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Backyard Harvest’s production Manager
and a 2009 farmer, Stefan Meyer. Photo: Zoë François

Backyard Harvest, a Program to Bring Farming to City Homes

If you’d like to have a backyard vegetable garden but don’t want to tackle it yourself, hire an urban farmer from Backyard Harvest, a nonprofit program of the Permaculture Research Institute Cold Climate. They offer everything from complete garden planting and maintenance to garden coaching. Krista Leraas, a Slow Food member, coordinates the program.

In October 2008, the folks at the Permaculture Research Institute Cold Climate began hatching a plan to pilot a program in urban agriculture and permaculture. After much preparation, Backyard Harvest was unveiled in January 2009 to an enthusiastic public. The program’s mission is to strengthen the Twin Cities local foods infrastructure — one yard at a time — by turning lawns into nourishing gardens. To that end, it has three main goals:
• Connecting eaters directly to their food
• Connecting neighbors to one another and
• Connecting urban farmers to professional opportunities.
Since its beginnings, the fledgling program has stretched and flourished.

With three outstanding urban farmers, the team set out last spring to grow a diverse array of vegetables, herbs and edible flowers for 15 South Minneapolis households. These garden owners came with a wide variety of garden experiences, expectations and income levels. Some sought to learn gardening skills by following along with their farmers, while others were just getting started with gardening and cooking fresh seasonal foods.

Photo: Zoë François

According to an end-of-season survey, participants felt the experience of having gardens was just as important as receiving the high quality, fresh food they produced. Learning about gardening techniques, plant varieties and cooking with fresh produce were important parts of this experience. Garden owners also reported having made related changes in their lives, such as connecting more with their neighbors, buying other locally produced products and becoming more adventurous in their cooking and eating. Many participants recommended Backyard Harvest to their friends, family and neighbors.

This season — the program’s second — promises to be even better than the last. Clients can choose from full service vegetable and herb gardens; do-it-yourself potato bins, strawberry patches or asparagus patches; or garden coaching from experienced and trained urban farmers. In addition to expanding services, Backyard Harvest will also be frequenting more areas of Minneapolis, St. Paul and Edina.

Working across the demographic spectrum

One of the program’s goals is to provide good, healthy food to families across the demographic spectrum. A great way to accomplish this goal is through collaborations with local organizations that serve low-income families. One blossoming partnership is with the Cornerstone Group, which operates an affordable housing complex in the Frogtown neighborhood of St. Paul. By invitation, Backyard Harvest is piloting a project that will serve the diverse residents of this complex, called Rivertown Commons.

At the site this summer, a 400-square-foot plot (equal in size to four Backyard Harvest gardens) will be sown with a multiplicity of vegetables, herbs and edible flowers. The garden will be nestled amid six potato bins, a 24-square-foot strawberry patch and a row of serviceberries. Through collaborations with the Rivertown Commons staff and resident leadership committee, Backyard Harvest staff are planning many occasions for connecting with the garden, including a community event on Earth Day. During this event, residents will be introduced to the garden and celebrate the possibilities that it will provide: high quality food, youth engagement and community-building.

To learn more about the Backyard Harvest program, visit the PRI Cold Climate Web site, www.pricoldclimate.org >>
Check out the Backyard Harvest blog, www.backyardharvest.wordpress.com >> or contact program coordinator, Krista Leraas at harvest(at)pricoldclimate(dot)org.

- Krista Leraas

Photo: Lisa mason

:: :: ::

Jim and LeeAnn, Josh and Cindy VanDerPol of
Pastures A’Plenty, Kerkhoven, Minnesota

It was a lively, four-way conversation. Jim and LeeAnn VanDerPol, their daughter-in-law Cindy and I chatted easily, thanks to the magic of conference calling and Internet digital recording. (Son, Josh, wasn’t available for the call.) We quickly covered a range of topics, and it wasn’t long before a few strong threads emerged from the many lines of conversation and comment: share what you learn with others, be aware of the many factors affecting your farm and your business and be deliberate in decision-making.

LeeAnn and Jim spoke in the understated tones of a couple that’s faced tough situations in the course of building thriving family business that includes pastured hogs and chicken and replacement dairy cattle. Since buying Jim’s family’s western Minnesota farm in 1977, they have also gathered a wealth of valuable lessons.

Jim pointed to three major shifts over the three decades. “We reduced tillage on row crops in 1988-89 and maintain cover on the soil. We moved to pasture production for livestock Ð both hogs and sheep, and then dairy replacement cattle,” he explained. “And we marketed the meat from the hog business.”

These changes were made over time, with lots of thought, after careful observation of their operation, sometimes in response to strong external factors such as weather, and not without skinned knuckles.

The switch from tillage on the 320-acre farm was pushed by the extreme drought of 1988. “That was an eye opener,” said LeeAnn. “We needed to do some changes.” We were “a bean and corn rotation, with a little wheat, and not producing livestock at all,” added Jim.

About five or six years later, they started grazing some animals. “And we spent the next 10 years growing,” he said.

Jim wanted that move from row crops to grazing. “I didn’t like tractor work that well, and wanted to go to more perennial plantings.” He admits that he didn’t see the problems that would come with that transition. “You trade a set of problems that you have for a new set of problems.”

For example, the weeds in his pastures became more perennial and less annual because he couldn’t use tillage to combat the weeds. In a grazing operation “you graze and you mow.” Although he continues to deal with a couple of stubborn weeds, Jim contends the future direction of agriculture is with perennial plantings.

The commitment to grazing — to sustainability — is pervasive in the operation. The VanDerPols pasture 1,000 hogs, and equal number of chickens, several steer, and about 140 head of Cedar Summit Farm’s replacement diary cattle, mostly heifers. The gestating sows graze in the winter, and farrow Ð bear their young Ð in the pasture. The growing pigs are raised in hoop enclosures that are open to the weather.

Josh takes the lead on the hog operation, Jim with the cattle, and LeeAnn and Cindy lead on the business end. Jim stressed that they cross train and so contribute to the other disciplines as needed.

This intentionality Ð to reach across to one another Ð is characteristic of their outreach as well. It is deliberate and strategic. All four Ð Jim, LeeAnn, Josh and Cindy Ð have been working to get other farmers to join with them in the hog operation in order to assure adequate supply to meet the large demand. The cooperation helps “smooth out supply and risk,” explained Jim.

“And there’s been (so many families) moving off the farms and out of the rural areas,” said LeeAnn. “We’d like to see the rural areas revitalized because we need that for our communities.” “So if we can help some people who are really interested in it and who can do a good job with animal husbandry, and it helps make a living for them, then our investment of time benefits us and benefits the community,” added Jim.

These are not idle words. He and LeeAnn have contributed years of their time to teach and mentor farmers. Active in the Land Stewardship Project and the Sustainable Farming Association since the 1980s, LeeAnn served on the board of SFA’s Western Chapter from 1992-1996, chaired it from 1994-1996, and then was coordinator until 2001. Jim Held the Endowed Chair in Agricultural Systems at the University of Minnesota in 1999 and 2000, served on the LSP board from 2000-2008, and has published a column on agriculture and community since the mid-1980s.

The family also opens their farm to tour groups, including state and federal agencies and international visitors. They have taught about financial tools to the LSP’s Farm Beginnings classes for five years and continue mentoring others.

In the last several years, their work has been honored by the Midwest Food Alliance for marketing sustainable agriculture, by the Sustainable Farming Associations as Sustainable Farmers Emeritus, and by Niman Ranch Pork Company for the quality of their product.

Does this long-standing commitment to excellence and to teaching take a toll? “Sometimes we’re pretty tired,” admitted LeeAnn with a laugh. “But these are things we believe in. These organizations have given a lot to us. When we were making changes, they offered lots of workshops that helped us see some different ideas and ways of farming,” she continued.

That look to the future is deeply ingrained. “As a younger person, I’m already looking to the next generation,” said Cindy. She and Josh have three children already active in the work: Jacob, 13, Andrew, 11 and Kirsten, 8. Cindy said she would encourage her children’s interest in sustainable farming, and would advise them “to proceed with caution and understand how everything works.”

The family’s ongoing challenge is to meet the growing market demand with their sustainable farming system. “We work to take care of the land, so that it takes care of us,” said Jim. “We’re committed to that, and to cooperative learning.”

- Sylvia Burgos
Sylvia writes and podcasts about food, politics, culture and the economy at artisanbreadcheeseandwine.com >>

:: :: ::

Alan and Lori Callister:
A Passion for Connecting

This October, Alan and Lori Callister will head to Terra Madre for the second time. They hope their journey will help them convince more farmers to forge close connections with consumers, as they have done in Minnesota.

The Callisters farm in Dodge County, run an on-farm poultry processing plant, and also own Callister’s “Farm in the Market” in Minneapolis.

At the global farmers’ gathering two years ago, amidst 5,000 farmers and 1,000 chefs, Lori Callister experienced “an incredible amount of energy” in the room. “It was so amazing to find out we are not alone,” Lori recalls. “People around the world were thinking about good food, too,” she adds. “Many were even ahead of us.”

Terra Madre unleashed intense feelings. “I felt extra passionate. It made me feel stronger about how important it is to get the word out. This movement is coming.”

Italy is certainly a fine place to see just how important good food can be. The Callisters visited a parmesan cheese creamery, where they sampled the nutty flavors of ancient recipes. They drew back in awe when they saw a long wall where rows of prosciutto hung at the Salon of Taste (Salone del Gusto) global food fair. They marveled to see Italians eating slices cut directly from a curious white slab — that turned out to be lard.

One of their favorite moments was when a Bedouin shepherd (from the desert lands in the Middle East) shared his meal with them. “He shared whatever he was eating,” she beams. Of course, it was difficult to communicate, since the three shared no common language. Still, with smiles and hand signals, they managed to convey a great deal of warmth to each other. It was a confirmation of what Lori Callister has long believed — that food can bring people together.

Farm Beginnings
That dedication to forming connections is precisely what drives the Callisters to farm, and to run their local foods store at the Midtown Global Market at East Lake Street and Chicago Avenue. Lori says this value was instilled by her father, as she grew up in southeast Minnesota. “My dad was adamant about not buying meat when you didn’t know where it came from,” she recalls. Connecting requires genuine food. “We never bought margarine. We never bought fast food,” Callister adds. “We always gardened. We moved a lot, and that meant starting gardens again and again. We never had much money, but we always had good food.”

So it was quite a natural step when Alan and Lori began to raise chickens for themselves on their farm near West Concord, 65 miles south of the Twin Cities. At first, they just sold a few to their neighbors. But the response was so strong they took their poultry to the St. Paul farmers market. “We didn’t realize how popular our fresh chickens would become,” she says. “People are rediscovering how wonderful food can be.”

The Callisters call their poultry “modified free range.” Their chickens and turkeys roam pastures in the warmer months, but are confined when it gets cold. This protects the birds from coyotes, raccoons and other predators, but also reduces the agony of providing fresh water during freezing conditions. They use no medications, and neither antibiotics nor animal byproducts in their feed.

The Callisters credit Mike Lorentz, of Lorentz Meat Processing in Cannon Falls, with encouraging them to start processing chickens on their own farm. Lorentz also played a key role in fostering Thousand Hills Cattle Company’s grass-fed beef.

Lori recalls she had a long talk with Mike after their prior processor, Burt’s, closed down in the late 1990s. “We had no place close to us with USDA inspection,” Lori says. “Mike knew what to say at just the time I was ready to hear it. He said, if you really want to support local food, why not process your birds yourselves?”

The Callisters hesitated, thinking they did not raise enough birds to keep such a plant busy. Yet they also knew other poultry producers were traveling long distances for processing. So they built enough capacity to serve neighboring farms as well. They began to construct their plant in 1999. Now they process about 500 chickens each week, hiring the equivalent of six full-time people.

At the Market
Five years later, the Midtown Global Market approached them, suggesting they open a retail meat counter at the new marketplace. “It took us a year to figure out how it was going to work, especially fitting in the workload to the demands of our farm,” she adds. Still, she knew there was a need for such a store. “Not everyone can buy at the farmers’ market. I knew there was a place for a seven-day market.” Yet, she adds, she was fearful of the hours required. Indeed, their first partner left because it took too much time.

Lori says they feel totally welcome in South Minneapolis. A middle-income community, it has the feel of a small town. “It’s really a good choice for us. We know people by their first names. Our customers are amazed that they can walk in and get their questions answered,” unlike at many retail stores.

The nearby Powderhorn neighborhood launched a food co-op in the 1970s, and the Callister’s customers are often quite devoted to knowing where their food comes from. “They are very concerned about ecology, and reducing their carbon footprint,” Lori adds. Their fourth-largest sales day occurred on Earth Day, during a community festival.

By 2007, the Callisters decided they had to go beyond offering fresh meats. They brought in a new business partner, and created a deli counter so they could sell sandwiches and other foods.

Yet the Midtown site has also had its challenges. “Some of the shoppers are unclear why are in this building. It’s called an international market, yet here we are selling local foods. So, we’ll have to expand our marketing.”

There is also a lingering false perception, a legacy of the days when the neighborhood was lower-income, that it is unsafe. “A lot of people are afraid to come here. We have to work with those perceptions, even though that is not our experience here,” she says.

In addition to selling at the farmers market and their own retail store, the Callisters supply Corner Table and Lucia’s restaurants, and both the Just Food Cooperative and Carleton College in Northfield. They sell eggs, and turkeys for Thanksgiving. Another outlet is the farm store at Dave and Florence Minar’s Cedar Summit Farm.

This October, when the Callisters make the return journey to Terra Madre, as delegates from Slow Food Minnesota, they aim to turn their attention away from the store for a brief while. Certainly, Lori hopes to indulge herself with more samples of the world-class foods available at the Salone del Gusto. Yet her main goal is to make contact with more farmers from around the world. The Callister’s message is very much rooted in their day-to-day lives. “Farmers need to link with consumers,” Lori says. “A lot of our neighbors simply produce commodities. They don’t understand they also have to link to people.”

“We have a long way to go in the U.S., but we can get there,” Lori Callister adds.

- Ken Meter
Ken attended Slow Food’s Terra Madre initial two meetings in 2004 and 2006. He made a presentation about investment in food-related businesses at the 2006 event, and reported on both gatherings for Successful Farming magazine. As president of Crossroads Resource Center, Meter has studied food systems in 19 states, including a new study of the Minnesota food system for the Blue Cross Blue Shield Center for Prevention. For two decades, he lived in the Powderhorn neighborhood, near the site of Callister’s market.

:: :: ::

The Donnays, from left to right:
Katheryn, Brad, Michael, Joseph and Leanne.

Brad and Leanne Donnay
Donnay Dairy, Kimball, MN

Brad and Leanne Donnay truly value the farm life they’ve chosen. They produce healthful cheeses, have a family-oriented operation and are able to determine the scale of their business. But Brad readily offers that maintaining this life requires a serious investment of time and focus.

“If you’re thinking of becoming a dairy farmer, you’ve got to be prepared to do your research and to work a lot,” said Brad Donnay on a late July evening. He had taken a break to chat with Slow Food Minnesota: a break from hammer and nails. He’s adding another 48 feet to his barn.

“Lots of people like the idea of farming, but they also like their weekends,” he said. “And this is not a five-day-a-week job. It’s a lifestyle.”

It is a life Brad and his wife Leanne deliberately chose for several reasons, the primary one being the ability to raise their three children on a family farm. Little Katheryn will soon be four. Their sons, Joseph, nearly nine, and Michael, seven, already spend some time in the barn with their Dad. Every evening, the boys collect eggs, fill water tanks and provide feed while their dad milks 108 diary goats.

Although the Donnays began their dairy goat and farmstead cheese operation just four years ago, Brad is a fourth-generation farmer with deep experience in cow dairy operations and commercial cheese production. He worked at the on-campus University of Wisconsin River Falls cheese plant while pursuing his degree. (He minored in food science with an emphasis in dairy manufacturing.) He also worked in quality control at the Bongard’s Creameries before starting his first cow dairy ten years ago in partnership with his brother.

Shortly thereafter, the brothers added goats to the mix because of the growing demand for goat cheeses.

“I’d rather milk goats,” chuckles Brad. “They take less feed, produce less manure, and they don’t kick you. They’re just healthier animals,” he says.

But it wasn’t until 2004 that Brad and Leanne decided to set off on their own and establish the Donnay Dairy. Brad milks the goats and makes the cheese, the sales calls and deliveries. Leanne helps with the packaging. The Donnays raise their animals and make cheese without the use of antibiotics, herbicides or pesticides. They produce their fresh and aged cheeses using traditional methods.

Their commitment to organic methods stems from personal experience and concern for customer satisfaction. Brad recalls often feeling sick in his early years, when chemicals were used around the farm, and this led him to decide he didn’t want to eat foods tainted with these substances. He also thinks customers are reassured knowing his cheeses are made without chemicals.

But the main attraction of his fresh Chevre and aged Granite Ridge cheeses is the clean and distinctive flavor made possible by the use of traditional cheese-making methods. These include longer, low-heat pasteurizing and letting gravity and time — instead of presses — drain the whey from the curds.

“You end up with a better product,” said Brad. “The more you heat milk and run it through machines, the more you denature the fat and the proteins, producing off-flavors.”

When he began selling his cheeses in late 2004, Brad knocked on doors and handed out samples to restaurants in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Within two months he had 20 restaurants as regular customers. By the end of the first year, he had four distributors. And in 2006 his Chevre took third place at the American Cheese Society competition.

While many operations might use such success as a platform for fast growth, Brad has decided on slower growth in order to sustain his anchors in family and independence. “If I can make a living and support my family milking 120 goats and adding value by making the cheese, that is what I want.”

- Sylvia Burgos
Sylvia writes and podcasts about food, politics, culture and the economy at artisanbreadcheeseandwine.com >>

:: :: ::

Dave and Florence Minar and family win
2007 MOSES Farmer of the Year Award

Dave and Florence Minar, longtime members of Slow Food Minnesota, are farmers whose love for family, animals and the land as well as their openness to new ideas has led them on a wild and exciting ride as the owners of Cedar Summit Farm and Creamery. Taste a Cedar Summit product and you might agree with the customer who wrote that he hadn’t drunk milk for twenty years because he hadn’t liked it, but now “guzzles it out of the bottle.” The New Prague farm is guided by the philosophy that “healthy land equals healthy animals and healthy people.”

On Feb. 27 the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service recognized the Minar family’s outstanding organic production and land stewardship by granting them the 2007 MOSES Farmer of the Year award.

Cedar Summit is a 170-cow organic dairy farm on 470 acres. The certified organic milk is processed at an on-site creamery into a variety of products including ice cream, non-homogenized milk and heavy cream. Three-quarters of the milk is sold in returnable glass bottles. Cedar Summit also supplies milk to the PastureLand co-op for the production of butter and cheese. The creamery was built in 1997 as a means of making the farm viable financially and keeping the Minars’ five adult children and their spouses involved in the operation.

Cedar Summit sells its products at a store on the farm and delivers to more than 80 retailers and restaurants in the Minneapolis-St. Paul and New Prague areas. The farm store also sells other farmers’ products, such as turkeys, chickens, free-range eggs, meats, apples, cider, jams and jellies.

Cedar Summit has been in the family since 1926. Dave purchased the farm from his parents in 1969, when it was a conventional confinement dairy. The switch to organic began in 1974 after Dave was accidentally exposed to an herbicide that caused a frightening nervous-system reaction. “He was out working in the fields and had to come in the house and lie down,” Florence recalled. The Minars had been noticing for years that there weren’t any bees on the farm, and dead birds were a common sight. They had small children and were worried about their health. Dave’s incident and the other health and environmental concerns led to their discontinuing the use of pesticides forever.

The Minars went totally organic and switched to a rotational grazing system in the early 1990’s. The permanent pastures have the advantage of minimizing soil erosion, and grazing is economical because the cows harvest their own feed. It is also good for the health of the cows and the quality of the milk, which is high in omega-3 fatty acids. The cows’ well being is maintained without the use of harmful substances; for example, pinkeye is kept under control by good mineral supplementation, including kelp. Parasitic wasps are used with great success to control flies in the barnyard.

Florence and Dave are active in their community, serving on the Scott County Fair Board, Land Stewardship Project, Sustainable Farming Association and the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture. They have been steady supporters of Slow Food Minnesota.

Learn more about Cedar Summit Farm and Creamery at www.cedarsummit.com >>

Thanks to Joyce Ford, president of the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service for permission to run excerpts of her article and to Nicole de Beaufort for doing the excerpting.
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