gallery Grow: Talking Change with Gabe Sehr, Organic Farmer

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I’m sweaty, I’m pissed, and I’m two hours late. This was definitely not how I planned to arrive at Que Sehra Farm. But — at least I’m here. And I know I’m at the right address because, halfway up the gravel gulley of a driveway, I see farm equipment on my right and a great, wild garden on my left.

I park next to the garden and get out of my car, broiling in the afternoon sun. Silence. No movement anywhere except oak trees rustling. Great. I’m late, and my interviewee is nowhere to be found.

Determined to salvage the hot mess this interview has become, I make my way further up the gravel path, toward a cluster of buildings at the top of a tree-covered hill. My feet slide around in my flats. Gravel lodges between my toes. I just want to be home, eating cookies in bed, and here I am trudging up Mount Kilimanjaro. Boo. Ugh. This sucks. What did I do to deserve this?

About halfway up, I hear a frenzy of barking swell from the buildings. A cavalcade of dogs rushes down to greet me, and behind them, finally, actually, for real, I see Gabe Sehr walking toward me.

“Hey,” he says casually.

“Hey,” I say casually, but inside I’m fangirling like a Tumblr teen who just met Captain America. My bad mood melts away in a flash. I just met Max Action in the flesh. Oh. My. Gosh.

I guess my reaction needs some backstory: let’s start from the beginning.

Back to Max Action

Back in the late 90s/early aughts, “Max Action” had a website called Action Squad – stories of his adventures in local abandoned buildings with a loose group of friends who called themselves, fittingly, the Action Squad. They wormed their way through storm sewers into long-lost car factories. They rappelled down dead elevator shafts to see what was at the bottom. They infiltrated the byways of Northrup Hall itself in order to romp nude upon its august stage. (Actually Max did that alone. Which should only increase your respect.)

Anyway, the Action Squad was awesome, and even got written up in Minnesota magazines a few times for said awesomeness. They were, and are, the face of urban exploration in the Twin Cities; it’s fair to say that much of the urbex that happens here now takes inspiration from their exploits.

When I found the Action Squad website a couple years ago, I was awestruck, astonished, bedazzled, amazed. I didn’t just think the Action Squad was cool. I wanted to be them, slinking through off-limits places in their big punk boots and baggy 90s flannels, evading police and security by the skin of their teeth. They were, in a nutshell, the baddest asses.

An Unexpected Discovery

So you can imagine my confusion when I discovered that their ringleader, the man, the myth, the legend, Max himself, had given up his seat as King of the Twin Cities Underground and moved to Podunk, I mean, Wolf Creek, Wisconsin to become…a vegetable farmer. Named Gabe.

Listen, I’m not knocking vegetable farmers. They’re important. We need more of them. They grow our food, after all, and when the apocalypse comes, they’re probably going to become our sustenance-controlling overlords.

But here, now, pre-apocalypse, vegetable farmers honestly don’t seem that exciting. And yet Max Action had chosen the #veglife, out of all the options available to him. It didn’t make sense to me. Who trades police chases for squash bug manhunts?

When I checked, I found he had a new website, too – all about crop cycles and weed problems and cutworm invasions happening on his new farm, Que Sehra. I scrolled through it. Lots of advice for his Minnesota CSA customers. Serving ideas for seasonal vegetables. Watermelon ice recipes. Tips for making kale edible. I mean…that’s great, man, but you used to post stories about sneaking past security guards to climb into tunnels filled with live electrical cables.

So I really wanted to see this farm of his, to see what had drawn him there and kept him there. I emailed him a visit request and that, dear reader, is how I found myself following Gabe Sehr, née Max Action, up a hill and through the woods on the farm that he now calls home.

Growing for a Minnesota CSA…The Post-Punk Way

Gabe takes me on a grand tour of the place. It looks like a punk house from 90s Portland exploded over ten acres of oak woodland. A doll slumps on a wheel of hose, staring bleakly into the forest with battered eyes. A shopping cart/wing nut sculpture stands in the middle of a freewheeling flower garden. A model Star Wars Walker stands guard on top of the wood shed. There’s a Buddhist prayer flag festooned on the chicken yard fence. I feel like Alice in Wonderland.

We walk into a giant, rooty-smelling shipping container crammed with stuff. Farm implements. Building materials. Old lamps, cabinets, furniture, all shoved in any which way.

“This is where we keep all the supplies. The necessaries,” he says. We venture further in. He gestures to a pile of fabric. “And that’s a sloth costume.”

Taking the Plunge into Wolf Creek

Gabe and his wife, Kristin, have only lived on this property for two years. The first year was hard. Plants grew apathetically and there was no running water. (They have a well and solar power now, along with a series of pipes that run downhill from the well to irrigate the garden.)

On top of that, they weren’t sure what they were doing – Gabe in particular. Kristen had spent time interning on local farms, but he had barely kept houseplants alive. He was good at making things, though, and he became the driving force behind the buildings that have sprouted up all over the farm.

Those buildings say a lot about the farm. They’re all soft-edged, worn-in. Made from materials on their second life. They look like they’ve sprouted straight from the piles of useful junk lying everywhere. I’ve always loved places like this – places where you know living is happening because there are signs of it all over.

Looking around, it’s easier and easier to understand why Gabe Sehr shed Max Action to come here. A transition from abandoned places to a farm glowing with life. The chance to turn someone else’s castoffs to use instead of just rummaging through them. And the analogies mesh nicely with Gabe’s own understanding of the change in his identity. “I spent a long time working on rejecting all the shit I didn’t like — and, eventually, realized it was now time to build up some alternatives and live them out – and not just get stuck at rejection and anger. All that deconstruction and angst was a necessary and good phase, but at some point it became a rut.”

That realization was the seed from which Que Sehra grew, but getting to the point of action didn’t come easily. “The final steps involved letting go of a lot of fear,” he says. “It seemed terrifying to consider deliberately leaving the safety net of a good career and a familiar, comfortable life.”

Put in that context, the move to rural Wisconsin starts to seem less like a wade into a sleepy backwater and more like a leap into a fast-moving river studded with alligators. The straw hat feels a lot less Mayberry when it’s protecting you from heat that wants to wither your cash crops into crisps. It’s a bigger dare than any week you might spend mapping the corridors of a deserted asylum. Gabe explains it best: “It’s adventure, on a deeper and broader level than a night underground.”

I’ve been on the farm less than an hour, but I think I’m starting to get it.

It Was the Mayo that Blew my Mind

I meet Kristin, who is Gabe’s polar opposite. She’s quiet and sun-browned, with sleek hair tucked in an unpretentious bun. (Hair says everything about their personalities: hers is under control, his is a graying dandelion puff.)

The goal for tonight is to get peas picked for the farmer’s market the next morning. The plan was to pick them before dinner, but it’s already late. They decide to put the pea-picking off till after we eat.

This makes me weirdly anxious. I came to work. I’ve changed into leather boots, my trustiest yoga pants and two sports bras so…I mean business. And I expected business. I grew up on and around hobby farms and I’ve done pretty much everything – weeded gardens, harvested fruit, processed chickens, dug holes, fixed fencing. It was all hard work, done on a schedule with time always nipping at your heels. And that was on hobby farms – Que Sehra is Gabe and Kristin’s livelihood. I’ve mentally prepared myself for sweaty, agonizing, seemingly-endless labor. WHY are we eating dinner when the peas are shriveling on their vines?

I’m self-aware enough to avoid criticizing Gabe and Kristin’s farming methods, so I sit down to dinner without voicing my concerns. Score one for my social skills, score zero for the harrying demon of my Protestant work ethic.

Dinner is a straightforward pasta and veggie salad, made far more delicious that it has a right to be with a homemade mayo dressing. I praise Kristin’s cooking skills and ask if she has a food processor. She smiles vaguely. “No…just a whisk and lots of arm strength,” she says. For some reason, this detail pushes me over the edge of disbelief. I can’t even with this place.

It shouldn’t work. None of this should work. Mayo should not make a salad taste this good. Kristen shouldn’t be this calm about making mayonnaise by hand. (If I made mayonnaise by hand, you would never hear the end of it.) You shouldn’t be able to break even on an organic farm after only two seasons, having begun with no knowledge and the motto “What will be, will be.” You shouldn’t be able to water an entire field of vegetables using only gravity. Like…that’s not how it works. Functionality has to be more complicated than this. More difficult. There’s got to be engines or wiring or computer chips or slave labor involved somewhere. What are they going to do when the gravity runs out?

More seriously, what are they going to do when they run out, when their bodies run out? What if the money runs out? The prospect of being, say, seventy-five, with no retirement account is chilling. It’s the reason I work a mildly soul-sucking marketing job – so I can have money when I need it. What will Gabe and Kristin do when they need it? Trade zucchini for hip transplants?

Of course, the answer is clear even before I voice the question. It’s in the farm’s name. Que sera, sera. What will be, will be. This spring, when it seems like the crops would fail, Gabe and Kristin kept cheerful by pretending they were performance artists, playing at play ruin on a play farm. Am I the only one who’s awed by the sheer guts it takes to toss your fate in the air like that?

After dinner, we go out and pick peas. I venture some comment about proper pea presentation and marketing. Gabe laughs. “We could pick these peas with our butts and people would still buy them.”

Someone observes that they would probably pay more. Jokes are made about gardening fetishes. The peas get picked.

Rumination & Fear in the Rust Shack

Gabe introduces me to the place I’ll be sleeping. “This is the Rust Shack,” he explains as we amble toward it. “Some people call it the Murder Shack.”

Good to know.

“Because it looks like a place you’d get murdered, not because anyone has died in it.”

Okay, great.

But the Rust Shack is beautiful. It’s made out of a discarded playset and scavenged pallets, and Gabe’s sided it with circular sheets of metal pulled from old cars he found in the words. It looks like the walls are coated in scales.

You go inside and it’s decorated with antlers and old coffee cans and hawk feathers. There’s a chair and a mirror and a loft bed draped in green mosquito netting. You can lay in bed and watch the night sky through the transparent plastic roof. Did I say it’s beautiful? Because it’s beautiful and it’s art and it’s honestly such a strange experience for me to be somewhere where people create art just for the sake of beauty.

It’s a little much to process in one night, so I try to go to sleep. It’s not easy, especially since I’m sure every sound I hear is the footstep of a redneck ax killer come to give the Murder Shack a proper christening. I text frantically, willing my battery not to die and leave me alone in Nature’s leafy, voracious grasp. Eventually, I do fall asleep, clutching my phone like a teddy bear.

Economics

The next morning, I’m awakened by the rooster crowing. (Yes, really.) I walk down to the garden, where Gabe and Kristin are prepping vegetables for the farmer’s market.

The peppers are proving problematic. Kristin can’t decide how much to charge for them. “Fifty cents? Is that ridiculous?” She picks up a pepper, hefts it. “This pepper isn’t worth fifty cents. Maybe it’s worth thirty cents.”

She looks to Gabe, who shrugs and observes that he’d feel guilty if they made any money off them. I honestly can’t tell if he’s joking.

Back to the Future

I was telling a guy about Que Sehra recently and his reaction, quick as lightning, was a scoffing “Yeah, let’s see how long that lasts.”

So how long WILL it last?

I don’t know the answer. I don’t know if Gabe and Kristin know the answer. But I do know the way they live is beautiful. And brave. And if they could, say, pickle that bravery and give it to me in a Mason jar – well, I’d take it. Eagerly.

If you want to follow along with Gabe and Kristin’s Que Sehra ventures, or sign up for their Minnesota CSA (they deliver to Minneapolis), check out their website or like their Facebook page. They’re both pretty cool.

If you’re looking for more in-depth stories about cool Minnesota people, check out my  interview with Toussaint Morrison! And drop by soon for my next Minnesota Person of Interest interview. I’ll be talking to Joel Dueck, a fantastic local blogger, about our weird Christian fundie childhoods.

Here’s more on local exploration:
Exploration: Abandoned Houses in Small Towns
Exploration: An Abandoned Farmstead with a Fantastic Dairy Barn
Exploration: Abandoned Houses in Small Towns
Exploration: Stuff I’ve Done/Seen in the Twin Cities Recently
Exploration: Checking Out a Modern Abandoned Building

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