Organic farmers ready for new season, fresh produce
by Eric Storlie, Town & Country correspondent
Garden seeds appear this time of year reminding everyone of locally-grown, fresh food. Local food has changed in the last decade or two due to consumer demand for fresher and healthier vegetables, fruit, and meat. Some farmers have adapted, growing organic food and marketing via local farmers’ markets or directly marketing from their farms.
Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) was started about 30 years ago, reaching the Princeton area with Uproot Farm in 2010. The CSA model is based on a workable small scale farm economy. Sarah Woutat, owner of Uproot, said CSAs are distinguished by their integration within communities by selling shares for the upcoming harvest and hosting farm tours for members, whose children can directly learn where and how food is grown. An online newsletter is disseminated to inform members of harvests, events, and logistical matters. Woutat, 37, returned to this area from the east for the purpose of farming. One of the perks has been her skillful neighbors who have lent their mechanical abilities on troublesome equipment problems. Another perk has been the proximity to Minneapolis. She graduated from the University of Minnesota with an English degree before exploring the world and taking a publishing job in New York City for a couple years. She gravitated back to Minnesota to farm, buying land and buildings between Princeton and Cambridge, where she has built a life from a few acres she owns and leases.
Community supported agriculture started in Japan, and was transplanted to the United States on over 12,500 farms by 2012, with 305 in Minnesota. Many residents of urban areas were eager to have more involvement with their food – knowing where and how it was grown – and farmers were eager to bring their customers into the food growing process, either by committing finances or labor to growing produce. The CSA farm sells shares before the growing season begins as an investment redeemed with harvested vegetables during the summer. The investment allows farmers to purchase growing supplies without having to take out loans, theoretically. Members can pick up their harvest shares at Uproot Farm at designated times when the vegetables are ready to move to new homes. Woutat said she strives to have 6-12 vegetable species mature for each pickup, a challenge in Minnesota. Pickups begin the second to third week in June. She starts selling shares January 1 until 80 shares are sold. Last year, all 80 were sold before harvest began. Most shareholders are from Minneapolis where there are designated pickup spots at designated times each week. Full and half shares sell for $615 and $330 at Uproot.
Uproot Farm produces 40 different vegetables, all grown organically according to USDA certification standards. Not all CSAs are organic, Woutat emphasized. It is the owner’s prerogative. If they want to be USDA certified by MOSES (Midwest Organic Services Association), they have to follow strict guidelines: Synthetic chemicals and genetically modified organisms may not be used, and there are other restrictions. The farm is inspected and certified by MOSES inspectors and certifiers, adding to part of the reason certification is costly, from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, though the MDA (Minnesota Department of Agriculture) facilitates a USDA cost-share program to defray up to 75 percent of the cost.
There were 523 USDA certified organic farms in Minnesota in 2012. An organic farm and not a CSA, “The Long Siding Farm” near Long Siding, is owned by Arlan and Susan Koppendrayer includes 2.5 acres for growing fruits and vegetables. They grow several types of common vegetables, including heirloom tomatoes, strawberries and raspberries.
Arlan Koppendrayer grew up on a farm in the Long Siding area where he acquired the knowledge for his summer farming business. The remaining months are spent living and teaching in Excelsior. Their three-season teaching jobs are compatible with a farm demanding attention during the summer. They sell produce at farmers’ markets in Princeton, Excelsior and Wayzata.
For her farming education, Woutat worked on farms in Minnesota, Connecticut and Europe. As a farmer, she gleans much of her farming information from MOSES, the Land Stewardship Project, and fellow farmers. Koppendrayer relies on MCIA (Minnesota Crop Improvement Association) for current information on plant varieties. Neither Woutat nor Koppendrayer use the University of Minnesota Extension for information, though Woutat received an award from Extension for her “Outstanding Isanti County farm”.
A land grant university, like the University of Minnesota, has a purpose to disseminate information and research for Minnesotans. Research has shown organic farms cause less nitrate pollution and improves soil health. Woutat cited these environmental reasons for using organic methods. She wants to build a healthy soil and ecosystem, growing plants attractive to bees. Research on health benefits of organic versus conventional products has been less conclusive, but studies agree organic food consistently contains lower levels of pesticide residues.
Woutat started planting under greenhouse conditions March 1. She said shareholders are welcome to volunteer time on the farm, but there hasn’t been a demand to substitute work for pay, she explained. On some CSA farms these bartering arrangements are more common.
Asked what sets his produce apart from a grocery store’s, Koppendrayer replied “I simply cannot imagine someone getting fresher produce. We almost always harvest on the same day that we sell. Also, we grow a significant number of heirloom varieties loaded with nutrition.”