NEW ULM - The group of local farmers who met with me recently come from very different places in their lives - and bring a somewhat different perspective, each, to the discussion of community-supported agriculture (CSA) and organic farming.
But while their goals, scope and ways of doing business may differ, they share a philosophy that binds them together - a love for growing (or raising) things sustainably, in ways that nurture the land, encourage healthier personal choices and create viable alternatives in the local economy...
Dennis and Janice Guldan are planting asparagus. “Yes, those unsightly octopus type roots are asparagus roots!,” said Janice. “Three years later, you have fresh asparagus for picking.”
Brooke Knisley and her husband John, of Alternative Roots Farm near Madelia, started their farm as a "move toward meaningful work," to quote Brooke.
"It was in our 10-year plan; when the opportunity presented itself sooner, we decided to go for it," she said.
The young couple is taking the Farm Beginnings class through the Land Stewardship Project, which focuses on the business side of farming.
Moving back to this area, where John was born, from Bemidji, the Knisleys have their very first growing season this year.
Of their four acres, the Knisleys are planting about a quarter of an acre with primarily vegetables; they also manage a small apple orchard.
A background in environmental studies and natural resources contributes to Knisleys' "passion" for bringing fresh, nutritious and flavorful produce to the local community.
Alternative Roots Farm focuses on heirloom varieties of produce because of the superior quality of nutrition and flavor and to preserve diversity, explains Brooke.
Ever since graduating from college, Katy Hemberger has been involved with local foods, in one way or another: working in a food co-op in St. Paul, and in about five different restaurants cooking with local foods...
Hemberger and her husband Peter operated a 40-acre certified organic farm near Hutchinson in 2003-08; as his off-farm career brought them to New Um - and as they started a family - the Hembergers transitioned to a smaller, 10-acre primarily vegetable and herb farm, August Earth, near Hanska.
The Hembergers are putting up three beehives, for pollination of their vegetables and to add diversity to the farm, explains Katy.
A very personal moment nudged Dennis and Cherry Jeske in the direction of organic farming.
The loss of a daughter to cancer sharpened their awareness of the importance of food choices to health, and their commitment to sustainable practices, explains Dennis.
The "century farm" the Jeskes live on has been in Dennis's family for more than a hundred years. Much of the land remains farmed conventionally under a lease agreement.
However, Dennis had been gardening for years, giving away his produce. About six years ago, urged by Cherry, he decided to try out the CSA "subscription" concept.
He now has about an acre of land in primarily vegetable production. He also raises chickens (for eggs high in Omega 3 acids and meat) and turkeys. He uses organic practices and feed.
Unlike younger counterparts, Janice and Dennis Guldan were pioneers of sustainable farming who gradually evolved in that direction.
Dennis Guldan had grown up on a traditional (yet diversified) dairy farm, Janice says. His family also raised hogs and chickens and planted corn and soy beans.
"To farm was always Dennis' dream," Janice says. "That's all he ever wanted to do."
In time, the Guldans purchased their farm, which had been in Dennis' family for several generations; they also held off-farm jobs.
In the 1980s, they first planted vegetables on some of their "marginal" land - a sandy area near a river bottom - and unexpectedly learned the satisfaction of growing a product, putting a price on it themselves and seeing it sell locally.
"It was a good choice for us," says Janice. "It gave us more control over our decisions... Traditional farming involves such a huge debt burden..."
The Guldans have loved working together and side by side with their now grown children, teaching them the value of physical work, caring and responsibility. A son, now a teacher in town, still helps out at the farm.
The Guldans started with an acre of vegetables; they sold the produce at a store in town. Eventually, they increased production to 25 acres, having enough to sell at farmers' markets and through the CSA system. They now hire up to 15 local youth to help them harvest in summer.
Growing Green is both similar and different in focus from the family farms sketched out above.
As a collaborative project of two local non-profits, MRCI WorkSource and Putting Green, Growing Green provides both community access to local produce and meaningful employment to adults with disabilities, explains PG Executive Director Tracie Vranich.
With the specific intention of expanding access to local foods, Growing Green offers half, rather than full, CSA shares; and some of its food goes to group homes.
Community-supported agriculture (CSA) connects the "eater" directly with the farmer. The eater, or member, purchases a share from a farmer in late winter or early spring, then each week during the growing season receives a box of fresh produce.
The upfront investment made by members gives the farmer income early in the year when many costs are incurred (for seed, etc.). In turn, the farmer makes a commitment to providing high-quality, fresh, local produce weekly throughout the growing season.
Many people enjoy having a relationship with the farm and knowing what is in season and how the crops are progressing, say the farmers interviewed.
The membership involves a shared risk. If the farm gets bad weather, it may lose some crop. The idea of shared risk can create a sense of community and a stronger connection to the farm.
Members are a farmer's priority. After member boxes are filled with their weekly share, excess produce may be available to others.
A share typically provides enough produce weekly for a family of three or four (two people, if they are avid produce eaters). Some farms offer half-shares. Some also offer farm shares (similar to gift certificates). Many offer recipes and suggestions on how to incorporate healthy produce in eaters' diets, educational events, field days and swap tables...
The farmers I spoke to said they strive to include a variety of vegetables (plus herbs and fruit, such as melons or berries) in each box. Availability varies with the season, "but we won't overwhelm you with any one thing," notes Guldan.
Most pre-selected produce will be familiar - lettuce, carrots, potatoes, onions, tomatoes, etc. Some may be new to eaters - eggplant, kohlrabi, Swiss chard - but those will be in lesser quantities, and people will get serving ideas.
The local growing season is about 18-20 weeks. Prices vary slightly but, generally, the cost averages about $25 a week.
The farmers offer deliveries to specific sites or pick-up. Many make various accommodations for members who may be temporarily unable to pick up their box.
Besides making a healthier personal choice, CSA members gain the satisfaction of knowing they are saving "food miles."
Some studies estimate that on average, foods travel 1,500 miles to reach a consumer, notes Vranich. Freshness aside, consider the cost of food measured in fossil fuels, mused Vranich.
Community-supported agriculture keeps dollars in the local economy, multiplying the value of a member's investment, Knisley points out.
Organic farming management relies on developing biological diversity in the field to disrupt habitat for pest organisms, and the purposeful maintenance and replenishment of soil fertility, according to the Organic Farming Research Foundation.
The farmers I spoke to adhere to sustainable practices: growing produce free of artificial fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides. The Knisleys and Hembergers expect to complete a rigorous process of organic certification by 2014. The Guldans practice "integrated pest management" (relying primarily on mechanical pest and weed control, and using extremely low amounts of chemicals when strictly necessary).
Diversification is a strong feature of CSA and organic farms - it helps them be more stable, resilient and economically sustainable, the farmers explain. It's a different way to meet the economic bottom line, said Knisley.
Contact information (alphabetical):
Alternative Roots Farm: 507-439-6541, firstname.lastname@example.org, alternativerootsfarm.blogspot.com
Guldan Family Farm: 507-359-2543, email@example.com, guldanfamilyfarm.com
Windjammer Farm: 507-359-4140, firstname.lastname@example.org