Sarah Joy Wexler-Mann and husband Daniel Drazkowski are the owners of the Sweet 16 Farm loaded on Highway 16 near Houston.
TCR/CHAD SMITH
Sarah Joy Wexler-Mann and husband Daniel Drazkowski are the owners of the Sweet 16 Farm loaded on Highway 16 near Houston. TCR/CHAD SMITH
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At first glance, the Sweet 16 Farm looks like many area farms, with a tidy house at its center and outbuildings on all sides.

 On closer inspection, however, it’s clear this is no typical operation. There are no visible corn and soybean fields, there’s a noticeable lack of livestock, and just off the farmyard, strange-looking green vines snake their way up towering ropes and poles.

While the Sweet 16 Farm may not look like others in the neighborhood, it’s very much a working farm. It’s also the realization of a dream by owners Sarah Joy Wexler-Mann and her husband, Daniel Drazkowski, who bought the property in 2010.

 “It was a dairy farm until 1994,” Drazkowski said. “And then they basically had wild beef cattle on the farm. It took a while to get them all off the property. They were running wild, cutting trails through the property, and a lot of them had calves. They didn’t want to leave, either.

Despite the challenges, the couple saw much potential in their purchase. The 240 acres includes a beautiful bluff-top prairie that hadn’t been farmed in years.

“The possibilities of the property were limitless,” Wexler-Mann said. “We couldn’t go wrong here so we started with doing renovations. We’re not where we want it yet, but taking baby steps to get there.”

Wexler-Mann also serves as the Houston Chamber Director. She’s an avid gardener that grew up in the Twin Cities, but has dreamed about living on a farm since elementary school. Drazkowski grew up in the Winona area. Since purchasing the farm, Wexler-Mann’s gardens have grown large enough that they’re now selling produce. The farm does have some tillable acres, which the couple rents to an organic dairy farmer.

And those odd-looking vines you can see from the road are hops; the crop that brewers use to give beer its flavor. Wexler-Mann and Drazkowski learned about hops farming in a Farm Beginnings Class through the Land Stewardship Project.  

“We picked something we were interested in,” Wexler-Mann said.  “My husband is a home brewer and we’re both craft beer enthusiasts. The craft beer industry is growing by leaps and bounds in Minnesota and there are other hop fields springing up. We were in it early, before there was a lot of information about hops out there. We experimented in the first year to see what types of hops work best in our area.”

The Sweet 16 farm features three rows of Cascade hops, one of the most popular varieties. They also grow Newport hops, which Wexler-Mann says have an interesting flavor. The farm is  in its third year of growing hops,  which is typically how long it takes for the crop to fully mature.

“It’s the first year we have a fully mature hops field,” Wexler-Mann said, “so we’re hosting a Hop Harvest Fest. It’s a lot of work to harvest all the hops. We’re partnering with Island City Brewing to host a Hop Harvest Fest on Saturday, August 26th. The public is invited to come out and help us with harvest that day from 3 to 11 pm. We’ll have live music, a food truck, camping available, and a disc golf tournament.”

 Drazkowski said the choice to grow hops was easy because the craft beer industry was taking off in Minnesota. The hops plants first send out shoots in late April or early May, with harvest generally close to Labor Day. He had to trim some of the first shoots back in May because they were hollow in the middle.

“They break off too easily, and they don’t set as many cones,” Drazkowski said, “When the plant comes fully mature after three years, that’s when the hops are at their optimum flavor, which is what beer makers want.”

The Sweet 16 Farm also features a disc golf course, which the couple built between the outbuildings and the woods. Wexler-Mann has also expanded her flower gardens, which provide another source of income.

“We’re out at our farm stand (right along the highway) selling produce and flowers Friday nights and Saturday mornings,” she said. “I do a weekly drop-off to the food co-op in Houston, and I’m just starting a drop-off at the food co-op in Lacrosse. Those are our primary markets right now.”

There are no current plans to expand the hops yard, but Wexler-Mann intends to grow flower sales in the years ahead.

While the couple acknowledges the hard work –it’s taken to realize their dream, they admit one thing—coming up with a name—was pretty easy.

“We are the Sweet 16 farm because we’re right on Highway 16,” Wexler-Mann laughed. “I have a background in marketing and branding, so we just want to let folks know who we are and what we do.”

The Sweet 16 Farm is at 21215, State Highway 16, near Houston. For more information on the Hop Harvest 2017, visit their website at www.sweet16farm.com/hops.