One seedling at a time, success for small farmers

Published 12:12 pm Saturday, July 13, 2013

By Anne Polta

West Central Tribune

LITCHFIELD — The peas are ripening at Prairie Drifter Farm and ready for Joan and Nick Olson to pluck off the vine and offer to visitors. The taste is fresh, crisp and sweet.

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Under the July sun, vegetables are bursting forth on the 33-acre organic farm south of Litchfield. The Olsons point to each row: Over here is kale, with broccoli and cabbage beyond. Over there is garlic, whose scapes were harvested in late June for the community-supported agriculture, or CSA, boxes the couple delivers to their shareholders each week during the growing season.

One seedling at a time, the Olsons are building a sustainable way of farming and feeding their family, neighbors and customers.

The couple, both 35, are in their third year as the owners of Prairie Drifter Farm. They have 62 CSA shareholders who receive weekly boxes of locally grown fresh greens and vegetables. Their produce is also on the shelf at food cooperatives in Litchfield and St. Cloud.

“It’s allowed us to connect really well with a community we’re new to,” Nick said. “There’s some freedom in being able to manage a farm. It’s also really rewarding to know we’re stewarding a piece of land.”

Prairie Drifter Farm belongs to a local food movement that has been surging in Minnesota over the past decade. At one time, the Land Stewardship Project’s annual directory of CSAs contained just a handful of farms. This year there are more than 80, not including those that opted not to be listed.

Nationally, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that 5 percent of American farms are involved in some form of local food production.

Neither of the Olsons grew up on a farm. But as licensed teachers working in environmental education, they couldn’t avoid seeing the connection among food production, the environment and consumer choices.

Various experiences — a teaching stint by Nick in Argentina, summers spent working on organic farms — roused their interest in starting a farm of their own. The clincher came with two years at Earthrise Farm in rural Madison where they managed the vegetable production and the internship program.

“We really knew at that point this was what we wanted to do,” Joan said.

Three years into farming, the enterprise has grown each year.

There’s a heated greenhouse where seedlings are started early in spring. This year a hoop house was added to extend the growing season. Three acres are planted with greens and vegetables, and the Olsons plan to add another acre next year. They manage another seven acres of cover crops, mostly alfalfa, to build up nutrients in the soil.

As farmers, their year has acquired a rhythm. Mid-March is time to start nurturing baby plants in the greenhouse. By late April, weather permitting, they’re out in the fields.

“Once we start, we’re just rolling — transplanting every week, direct seeding every week,” Joan said.

Dozens of crop varieties, from bok choy and eggplant to tomatoes, peppers, onions and potatoes, go into the ground.

The first CSA boxes are ready for delivery by mid-June, when the early crops are in full flourish. At the peak of summer, they harvest and deliver to CSA subscribers and food cooperatives twice a week — Tuesdays for their local customers in the Litchfield area and Thursdays in St. Cloud.

Aside from a part-time employee hired this year, the Olsons do most of the work themselves, accompanied by their 2-year-old son, Abe.

“We spend a lot of time outside,” Nick said. “One of the big rewards is being able to be together as a family.”

The work doesn’t begin to wind down until the arrival of the first frost, usually by the end of September. “If it’s not too early, there’s a sigh of relief,” Nick said.

Autumn is spent clearing the fields, putting away irrigation equipment and planting cover crops for the winter.

Even during the cold months, there’s little slowing down. Winter is when the Olsons plan for the coming year, deciding which crops to plant and how to rotate their fields. They order seeds and supplies, work on marketing and attend workshops.

Despite the rapid growth in CSA farms, beginning farmers often face a struggle. Available land is “a major challenge,” said Nick, who works off the farm with the Land Stewardship Project in Montevideo, facilitating the Farm Beginnings program.

“Year in and year out, we hear from beginning farmers how challenging it is to acquire farmland,” he said.

He and Joan looked at 20 to 30 sites between South Dakota and Minneapolis before finding their farm site in Meeker County, he said. “We got really lucky.”

Capital and cash flow also are challenges for beginners.

Farmers like the Olsons must educate the public as well about why locally grown organic food, usually produced and harvested with little mechanization and no government subsidy, is more expensive.

“We’re starting to see people who are open to that. They’re starting to see why it costs more,” Nick said.

But along with the challenges, they have encountered a thriving like-minded community. Within a 15-mile radius of their farm alone are five other CSA farms. Through listservs and site visits, they have connected with other producers, some of whom have been farming organically for more than a decade.

It has been a valuable resource, Nick said. “You have people you can share joys and frustrations with. You can see models that have been successful, and I think that is important.”

The couple also savors their contact with the customers who buy and consume the food grown at Prairie Drifter Farm.

Through CSA shares, cooking classes and farm tours, they hope to build relationships that go beyond buying and selling, Joan said. “The ultimate goal we’re trying to create is making connections.”

Within five years, the Olsons hope to double their vegetable production and number of CSA shareholders.

It has been gratifying to grow food locally, Nick said. “We have been very intentional about living out our values on the farm. We’ve gotten very involved in the community in Litchfield. … I’m really excited that we can serve our rural community. It’s exciting to see we have this land that’s able to produce for us. When we’re ready to go full time, it won’t be this big scary leap. It’ll be the next step.”