Marnie Lahtinen
John and Annie Carlson are the owners and operators of Mercer-based Morning Joy Farm, which they run on the community supported agriculture (CSA) model. (Submitted photo)

Grass-fed sheep at Morning Joy Farm. (Submitted photo)

Annie Carlson's commercial kitchen at Morning Joy Farm. (Submitted photo)

Farmer Annie Carlson hams it up for a selfie with a pet grass-fed cow. (Submitted photo)
"Big Dreamer" is Annie Carlson's job title at Morning Joy Farm, the business she owns and operates with her husband, John. His job title? "Voice of Reason."

"John keeps me grounded," Annie Carlson says, with laughter. "But sometimes I feel like he's the anchor I have to drag behind me."

One thing is certain: This farming couple is passionate about what they do, and a combination of their reasoning and dreaming got them to where they are today.

Morning Joy Farm is based in Mercer, N.D., on land that has been in Annie Carlson's family for four generations. The farm is run on a community supported agriculture (CSA) model, where a community of individuals pledge support to a farm operation, and the growers and consumers assume mutual support and risk for the benefits of food production.

"I love the CSA model and the customer involvement," Annie Carlson says emphatically. "John and I are not just some faceless cog in the wheel ... we are the wheel, and the customers are the wheel."

Both Annie and John Carlson grew up on conventional farms, and each developed a love for agriculture. The couple married in 2007 and settled on a quarter section of land (160 acres) near Gackle, N.D. Shortly afterward, when Annie became pregnant with the couple's first child, she started searching for ways she could work from home -- profitably.

"We knew we weren't going to make money farming conventionally on a quarter of land," she explains. So the duo started evaluating their options. It was while reading an entrepreneur's how-to book that Annie found her CSA inspiration.

"I read Joel Salatin's 'You Can Farm' in a weekend," she recalls. "It's 486 pages and there's gold in every bit of it."

After a successful launch with a vegetable CSA in 2008, the Carlsons added pastured poultry to the mix the next year. In 2012, they relocated to the farmstead where Annie grew up in Mercer and have since added pastured eggs, pastured pork, pastured turkey and grass-fed lamb to their product line. In fact, the Carlsons discontinued their vegetable CSA because demand was so strong for eggs and their grass-based meat production.

The couple has focused on keeping their farm natural, and does not administer hormones, antibiotics, wormers or vaccines to their animals. They use locally sourced whole grains for their pigs and laying hens and non-GMO (genetically modified organism) soymeal for their broiler chickens and turkeys. Sheep graze on pasture during warmer months and consume forage stored as bales in the winter. The Carlsons process their lambs and hogs at Bowdon Meat Processing, a cooperatively owned plant in Bowdon, N.D., and all poultry is processed at Morning Joy Farm.

It's safe to say things are going well. "I haven't had to spend a dime on advertising," says Annie Carlson. "We've had a farm 'explosion,' and it is all by word of mouth."

Farmers' markets such as BisMarket help with exposure and getting Morning Joy in front of new customers. Annie is quick to point out that their growth isn't due to doubling customer numbers, however, but rather from increased orders from existing customers.

"Once people try our meat, they can't go back to grocery store bacon and chicken, so they come back for more," she says.

Morning Joy Farm is growing in other ways as well. The Carlsons added a commercial kitchen to an existing building on the farm so that Annie can extend their business operations. She has started a bread and soup CSA and a catering business, and she keeps busy repurposing byproducts (such as animal bones for stock, etc.).

"I come from a long line of good cooks, and this is what I love to do," Annie Carlson says. "One of the greatest compliments I ever received came from a gentleman who told me, 'You cook as good as your grandma.'"

Despite the increasing demands of Morning Joy Farm, the Carlsons have not lost sight of the initial reason they went into the business: family. They had three children within three years and have enjoyed sharing the CSA experience with their brood. The Carlsons eat the food they grow and have pet cows and sheep with names like Karlek and Meryl Sheep.

Annie recalls that her parents dreamed of passing their farm on to their children and grandchildren. She and John are passionate about carrying on the farming tradition -- with some variation on the traditional style.

"My favorite thing about what I do every day is knowing the customer and knowing where the food is going," she says. "There's a level of integrity that comes with that ... I can't cut corners because I have to look at my customers and say, 'I made that.'"

Marnie Lahtinen is the mother of five children and a Mandan-based freelance writer. In addition to her family, she loves travel, hiking, skiing, food, knitting, red wine and music.