2013 Results from our Field Learning Initiative

2013-10-01 13.22.10

Organic Field School’s mission is to transform our food and farming systems by providing practical education about organic methods to farmers and consumers.  The Field Learning Initiative, which is our overall program plan for 2014, includes multiple approaches to achieving this mission, as we know that a strong and sustainable local food system requires support and investment from many stakeholders.  We need educated and skilled organic farmers who are ready to take over farming from the current generation approaching retirement, and our incubator program and farmer workshops achieve this goal.  We also need educated and committed consumers to create a vibrant market for the organic food grown by these farmers, and inviting people to the farm to participate in tours and events helps consumers make a visceral connection to the benefits of organic.

In 2013, Organic Field School accomplished the following:

1) Farm Tours:  We hosted 17 of our own farm tours with over 560 people attending. We know there is increasing interest in the Twin Cities for this type of activity, as we receive many more requests each year than we are currently able to respond to. Groups included college classes on food systems, corporate employees from General Mills, food co-op employees, community gardeners, youth groups and families. We are planning to expand our offerings this year to at-risk populations, with more opportunities such as the partnership we established with a homeless shelter to conduct gleaning for the shelter’s kitchen. 

2) Organic Farm Incubator:  We are one of very few programs in the entire country to provide the amount of land and greenhouse space to beginning farmers that we do, and to have a program that is open to any new organic farmers ready to launch their own business. With the Wedge Co-op’s commitment to keeping 15 acres of their land dedicated to incubators, this program has an established farm partner and a unique set of resources supporting it. Last year, the incubator farms grew over 80,000 pounds of organic vegetables for our community!  All three farms were able to accomplish things they couldn’t have without the incubator program.

3)  Farmer Workshops:  OFS partners with other established organizations serving organic farmers to provide on-farm field days and workshops on a variety of topics. In 2013 we hosted three farmer workshops with a total of 70 farmers attending.  Our partners have included MOSES, Sustainable Farming Association of MN, the University of MN Agriculture and Horticulture Depts, Renewing the Countryside, and the Farmer Veteran Coalition. 

The Graduate School of Farming

2013 Incubator Team at OFS:  Bossy Acres, Fazenda Boa Terra and Humble Pie Farm, all CSA farms.

2013 Incubator Team at OFS: Karla Pankow & Elizabeth Millard of Bossy Acres, John Middleton & Lidia Dungue of Fazenda Boa Terra, Mike Leck & Jennifer Nelson (with baby Earl) of Humble Pie Farm, and Program Director Allison Goin.

In some ways, the CSA (community-supported agriculture) model seems to be one of the most accessible for new farmers and consumers alike — a direct relationship between the farmer and the consumer, where the consumer supports the farm at the beginning of the season. What is not immediately apparent is how very complicated a CSA operation really is — so much so that it has been called “graduate-level farming” by farm educators and advocates.

Why is it so complicated? Well, to ensure your weekly box has the variety you expect, CSA farmers have to carefully plan their season so there is something to harvest each week. They also grow many more varieties than a larger-scale farm that sells wholesale and may specialize in a handful of crops. For instance, incubator farm Fazenda Boa Terra is growing 40 crops this year, with 110 different varieties! Add on top of that the need for a strong marketing component and regular communication with members, and CSA farming becomes more time-intensive and challenging than many other types of farming. It can also be tempting for new CSA farms to take on more members than they can handle, to help finance the operation.

These are all reasons why the Organic Farm Incubator program at OFS provides essential support to help new CSA farmers succeed. With access to affordable land and infrastructure, they can take their time growing their support base and gaining experience without the burden of overhead costs facing other farmers. They can find out whether CSA farming is right for them — and help ensure a positive experience for their members and a strong reputation for the CSA movement overall. For more info on the challenges of CSA farming, check out this story from Harvest Public Media.

Making Soil

farming is direct action

The poor farmer makes weeds

The mediocre one makes crops

The skilled farmer makes soil

~Japanese proverb, quoted by Kosho Uchiyama

Organic farming is unique in the emphasis, care and attention it places on the quality of the soil.  Organic farmers know that nothing can grow successfully over time unless the soil is full of life – millions of microorganisms and nutrients that feed the crops and help them withstand challenges from weather and pests.  Organic certification is based not only on the use of organic methods by the farmers to fertilize and harvest their crops, but also requires a full 36 months of transition time, during which the soil must remain untreated by chemicals, before a farm can become Certified Organic.

This transition time clearly demonstrates the top priority given to the health of the soil in organic farming systems, and is why Gardens of Eagan uses Dirt First as their slogan. When the Wedge Co-op moved Gardens of Eagan to new farmland in 2013, their motivation was to protect additional prime soil just outside the Twin Cities by transitioning it to organic.  Most of the 100+ acres that the farm now sits on in Northfield, Minnesota were previously farmed conventionally, but have been in transition to organic for over a year.  During the past year, the farmers at Gardens of Eagan have taken steps to help cleanse the soil of toxins, encourage the growth of beneficial microorganisms, and preserve the natural resources of the farm. Last spring, a group of volunteers planted trees along the perimeter of the farm to serve as a windbreak and buffer zone for the crops.

All of these steps will make Gardens of Eagan a reliable, local source of quality organic produce for years to come.  These are all good reasons to own an organic farm: preserving 100+ acres of prime farmland close to the Metro; using organic and ecologically-sound farming methods that protect the environment; and providing a reliable, local source of healthy, organic vegetables.  But there is an even bigger reason why our community has this farm – to transform the food and farming systems we rely on into ones that are sustainable and healthy for the planet, ourselves, and our children.

To ensure that the values of Dirt First are more widely adopted, and that the next generation of farmers is prepared to carry them forward, the farm has the Organic Field School. While the Gardens of Eagan farmers have been preparing the ground at the new farm to grow crops this year, Organic Field School has been doing some cultivating work of its own: preparing the ground for new farmers and the broader community to engage with the farm as their own organic classroom.  We have been working on creating a place that everyone can feel connected to and welcome at, in order to provide the kind of tangible, direct experience that helps all of us learn best.

Many of our preparations at OFS, like the cultivation of the soil itself, have been happening below ground – establishing relationships with other area co-ops and food & farming nonprofits; expanding our incubator program for beginning farmers from one to three farms; raising funds to support our work as we build our capacity; and sharing who we are and what we do via social media, print media, and one-to-one meetings.  But like the soil, we know something is growing as a result of these efforts – we have seen green shoots sprouting that tell us we’re on the right track.

Wendell Berry, in his essay Local Knowledge in the Age of Information, writes, “As farmers never tire of repeating, you can’t learn to farm by reading a book, and you can’t tell somebody how to farm. Older farmers I knew used to be fond of saying, ‘I can’t tell you how to do that, but I can put you where you can learn.’”

The Organic Field School at Gardens of Eagan is just such a place to learn, and we hope you will join us this year.