Local food writer Beth Dooley was attending a meeting on food and nutrition in St. Paul schools about 20 years ago when a burly, bearded man in overalls hijacked the confab.
The man "kind of barged in and said how we're feeding the kids crap, and they don't understand where the food comes from," Dooley recalled recently. "He was a pioneer, and he was incredibly radical."
Dooley soon learned that the ardent sustainable-agriculture activist was Bruce Bacon, a Ramsey, Minn., farmer whose influence left an indelible mark on the Twin Cities restaurant and food scene.
Bacon, 76, died Oct. 3 at his home, known as Garden Farme, which has been in his family for more than 100 years. His close friend of more than 50 years, David Rubenstein, said Bacon suffered a stroke in the summer and likely passed away in his sleep from another stroke.
"Bruce was a force," Rubenstein said.
Bacon grew up in Anoka and attended the University of Oregon and the University of Minnesota. It was at the U that he befriended Rubenstein during the tumultuous 1960s.
"We were anti-Vietnam war and anti- a lot of other things, including the St. Paul campus [agriculture] school, which we considered a handmaiden to the chemical industry and big agriculture," Rubenstein said.
At the start of the next decade — 1970 — Bacon returned to the family farm to seek refuge from the unrest of the university's West Bank. He moved in with his great-uncle Joe, who grew corn and other crops, and slowly began rebuilding the farm's soil.
For years Bacon gathered hay from one neighbor, horse manure from another and wood chips from a local municipality to amend the fields. The farm was certified organic in 1977 and would come to host innumerable visitors, including a contingent of students from China and musicians such as Spider John Koerner, Willie Murphy and the Cactus Blossoms.
"The soil he built is amazing," Rubenstein said. "You can stand there on a dry day and push a pitchfork 10 inches into the ground."
Kristin Tombers, owner of Clancey's Meats and Fish, was so impressed with basil grown on Bacon's farm that in 2004 she placed an overly optimistic order: 20 pounds. "And he didn't say anything," Tombers said with a laugh. "He just let us take 20 pounds of basil, and bag after bag of basil came in the door."
He supplied produce and honey to local co-ops and several restaurants, including the Birchwood Cafe. He also freely gave away what he grew and gathered.
"Every time you saw Bruce, he was giving someone" honey, squash or garlic, said Dooley. "He was incredibly generous."
His generosity extended to his own home, where several people lived throughout the years while helping around the farm. Many sought him out to learn how to work the land; others were simply in transition, and some had nowhere else to go.
"It was just this big ol' family," Dooley said. "It was a welcoming place for people."
Photographer John Ratzloff spent five years in the farmhouse, which he recalls was plastered with maps and hundreds of old family photos.
"I met so many young people — idealistic people," Ratzloff said. Bacon "needed support, and he liked the company."
Friends said Bacon's biggest passion was educating others about soil health and farming.
"It was fun how eager he always was to pull a crabapple off a tree and have you smell it," Tombers said. "Anything off his land he was eager for you to see it, smell it, know about it. He was all about education."
Bacon is survived by two sons, Justin and Thorsten Bacon, and five grandchildren. One memorial service has been held, and another is pending. The future of Garden Farme is unclear.