Mankato sees more interest in community supported ag farms
KASOTA, Minn. (AP) — As another round of snow fell on south-central Minnesota, blanketing the landscape in early April, bright green leaves of lettuce already were popping up, shielded by a tunnel-shaped frame covered in clear tarp.
While freezing outside, the makeshift greenhouse hovered at a relatively balmy 50 degrees. It’s just one approach small-scale produce farmers use to lengthen the growing season for Community Supported Agriculture farms around Mankato. CSA members pay a fee directly to the farmer in exchange for a season’s worth of produce every week, sharing the risk and rewards, the Mankato Free Press reported.
Dan Zimmerli, who runs Cedar Crate Farm near Kasota, built the greenhouse in March of this year to give 15 varieties of lettuce an early start. It will go into the first shares of his CSA, with more members signing up every year.
“We’re sold out completely for this season,” Zimmerli said. “We have a wait list for people to be notified up front for next year when our shares become available.”
As a student at Gustavus College, Zimmerli recalled being disappointed with the taste of vegetables at grocery stores, so he planted a garden, sharing the surplus produce with friends and co-workers. That was when he and his wife, Lara, decided to start a small CSA on an acre of land.
“Our first year we did eight CSA shares and it was just friends or coworkers from my other job,” Zimmerli said. “We did the farmers market on Saturday with whatever extras we had left over from the CSAs. This year we had 51 members. We’ve doubled every year until last year, when we had 50 members.”
One of those members is Nick Sonsteby, who works with Zimmerli in the technology services department at Gustavus College in St. Peter.
“In the summer, that’s where I get 95 percent of my vegetables,” Sonsteby said. “It’s important to us where the vegetables come from. They taste better and last longer since they were just harvested.”
Like Zimmerli, John Knisley makes use of a greenhouse to jump start cold tolerant plants like lettuce, herbs, strawberries and rhubarb at his farm, Alternative Roots, near Madelia. When he and his wife started a CSA in 2011, they focused on vegetable produce for 18 weeks during the summer months. When they expanded to 16 acres of fruit trees, they decided to focus on spring, fall and winter CSAs instead to provide area residents with fresh food options during those non-peak seasons.
“In the fall and winter we’ll have all kinds of fruit still available,” Kinsley said. “We also have a passive deep-winter greenhouse so we’re able to grow greens all winter long as well for folks. What we typically grow in there are salad greens and micro greens. We can pair that with stuff we have planted and can store, so things like carrots, onions, squash, apples, pears — those things that last longer into the season.”
Signing up for membership begins early, with summer CSAs filling up as early as March or April, and usually include a full or half share costing a few hundred dollars for 16-18 weeks of produce.
Knisley said joining a CSA is an alternative to getting produce at the grocery store, which can come from other states and countries.
“The number one benefit is you are getting the freshest possible food,” he said. “So when you get something from a local farmer — whether it’s at market or CSA — that’s typically been harvested within the last 24 hours.”
The concept of Community Supported Agriculture began in the 1960s in Japan and Europe and spread to include farms in the United States in the 1980s. As CSAs grew in popularity, so did the competition, with businesses modeled on a similar premise but on a larger scale.
“About two to three years ago, there was a ton of momentum,” Knisley said. “Now it’s leveling out and there’s also some different types of competition out there doing something similar, like Hello Fresh; that concept is kind of like a CSA in that it gives you fruit or vegetables each week, but you don’t know exactly where your food is coming from and it’s sourced all over the place.”
Tim Guldan, a teacher at Dakota Meadows Middle School in North Mankato, grew up on a farm near New Ulm that has been in his family since the 19th century. He said when his parents were running the farm as a CSA and he was assisting, they peaked at 150 members. Since his father retired and his mother died, Guldan said they have been hovering at about 100 members for the last few years. Members begin signing up for a summer share as early as January, and planting begins in February in his basement before firing up the greenhouse in March.
“The advantage with starting a lot of the crops indoors is that once they’ve matured enough to be planted, there’s about a week or so window where I hope that some ground somewhere is dry enough to get them planted. I grow quite a few different varieties of each type of vegetable,” Guldan said. “Some do better in wetter seasons and some do better in drier seasons. So it’s kind of like a bit of insurance; at least one of them hopefully turns out well.”
By July, when tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, peas and sweet corn are abundant, Guldan hires seasonal help to harvest vegetables. Zimmerli, who hired a part-time farm hand last year, plans to hire two this year. Like Zimmerli, Guldan’s CSA reached capacity this year, and they encourage people interested to sign up early. Knisley said they haven’t opened up their fall CSA memberships until he can ensure there will be a good crop following the spring bloom.
Half shares are most popular at Guldan’s farm, and Zimmerli said a half-share generally provides enough produce a week to feed two or three people, where a full share can feed a family of four to six. An example of a half-share would include four or five ears of corn, a bunch of carrots, five beets, mixed greens and whatever extras are on hand, from kohlrabi to kale.
Karen Mortitz, of North Mankato, has a half-share through Guldan’s farm. He releases a newsletter to members with recipes for some of the less common varieties of produce.
“Even though it might be something I don’t use regularly, I try to incorporate it in some way,” Moritz said. “I’ve kept those recipes and print them out to use every year.”
Despite what Knisley said is a plateau in the popularity of CSAs nationally, Zimmerli said having new members placed on a wait list every year because they’ve reached capacity is a good sign.
“Regionally in this area, there’s a growing interest in CSA,” Zimmerli said. “However, if you look at the national metrics, especially on the coasts, people say that CSAs are declining or facing a lot more competition. It’s hard to say for sure, but we feel like it is growing and is still a really good market for us. The Mankato-St. Peter area is really becoming a local food hub. I think that CSA will probably continue to grow certainly for the next five years.”
Information from: The Free Press, http://www.mankatofreepress.com