by Bill Weaver
Mark Boen, who started Bluebird Gardens CSA only four years ago and had already reached 861 members last fall, runs a very carefully and intelligently planned sustainable vegetable operation of 150 acres near Fergus Falls, MN.
Boen was not new to growing vegetables when he started the CSA. After he graduated from college and began teaching, he and his wife began growing vegetables to sell at a farmers market in Fergus Falls in 1978.
By the time he organized the CSA, Boen had a lot of experience in vegetable growing, as well as a loyal following of customers from the farmers market.
Although there are other CSAs in the area, Boen’s membership has been growing rapidly. “I’m hoping to get to 2200 customers this year,” he noted.
His success is based on good organization, careful planning, flexibility where needed, good working relations with his interns, and the provision of real value and convenience to his customers.
His prices are reasonable for the quantity of vegetables he provides. A family share in Bluebird Gardens CSA costs $595, and provides a bushel box of produce every week from mid-June to mid-October.
For $395, a regular share, a customer gets a half bushel of produce a week for the same period.
But those vegetables, delivered to handy pick up points in fresh-picked condition, are not all a CSA customer gets. The “extras” can amount to more than what the customer is supposedly paying for.
For example, the Family Share entitles the customer to attend 10 “Harvest Events,” where the customer and their family can pick fresh, in-season vegetables to freeze, can or pickle for the winter — potentially bushels of vegetables — at no additional cost.
Boen’s website describes Harvest Events as meant to be “a family affair where you can explore your farm, stock up on your favorite veggies, and make memories that last a lifetime.” These events are how Boen makes use of the extras from his 150 acres of vegetables. The CSA is Boen’s sole outlet for his vegetables, much to his customers’ delight. “The harvest events are our way of showing you, our valuable members, that Bluebird Gardens is your farm,” the CSA website states.
One of Boen’s two goals is to connect people to the farm where their food is grown, and his business plan seems well constructed to do just that.
Boen is careful to listen to his customers and tailors his options according to what his customers tell him. He started offering a bi-weekly share (for $225) because, he explained, “A common problem we hear is that with the weekly options, there are too many vegetables to eat!” Two Harvest Event tickets go with this option.
Bluebird Gardens’ website was re-engineered this past winter to make finding the handiest drop-off point to pick up vegetables very simple for his customers. “Simply type in your address and the website will find for you the 10 drop-off locations closest to you.”
To find drop-off hosts who will put the boxes in a shaded, cool place until customers pick them up, Boen pays the drop-off host a $5 credit toward the host’s own membership for every box they host for the season.
It is not surprising the CSA has lots of drop-off hosts in a wide area across northern Minnesota and west to Fargo, ND. Generosity characterizes this operation, and generosity can bring benefits on both sides.
In 1983, Boen and his wife Diane bought his parents’ dairy farm, and since then have gradually transformed both the soil and the structures into what was needed for an extended-season, sustainable vegetable farm.
Boen, who teaches sustainable agriculture at the local college, is still transforming the soil with cover crops and green manures, pre-season, mid-season, and post-season, to add organic matter to the soil. In addition, he has his soil tested regularly to determine what natural, soil-mined minerals are needed for a proper mineral balance in the soil, including trace minerals.
Boen has extensive irrigation capability to make sure that crops don’t fail because of drought. His irrigation includes a travelling gun system so he can irrigate the sweet corn. One of his irrigation pumps is powered by a windmill.
All vegetables going to CSA members are clean. In addition to the usual run-of-the mill washers, Bluebird Gardens has a root washer consisting of a barrel with spaces between the slats that revolves in a large tank of water. Just dump the root vegetables in the barrel at one end and in a short time they come flying out the other end clean, ready to sort and pack.
The CSA offers a surprising variety of lettuce, some of them double-cropped with taller plants in the eight high tunnels, where the leaves stay clean resting on the black plastic. “With succession plantings, we keep Romaine lettuce and some other types of lettuce going all summer, as well as chard, sweet peas and green beans,” Boen pointed out.
Bluebird Gardens grows cut flowers, gourds of all shapes and sizes, pumpkins and some specialty items like herbs, yellow doll pumpkins, all-white early turnips, radishes large and small, and kohlrabi.
As the 2013 CSA season approaches, Boen has been purchasing some new equipment. “Each year we look for what’s ‘backward’ on the farm, and we look for equipment to fix that,” he explained. This year, looking to make the harvesting of some very labor-intensive vegetables less time-consuming, he has invested in a green bean picker and a sweet corn picker.
To make sure the CSA boxes arrive at all their host destinations in top form, all three of the farms’ trucks are air refrigerated.
Bluebird Gardens will also build several more high tunnels this year. The early tomatoes, lettuce, and cucumbers from the high tunnels are prized by CSA members, and even with extensive double-cropping of tall and short vegetable plants in the tunnels, Boen needs more high tunnel growing space.
by Bill Weaver