Thirty-seven years ago, Steven Eckdahl stood at a crossroads. To the left lay the possibility of continuing to build on the orchard work he'd been doing through high school and college. To the right lay the opportunity to begin a career in laboratory medicine at Mayo Clinic.
Steve ultimately veered right after deciding he didn't want to "be a farmer full-time." But just a couple years later, he found a way to combine both passions when Mayo Clinic offered him the chance to work a schedule that would allow him to do so. "I've worked the evening shift in our laboratory at Mayo since 1989," Steve tells us. "That flexibility has left my morning hours free to do my orchard work, and I'm very appreciative of that."
Steve's son, Jon, a health systems engineer for Mayo Clinic, tells us it's been inspiring to watch how his dad's dedication to both lines of work has played out. And at times intersected. "Over the years, I think his work at the orchard and his work at Mayo have paired up well," Jon says, something he tells us he's grateful for. "It's allowed me to have the kind of upbringing that I have."
Steve and Jon say the plan was never for them to essentially become partners in a full-scale apple orchard outside of their careers at Mayo Clinic. But over the years, that's what has happened as Northwoods Orchard has grown. "My wife and I purchased land northwest of Rochester in 1986 and started planting apple trees in 1989," Steve says. "Fast-forward to today, and we now have a 2,000-plus-tree orchard that keeps us busy each fall."
On the surface, there may not appear to be similarities between the life of an orchard owner and the life of a technical specialist coordinator in Mayo Clinic's Toxic Metals laboratory. But Steve tells us being successful at both requires some of the same qualities. "Teamwork is probably the biggest similarity," he says. "It takes a lot of teamwork for us to do what we do with the orchard each spring, summer, and fall, and we have a lot of family members, friends, and neighbors helping us do all of that. And in the lab, it's much the same in the work that my team does every day to process and validate specimens so we can get the most accurate results for our patients."
And Steve sees some of those patients at the orchard, sometimes at the recommendation of their care teams. "That's very satisfying because it gives us a chance to show them the orchard and hopefully touch their lives outside of the hospital a bit by giving them a place to relax and maybe escape their medical concerns for a while," he tells us.
That, along with the events they also host each fall for local schools, as well as departments and groups throughout Mayo Clinic, is what Jon considers to be the best part of their second jobs. "It's great," he says. "I really enjoy the social and relationship aspect of it all as well—much more than doing the actual orchard work, obviously."