeds on their farm have faced the unwelcome edge of Philip's chain saw.

Certain natural elements haven't been the only potentially unwelcome parts of the farm. When they first arrived some people thought that one of the man-made elements on their property, the farmhouse, would be best turned into firewood. The decision to preserve the building led to a very pleasant surprise for the Dorwarts, however.

Initially the couple's realtor encouraged them to have the fire department burn the house down at little or no charge. But the structure appeared fairly sound to the Dorwarts. The roof lines were mostly straight and there wasn't any sagging, Philip said. The couple kept working on the house.

They were ripping off paneling one day, Philip said, when they made their big discovery.

"Suddenly it was like wait a minute, is this brick? What is this?" he recalled.


They soon realized that logs were the architectural material hidden underneath layers of wallpaper and plaster.

"We were like a log house, how cool is that," Philip said.

The project changed from deconstruction to renovation, Desiree said.

And Philip declared their log home to be "the greatest fort ever."

They plan to restore their farmhouse to its "original glory," Desiree said.

The couple have worked hard to remove the junk from the original log house. They have made quite a few friends at the dump, they said, after hauling many loads of garbage. They will eventually tear down the addition constructed of regular stick framing and reuse whatever material they can in building a new addition, Desiree said.

Friends and family have been generous in donating materials for their renovation and lending a helping hand in the big project, they said. A graphic artist friend from Baltimore, Md., chef friends from Minnesota and some of Desiree's students have all made the trip to stay and even work on the farm.

They have to share their vision of the place to those who visit the property, obviously, Philip said.


Some family members have been less enthused than others about the Dorwarts' farm project.

When Desiree's grandmother came to visit for the first time she reacted with a half hour of laughter, Philip said.

"She was like 'oh my god what have you done?'" he said.

Her grandmother once lived on a farm and knows what the lifestyle is like, Desiree said. Her dad was also a little leery of the project.

"He was like 'how are you going to do this?'" she said.

Now he enjoys the project right along with his daughter and son-in-law. He and his wife live in Hawley, Minn. They visit for weekends of playing horseshoes and scrabble, Desiree said. They have also generously given things like windows for the house and lots of advice.

Family members and out-of-town friends aren't the only ones who have lent a helping hand with the project. The advice and friendship of the Dorwarts' Wadena neighbors have been an integral part of their renovation of the farm.

"They've been just gracious, super gracious," Desiree said.


They protect their property when they're not there, she said. And the Dorwarts let a couple of neighbors use parcels of their property to keep their horses.

"It's such a community here," she said. "We really appreciate the giving and taking by neighbors."

A sense of small town community is more familiar to Desiree who grew up in the small town of Hawley. For Philip, who grew up in the suburbs of Washington D.C., and Minneapolis, the local culture is a little more foreign.

"We had suburban community," he said. "Small town community is a very different thing, especially when you're outsiders."

They live on a dead-end road and were a little amused at some of the attention they received starting the first week they were there. People kept driving by to watch them and see what was going on, Desiree said.

"It was funny," Philip said. "There was activity at the 'old Marker place.'"

It has been great to have people stop by, though, he said.

The affable chefs have neighbors over for meals at their picnic table in the garden. They shop for groceries locally and particularly enjoy buying meat at the Grocery Store by Mason Bros. They shop for all their hardware needs in town. "It just ... helps us feel like part of the community," Philip said.

The Dorwarts enjoy getting some late night entertainment at the Cozy Theatre. And they have visited every eating establishment within a 20-mile radius. They also make the annual trip to the Wadena County Fair. This year's fair was the best one yet, they said.

The couple spend an average of two and half days a week at the farm, Philip said. They feel like they have shed city life by the time they hit St. Cloud.

"There's definitely sort of a lightness that comes over us," he said.

It feels like they have punched out and can go do whatever they want, he said.

Doing whatever they want usually includes some serious work on the farm, however.

The Dorwarts have acquired Cub Cadet and Farmall tractors. Desiree refers to them as Philip's toys while he offers up the reminder that they do a lot of work for them.

"You can't have just one tractor," he said with a smile. "It's kind of unacceptable I think."

Both of the Dorwarts enjoy the physical labor of working on the farm.

"I like the dirty part," Philip said. "Being sweaty and hot and dirty, you know you've done something."

Doing hot and sweaty chores is a lot like kitchen work, he said.

Desiree works hard at teaching and catering, but it isn't the same as farm work, she said.

"It's just different to just exhaust yourself ... to see the difference you've made," she said. "You feel like you've earned your bath, you've earned the things that you eat."

For the Dorwarts a nice, hot bath has become their reward at the end of the day. They have no plumbing on the farm, though. A porta potty sits by the house and they had to make their own special bathing area.

The couple created a literal "hot" tub by placing a remnant tub on their property over a fire. They wove willows around box elder posts for privacy creating a wicker basket effect.

It's a three-hour process to get the coals just right to heat the water properly, they said. But it's worth the effort.

Having a beer in the tub is as "good as it gets," Philip said.

The Dorwarts admit their rural home is only a couple of steps above camping.

"[It's] like camping with electricity," Philip said.

The discovery of power didn't occur until after their first summer on the farm. They spent the whole first season basically living on the concrete slab outside. They cooked outside and only went inside to sleep or if there was a storm.

The process of renovation has been slow, Philip said. They are not wealthy and have been doing the work themselves.

"That's half the fun," he said.

"That's the labor of love," Desiree added.

After lots of hard work and help from old friends and new neighbors, the Dorwarts are beginning to see the results of their labor. They now live in a relatively mouse-free environment. The waterfalls that once poured through the kitchen ceiling are gone. And the induction ranges in the tiny log kitchen are surprisingly good cooking appliances for the accomplished chefs. They have even discovered the cellar is perfect for storing wines.

The Dowarts set out to create a better life for themselves. They are glad their night-time drive in search of real estate three years ago led to a home and a future in the community of Wadena.

Here they can roast a leg of lamb from Mason Bros. and enjoy a hot bath under the stars at the end of the day. They may only be at the beginning of their 10-year renovation plan, but it appears they already have the quality of life they wanted.

What To Read Next
Get Local