Fifty years ago, most farms in the upper Midwest produced a diverse array of foods – multiple vegetables and grains, a few different types of livestock, a handful of chickens for eggs, and a couple of cows for milking. The majority of farms today are specialized to raise one or two types of animals, or two to three varieties of crops. Currently, corn and soybeans cover 75% of Minnesota farmland. Hog farms account for 18% of the state’s agricultural revenues and dairy cattle, turkeys, and egg-laying chickens are also commonly raised here. As our farm economy has slowly transitioned from more to less diversity, small farms have consolidated into larger farms as well. There are now fewer people farming larger areas of land, with the average Minnesota farm being 349 acres, according to the latest Census of Agriculture.
Though there are still small farms, orchards, vegetable growers, and people growing “alternative crops,” I’ve noticed an odd phenomenon develop over time in the way that people talk about these kinds of farms. I hear folks using words like “cute”, “charming”, “quaint”, or, perhaps worst of all, “hobby farms.” Anyone who has ever worked on a farm will tell you there is nothing cute about farming.
My aunt and uncle manage a small organic farm in northern Michigan, the kind that tourists like to visit while they’re up at the lake during the summer. Mike and Phyllis grow a variety of vegetables and cut flowers to sell at the local farmers market. They have a roadside stand where you can fill your own bag with veggies; payment is on-your-honor in a box attached to the table. Until recently, they also sold farm shares to area residents through a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. These programs connect people directly with the farmers growing their food. Members sign up during the spring and pay all or a portion of their payment in advance. Then, during the growing season, they receive a box of food every week – usually vegetables, but sometimes also fruit, eggs, meat or honey. Though their members undoubtedly find the program charming, I know that Mike and Phyllis work long, hard hours at the farm. They are up early in the morning hoeing, planting, weeding fields. There are greenhouses to maintain and water lines to fix. The flowers and veggies don’t pick and pack themselves either. I spent one month working on a small farm in Costa Rica ten years ago and can personally attest to the fact that every single task required to run a farm is laborious.
At Governor Dayton’s Water Summit this past weekend, there was a lot of discussion about how best to reduce agricultural water pollution. People shared their opinions about the relative advantages and disadvantages of enacting tougher regulations versus incentivizing voluntary conservation practices. During a small group session I participated in, we wondered how metro-area residents could support farmers in Greater Minnesota as they adopt better land management practices that sometimes reduce profits. We also talked about the fact that many people today don’t know where their food is grown, have never been on a farm, and don’t know the farmers in their own communities. It is difficult to have meaningful conversations about reducing agricultural water pollution if we don’t know who we are asking to change or what we are asking them to do differently.
Community supported agriculture doesn’t necessarily solve water quality problems in Minnesota, but it is one way for people to better know their local farmers and the land where their food is grown. Many CSA farms follow organic farming guidelines, use integrated pest management, or use other practices such as cover crops that help to reduce runoff pollution and nurture soil health. My husband and I have purchased a share from the same farmers for 14 years and have discovered that the program also forces us to expand out palettes, eat more veggies, and cook more meals at home. Plus, it is like Christmas every week when we open our box and find out what’s inside.
If you are interested in trying a CSA membership this year, Minnesota Grown has an on-line directory of 90 CSA farms in Minnesota, as well as hundreds of farmer’s markets, orchards, and berry patches where you can buy directly from farmers. The Land Stewardship Project also has on-line lists of CSA farms that deliver to the Twin Cities area. River Market Co-op in Stillwater will be holding a CSA Fair on Saturday, March 12 from 1-4pm. The event will take place at Maple Island Brewing (225 Main St N.) and there will be several local farmers attending.