At Gardens of Eagan in Northfield, MN, General Manager Linda Halley is working to grow more organic farmers, as well as top-quality organic vegetables. “We really have a mission bigger than farming,” she explained, “and that is teaching and nurturing more organic growers.”
For example, Gardens of Eagan, which is owned by the Wedge Co-op in Minneapolis, is committed to paying a respectful wage to employees, many of them college students or recent college graduates with a wide variety of non-agricultural majors. They come, at least in part, because they are interested in learning how organic farming is done. Many employees return for several seasons and become skilled, taking on additional decision-making responsibilities.
The Incubator Program at Gardens of Eagan is also part of this focus. This year, the program is working with two small operations. Bossy Acres is a 4 1/2 acre CSA that is actively looking for more land.
“They’re definitely developing their farming skills,” Halley commented. “Their CSA members are happy, and they’re retaining members. They know what equipment they will need. They are ready to expand.”
The other incubator farm is a smaller acreage operation, owned and run by Mike Leck and Jennifer Nelson. “Mike is very skilled in vegetable production, but he lacks the means to purchase more land,” commented Halley.
At present, Mike works full-time for Gardens of Eagan as production manager. “He started working for us in 2008 as a harvest crew member, after growing up in the Chicago suburbs with no background in farming. He has learned to forecast crops and handle weed and pest control. He’s ready to move out on his own when he has the financial means to do so.”
Halley also holds workshops on farm business education. In addition, before the big move to their present farm, she and Leck had started a training program for other farms to teach them their methods for growing organic broccoli.
“In 2011, on our previous farm, we had half of the farm in brassicas, but we couldn’t fill the need for organic broccoli in the Twin Cities,” she continued. “We worked with three other organic farms to teach them the broccoli growing and marketing methods that have worked for us. We gave them information on varieties we’ve found that stay sweet and tender through the summer, on post-harvest handling and on predicting when a crop would be ready so they could notify buyers ahead of time.”
A produce warehouse agreed to buy all their crop, at a price somewhat higher than is traditional for organic broccoli. For the future, Halley is hoping each year to select a crop in which the farm is experienced, but for which the local supply is inadequate, to teach other organic farmers how to grow and market it successfully.
Halley would also like to try organizing a CSA of small organic vegetable growers in the area who are “on the cusp of expansion,” encouraging each to specialize in several crops for the CSA. “We would want just a handful of growers we know and trust. We could handle membership and delivery, which can be difficult for small farms.”
Halley is well-suited to the management and organizational work she is doing. She was named Organic Farmer of the Year in 2003, together with Richard deWilde of Harmony Valley Farm in Wisconsin, and her enthusiasm helped to launch the CSA movement in the upper Midwest in the early 1990s.
For the past two years, getting their new 116 acres in Northfield, MN certified organic has consumed a lot of time and energy. Until this year, the new farm was mostly planted in cover crops. The staff grew their mainstay crops at their former location eight miles away.
The organic certification of the new farm becomes official on Aug. 1, 2014, when two days of celebrations are planned, with the help of the two Incubator Farms. Before Aug. 1, the lack of organic certification on the new farm has made produce sales difficult. “The focus during the 36-month transition has been growing healthy soil. ‘Dirt First’ became more than just the Gardens of Eagan tag line. It was ‘Job One!’ Tens of thousands of dollars invested in compost, rock powders and cover cropping has made the difficulty of selling crops not yet certified organic especially frustrating. Educating buyers on the importance of supporting farmers who are making the switch from conventional production to certified production has been challenging.
“Our main crops are still kale and broccoli, which also give the highest return per acre. We grow red kale and lacinato kale, in addition to standard kale, using varieties that stay sweet and tender through the summer. Cauliflower, in white, purple and orange, is still popular,” added Halley.
“We also still grow a lot of cucumbers and watermelon for rotation,” continued Halley, “but we have added chard, basil and parsley, and have really expanded our kale production, including making a second planting. We’ve also found a large, virtually unsupplied market for local organically grown vegetable and flower plugs grown in our greenhouses. They have also been working on high tunnel-grown tomatoes.
“Our goal is not to use heat, so our tomatoes don’t command the price of the earliest local tomatoes. Our wholesale customers pay at the high end of $2 a pound for them,” which is a bit low, considering the farm’s high labor costs. Farmers market customers don’t hesitate to pay $3 per pound though.
Gardens of Eagan has been grafting tomato plants for one 185 x 35’ high tunnel. “We grafted Estimino on the bottom and BHN 589 on the top. We had an 80 percent success rate with the grafting.
“It’s a skill. You need cleanliness in making the cuts. But how you let them heal after grafting is key. Our healing chamber has a double layer of shade cloth for deep shade, so the plants don’t need to respire much. They heal rather than trying to grow. We have a humidifier. The plants stay in the healing chamber for about a week. Then, if the top is standing up, it is obviously getting moisture from the roots, so we move the plant to less shade for a few days. We’ll get the verdict this year on whether grafting pays.”