The workers moved to the beat of their music as they filled the CSA boxes for Featherstone Farm’s
Winter CSA, which runs from November to February. A certified organic operation, Featherstone Farm boasts a hefty 261 Winter CSA members who are grateful for a local winter source of organic vegetables.
As the ¾ bushel waxed boxes rolled along the packing line, workers each added vegetables from the bulk bins lined up along the sides, containing a surprising variety for a Minnesota vegetable farm in the winter: large, solid kabochas; plastic sleeves of lacinato kale and parsley; paper bags of onions and potatoes; long Bolero carrots so sweet from the cold that CSA members refer to them as “candy carrots”; kohlrabi; pie pumpkins; purple top turnips and more. And that was not all of the vegetables that would be available to winter CSA members. The next CSA box would contain a different mix, giving customers a welcome variety.
At the end of the packing line, each box received a printed paper, something their customers have come to expect — either a letter from the farm, the history and uses of a lesser-known winter-storage vegetable, or recipes, prepared by Patty Zanski, head of marketing for the farm and coordinator of the CSA.
By the end of the packing line, the CSA boxes were filled to bulging and quite heavy. The work proceeded quickly. This efficient crew filled the 261 CSA boxes in a remarkably short time.
Early the next day, owner Jack Hedin would take a van load to pick-up points in Rochester, MN, where the farm also delivers wholesale quantities to a popular organic grocery store. Another van, driven by Nathan Manfull, would head for CSA and wholesale destinations in the more distant Minneapolis/St. Paul.
Three varieties of spinach were growing under tunnels. “We’re hoping to include spinach in our next CSA boxes,” commented Manfull. “Our customers like to find fresh greens in their winter boxes. In milder years, we’ve had spinach plants overwinter. These varieties won’t be cold-damaged unless they’re exposed to several days in a row of zero degree temperatures.”
During the growing season, Featherstone Farm has a staff of about 50, but by mid-November, H2A workers had already headed back to Mexico, and most of the other workers were scheduled to be done on the farm by the end of the week.
A bountiful stored harvest remained for winter sales, however, both for the CSA and for their many wholesale accounts, which include organic coops, restaurants and grocery stores in Minneapolis/St. Paul and Lacrosse, WI, in addition to more local towns and cities.
A truck from Fresh Fields picks up pallets of organic storage vegetables on a regular basis to deliver to their Chicago warehouse. The farm wholesales stored winter cabbage, winter squash, their sweet Bolero carrots, onions and potatoes. Top quality matters. Featherstone’s broccoli and parsley are packed in ice, made by the farm’s ice machine.
Featherstone Farm is working just about year-round. By the time the winter CSA is over, and wholesale sales of storage crops are starting to wind down, workers will start seeding transplants in three greenhouses.
To have certified organic transplants available for each of the specific varieties that Hedin’s crop managers have chosen, at the right time, transplants are all grown on the farm, continuing into July, when the last of the winter brassica transplants are seeded.
Hedin does not micro-manage his large vegetable operation, relying on several crop managers to take care of details. Dan Fillius, for example, is crop manager for carrots and nightshades. With a Master’s degree in horticulture, Dan managed the Student Organic Farm at Michigan State for six years before he joined Featherstone Farm.
Owner Hedin is “a kind, decent man with a good reputation,” commented Patti Zanski. “Field workers start at $12 an hour.” A surprising number of the farm’s workers are American high school and college students. “I came to the farm five years ago,” commented Nathan Manfull, “in response to a newspaper ad for field workers.” He has since worked up to a supervisory position.
Marketing manager Zanski worked summers through late high school and college in the late 90’s. “Then I went back to graduate school in the Twin Cities,” she continued. But she kept in touch with Jack and his wife. “After I finished my Master’s degree, I mentioned to Jack’s wife that I felt burned out. The next day, Jack called to offer me a job. Marketing can be stressful, but my job has a lot of variety and autonomy. I love working with everyone at Featherstone.”
“We had plenty of help this summer,” added Manfull. “We go through the H2A program. All our employees are legal, and we are able to bring in as many as we want.” Again, loyalty to Jack Hedin as an employer plays a big role in the availability of H2A labor to the farm.
As Zanski explained, “We’ve been hiring members of the same extended Mexican family through the H2A program for the past 20 years. We can count on them to return.”
Coolers for long-term storage bulged with bulk bins of root vegetables covered with plastic, including parsnips, rutabagas, winter radishes, purple top turnips, beets and celeriac. The carrot harvest had been so exceptionally good, that much of their storage cabbage had already been moved to another location. “Our carrot storage cooler is filled to the door with 260 bins of carrots, and more bins of carrots are overflowing into our usual cabbage cooler,” said Hedin.
Featherstone Farm has lived through more than its share of serious weather-inflicted disasters in the past. Hedin could find easier ways to make a living, but has persisted with organic farming on land, now zoned commercial, near his Grandfather’s former organic farm.