NEW ULM - It is a fresh, bright late-spring morning, and a handful of gardeners at Growing Green are busy tending row after row of vegetables, fruit and herbs.
Over the course of Minnesota's relatively short growing season - just 45 to 60 days - the one-acre plot will produce an abundance of pesticide-free produce - lettuce, radishes, turnips, kale, Brussels sprouts, asparagus, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, cilantro, basil, water melons, peas, beans, spinach, carrots...
Last year, the gardeners harvested 325 pounds of tomatoes, one of them says. Through its subscription system, the garden provided weekly boxes of fresh in-season produce to 33 families; this year, 50 families have signed up to receive the boxes!
Growing Green gardeners work a plot at the Putting Green park in New Ulm. They market their produce through a community-supported agriculture (CSA) subscription system.
Growing Green is just one piece in an increasingly sophisticated mosaic of local efforts directed at promoting environmentally responsible, sustainable farming efforts.
It ties in with a budding system of initiatives that seek to combine earth-friendly practices with boosting local economic growth and healthy personal choice.
These include the Farm to School and the Farm to Table movements, the Heart of New Ulm project, and ELF, a clever acronym for Eating Local Food, an emerging coalition of growers and citizens working to promote local food growing and consumption.
The Farm to Table movement is based on the rationale that industrial agriculture has made food inexpensive, but large-scale farming practices have hidden costs and push natural systems to the limit. Agricultural chemicals pollute water and find their way into our food as carcinogens. The soil loses fertility and water supplies dwindle.
Eat local, seasonal and sustainably grown food, advocates urge. One has a say by considering what to eat, when to eat it and how it is grown.
The CSA Model
Community-supported agriculture is a socio-economic model of agriculture and food distribution. A CSA consists of a community of individuals who pledge support to a farm operation where the growers and consumers share the risks and benefits of food production. CSAs usually consist of a system of weekly delivery or pick-up of vegetables and fruit in a vegetable box scheme, sometimes including dairy products and meat.
Good for the farmer:
* Has guaranteed customers, no need to borrow money in the beginning of season, less time on marketing, economically sustainable
* Shares risk with the consumer - farmer doesn't guarantee what exactly consumer will get, or a certain quantity, or a certain time. However, unless the farmer suffers a total loss (highly unlikely), the consumer will get their money's worth over the growing season.
Good for the consumer:
* Weekly box force consumer to eat more produce, wider variety, things a consumer may not normally try but should; an adventure in eating
* First priority of the farmer is to fill the CSA boxes, then market to others
The Growing Green project is a collaboration of the Putting Green environmental learning park and MRCI WorkSource, says Tracie Vranich, who is closely involved with several of the projects.
The conversation between the two non-profits started in 2006; in 2007, they formed a task force to write a business plan funded by a grant through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and planted a trial "pizza" garden.
Since 2008, the group has been farming roughly an acre, and is currently providing produce to the community through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) memberships, with some wholesaling to local businesses.
Growing Green's stated goals include improving community health, supporting a healthy earth, increasing education and awareness, and a meaningful local employment for MRCI clients.
The idea behind the garden is to provide a subscriber with $250 worth of produce over the growing season, the quantity and assortment varying throughout the summer.
CSA members - who can buy either a full ($250) or a half ($125) share - also receive weekly e-mail reminders, with recipes and ideas for preparing the produce.
"CSA members are key to our business model," Vranich says. "If we can't succeed economically, we can't continue the project."
The project has some items for sale on the side - its own and those of other local growers.
Working out in the open provides MRCI clients with a job choice, satisfaction and ownership, advocates add.
The project is currently small - but wants to become bigger, with the plot at the Putting Green being a training ground and demonstration site.
Awareness of local foods is gaining national momentum.
Many advocates became more confident after First Lady Michelle Obama publicized the planting of an organic garden on the White House grounds.
The USDA is making an effort to encourage regional production of food to create jobs in rural areas and to connect consumers with the farmer growing their food.
The Farm to School Initiative - a collaborative between Center for Food and Justice and the Community Food Security Coalition - teaches children about the path from farm to fork and seeks to instill healthy eating habits.
Using local produce in school meals, the project provides new markets for area farmers and mitigates the environmental impact of transporting food over long distances.
The University of Minnesota supports Farm to School, with information and encouragement for school districts trying to get local foods into the school lunch program.
Advocates like Vranich; Laurel Gamm, the original force the Putting Green environmental learning park and related projects; and quite a few others - are working on increasing the local school systems' involvement.
The case for consuming local food is strong, advocates say.
Obesity has been acknowledged as a national health crisis, with study after study urging an increase in fruit and vegetable consumption.
And what tastes more appetizing than locally grown, fresh produce?
Knowing your farmer, Vranich says, can alleviate food safety concerns and, in the larger scheme of things, cut down oil usage and dependence on foreign oil.
"We're consuming about 400 gallons of oil a year per citizen - about 17 percent of our nation's energy use - for agriculture - a close second to our vehicular use," Vranich quotes statistics as saying.
If people in the United States ate just one meal a week composed of locally and organically raised meats and produce, they would reduce the country's oil consumption by more than 1.1 million barrels!
Organic produce coming from smaller farms helps reduce chemicals in our diet, Vranich adds.
"We are ingesting toxins, antibiotics, growth hormones, etc., without knowing the side effects," she says.
Some studies link attention deficit and hyperactivity to chemicals used in food production.
Local organic farming efforts have received an indirect boost from the Heart of New Ulm, a heart disease reduction initiative pioneered by the local hospital system.
"The Heart of New Ulm has found that we do not get enough fruits and vegetables in our diet, leading a push "to make a change for our heart health," says Vranich.
Beside Growing Green, options for local foods in the New Ulm area include farmer's markets, seeking out local food items in grocery stores, a plot in a community garden, gardening in your own yard, or checking out the Minnesota Grown website for a listing of local growers.
When Growing Green activists started looking into a farm project in 2006, there weren't any CSAs in our immediate area, says Vranich.
"Now, there are a few from which to choose."
ELF is a newly-formed coalition promoting local food consumption and production.
The group wants to raise awareness of the benefits of local foods; bring local producers together as a group for mutual benefit; assist the public - families, schools, restaurants, cafeterias in hospitals and nursing homes - in acquiring local foods more readily; and increase the number of local sustainable farmers.
"We would like other local producers interested in joining ELF to get in touch with us," says Vranich.
"I don't know how you do that exactly - but they could contact either Tracie Vranich or Laurel Gamm, or e-mail Putting Green, at firstname.lastname@example.org."