By Marci Narum

Part three in the series “Women of Impact.”

ANNIE CARLSON, Owner of Morning Joy Farm & Kitchen

Impact with Adaptability, Tenacity, & Authenticity 

In many ways, Annie Carlson is incomparable to most women who were raised and still live on the North Dakota prairie. Annie is a wife, mother of three, entrepreneur, home-school teacher, part-time pastor, author, farmer, rancher, cook, and caterer.

“People ask me all the time, ‘Annie, how do you get all this stuff done?’ Well, I don’t watch TV,” Annie says. “We have goals as a family and individually, and (we talk about) how to accomplish them. Little by little, we accomplish them. So yeah, how do you get all that done? Well, you start,” she says.

Nothing gets in the way of accomplishing those goals, especially the word “No.”

Annie and her husband, John, have come up against roadblocks more times than they care to recall. They own and operate Morning Joy Farm & Kitchen near Mercer, North Dakota. It’s the farm where Annie grew up and her grandparents homesteaded. Morning Joy was the second CSA model in the state 12 years ago. (Community-Supported Agriculture, a system that connects the producer and consumers directly. Members receive food shares on a weekly basis.)

“We started as a vegetable CSA and loved growing vegetables. We love interacting with our customers in an intimate way,” Annie shares. “They were connected to the farm. If we had a bad thunderstorm, they were worried, they cared. This was their food that we were growing for them. Then customers started asking where they can buy good meat.” 

Morning Joy began expanding, and in 2014, Annie added a commercial kitchen.

“I started catering, value-adding some of our farm products. We knew we needed to be nimble. We knew we couldn’t have a lot of capital tied up. We had to be able to change directions.”

That plan would prove useful as the marketplace began to change and severely disrupt Annie’s business model.

“I had a buying program where people could go online and order,” she says. “I did freezer meals and once-a-month delivery. That was before the days of Hello Fresh and Blue Apron. When they came into the market, I couldn’t compete with the fresh aspect of it.” 

The big companies pushed her out. Then, local grocers began offering grass-fed meats and farm-fresh eggs seven days a week. Annie says she simply couldn’t compete, but she could change directions.

“I no longer sell retail meat, we just sell bulk orders — wholes and halves of beef, pork, and lamb, and whole chickens and turkeys. There’s a price break when you buy whole animals, which is what our customers want. Our customers are … usually wanting to stock in six months to a year of meat, rather than stopping in at the grocery store two, three, five times a week. They have chest freezers and want larger quantities,” Annie explains.

Annie and John continue to expand their farming operation and adjust as they need to. For example, they started raising Icelandic sheep to produce grass-fed lamb, but could only get 60 percent of market value at the sales barn.

“They are like any lamb,” Annie explains. “The meat is delicious. They’re just funny-looking.” 

Annie didn’t let it keep her awake at night; she and John came up with a hybrid. The lamb they produce now looks like the rest of the lambs at market, so they’re taken seriously, get full price, and taste just the same as the “funny-looking” ones. 

As an entrepreneur, a home-school teacher, and a mother, Annie has learned that refusing to take no for an answer is a tool for cultivating one’s inner strength. It’s a concept that even changed her parenting style after she read the book “Project-Based Homeschooling.” 

“Never tell your child no, because it’s you saying no, not the situation saying no.”

Annie explains by sharing the story of her 5-year-old daughter, who six years ago, asked for a horse.

“We told her, ‘You can have a horse but you have to earn the money to buy it.’ We said we would help her and give her opportunities to earn money, but she had to earn the money herself.

“So she started, ‘Mom, can I sell cookies at the farmers market?’ We were selling every weekend at the farmers market back then. She sold $3 bags of cookies all summer long and saved her money. Later on she made lefse, and has been doing that for about a year now, and this fall, she bought her horse. She did odd jobs, saved her birthday money. It took her six years. We never said no, we said, ‘You can do this, but you have to think about how.’”

“I don’t like the word no, and if you tell me no, chances are that I’m going to dig in harder and find a way to make it work.”

And, because she likes to see other women succeed, Annie often says yes to helping other women in her industry. 

“I spend a lot of time working on the cottage food laws because I think other people, particularly women, are involved in those food-based businesses and you have to be able to start small to know whether you like to do it as a job. It’s fine to make jam two or three times a year, but if you’re making it every day it can lose its appeal. So, people ask me, ‘Why are you testifying, why are you involved in this?’ Because other people should be encouraged to be entrepreneurs, to try different things, to see if they want that different career, and if it will work; and you need to do that on a small scale.”

Therein lies the theme of a book Annie is writing.

“I’m calling it ‘The Broody Hen Syndrome.’ How do you take this little dream that you’ve been nurturing and make it a reality? It can be as big as starting a business or going to law school, or as small as Sudoku puzzles. My sister has a PhD in statistics and works for a national research firm. She was always doing those puzzles. I finally got an app on my Kindle, and I would do these super easy puzzles, move onto the easy level, to mid-easy. I just wanted to know that I could do it.

“It’s really great to hear how someone made their millions, but ‘what did you struggle with?’ has more appeal to me both as a human and as a woman. I think too many times we’ve airbrushed and filtered what life is really like.”

Read parts one and two of this “Women of Impact” series:

Megan Laudenschlager

Cindy Cook