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Growing off the grid: How connecting with her food led a Winona woman to find community

Madeline HeimMay 25, 2019

Kelsey Fitzgerald points a dirt-caked finger at the spot in her garden where she once planted tomatoes next to beans. It was a disaster.

The beans climbed up and over, growing faster than their round red neighbors could catch up. Now, she knows tomatoes need to be planted on their own.

That experience and others like it haven’t stopped her from intra-cropping, or putting together a patchwork of different varieties of produce — garlic nestled next to radishes, kohlrabi near the cabbage. She maps everything carefully, so she knows which pairings work and how she can arrange them differently next year.

“I don’t like wasted space,” she explained.

It’s an understatement.

Follow a short wooded path away from the garden and you’d find Fitzgerald’s tiny house, a solar-powered single room with a pantry addition on one side and a greenhouse on the other, and an outdoor shower and composting toilet close by. Up over the hill sits her mini barn, which she and her brother built to hold the fruits and vegetables of her labor.

While sparse on the luxuries that many urban-dwellers enjoy, the two-acre property — located near the unincorporated community of Witoka — has everything Fitzgerald needs to run her newest venture, Willie Nillie Farm, and the foodshare program that has become her community.

“On a lot of the farms I worked on, when things didn’t go right, we’d be like, ‘Man, they just run this willy-nilly,’” she laughed. “But I can’t control the weather or pests or when lightning is going to hit my house, or whatever. In that regard, farming is very willy-nilly … I try and go with the flow.”

Fitzgerald, who works four days a week at the Bluff Country Co-op in Winona, moved to the area from the Twin Cities two years ago armed with knowledge about sustainable eating, growing and living, and “hoped for the best.” She battled cabin fever her first winter in the house, especially since snow plows don’t reach her driveway, meaning she must snowshoe the winding path to the main road.

But she nurtured connections over time; with her neighbors, who have been living off the grid for decades, with her coworkers at the co-op and with a friend in town who eventually introduced her to most of her foodshare members.

The community supported agriculture model rose to popularity as a way to connect food consumers with food growers, but Fitzgerald wanted to take it a step further — they pick up from the farm directly, and get some face time with their farmer.

“I’m trying to push people to participate, not just coming to a place and picking up a box,” she said. “They can ask me questions about things they’re unfamiliar with and get excited about those things, or other preservative questions, and just feel more engaged.”

What’s in her CSA boxes varies with the season, but to an observer it would seem that she grows almost everything. An orchard with apples, plums, pears and apricots, a blueberry and black currant patch, leafy greens, snow peas, rhubarb, garlic, asparagus, broccoli, strawberries and arugula, to name a few. And a friend is taking some of her fruits to make kombucha flavors to throw in the mix.

There are 14 members, 10 who pay, three on work-trade at the farm and one on a barter system. Many of them visited recently to help her put up her hoop house.

She also hopes to host CSA potlucks later in the season, “Iron Chef-style.” Everyone starts with kohlrabi, for example, and some people bring an appetizer, an entree, a veggie and a dessert. The practice is meant to show folks a multitude of recipes for the less-common items in their CSA box.

“The goal for me with a CSA is not necessarily that people are going to be lifelong members … it’s for people to get excited about food, to be like, ‘Yeah, I want to grow my own,’” she said. “Even if they just have two pots of tomatoes in their front yard. Just having that green thumb, and the joy and satisfaction that comes with it.”

On the days she doesn’t spend at the co-op, Fitzgerald is working on her property from at least 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., with a half-hour break for lunch if she thinks she has time. She has an organized system of what to tackle each day, and she’s careful not to overextend herself — even if she thinks that doing more would be fun.

But while one woman can’t do it all, she’s hoping someday, others might.

If a friend, a college intern or even a stranger looking to settle in wanted to start growing mushrooms or raising goats on the farm, she’d happily add on to the tiny house or build some of what she calls “permanent tents” nearby.

It would only add to the community of the place: a group of neighbors living simply off the land and their connection to the earth.

“All the people I’ve met have been super excited about (the farm), at one point or another have all come out and helped in some way,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s something I felt I was lacking in my life where I was, to some extent, and I was really hoping to find here.”

“I just had to take this leap of faith — and it seemed to work out really well.”

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