It’s 7:30 a.m. and the dew has barely burned off the rows of neatly spaced horseradish, garlic, asparagus and lettuce.
Phua and Blia Thao, though, have been at work for hours, cutting vegetables at their 13-acre farm in the gentle hills of Spring Valley, Wis.
On this sunny morning, only the occasional rooster and songbird register a sound. Even the dog is silent, with the wag of its tail to greet a visitor.
Phua stoops over a rhubarb plant and breaks off stalks near the ground. She hands them in all their ruby red glory to her husband, Blia, who has pulled a wheelbarrow nearby. He carefully chops off the leaves and stacks the rhubarb like logs, a virtual lumberyard in the bottom of the cart.
Phua reaches for another stalk, then another, before moving down the row. “We keep rhubarb going until October,” she says with a smile that’s almost hidden by her wide-brimmed hat.
Phua and Blia, who run Thao Gardens, are part of a group of 17 farmers and two farmer cooperatives who have joined the Good Acre food hub in Falcon Heights in an effort to expand the market for their fresh produce.
Their organic farm off Interstate 94 is an easy drive to the Minneapolis Farmers Market, where the Thaos have a booth on Saturdays.
Mondays find them unpacking their produce at the Good Acre warehouse, ready to be dispersed into boxes for the hub’s community-supported agriculture (CSA) shares, which will be picked up by cooks the next day.
The Good Acre buys this produce from its farmers to guarantee them sales. This offers an alternative to farmers markets, where the vagaries of the weather, competing events or the relatively new dilemma of those who come for the social experience rather than for the produce can wreak havoc on purchases.
On this morning, though, with its soft breeze and just-right temperature, there is boundless hope and seemingly as many vegetables.
Rhys Williams, executive director at the Good Acre, reaches for a snow pea at the Thao farm. “This is a nice life,” he says, looking over the pristine farmland and marveling over the amount of work this acreage demands for two not-so-young farmers.
“If you are a gardener, you can see the appeal,” says Williams, who has spent more than 20 years in the field himself.
Williams regularly visits the acreage of the food hub’s farmers so he can check on their crops and see how the Good Acre can help them.
“We buy snow peas from Blia and Phua,” he says. “It’s a nice treat for the CSA. Not many farmers grow snow peas. Usually it’s snap peas.” So, too, with the garlic scapes. “Some people love them; some people hate them. But it’s a CSA.” He shrugs.
The unexpected is the point of such a vegetable box, a weekly allotment of prepaid produce that arrives ready for cooks who are looking for locally grown fruits and vegetables and who don’t blanch at the need for flexible menus.
The Good Acre makes sure that happens in its trim red warehouse off W. Larpenteur Avenue, adjacent to the University of Minnesota’s research acreage on its St. Paul campus. The back of the building houses a cavernous work space that offers farmers a space to wash or process produce, as well as to store it in refrigerated or freezer rooms until market time.
In the front of the building, a classroom and commercial kitchen open up the world of food to students, cooks and entrepreneurs. Even the parking lot is put to use on Thursdays, when vendors appear for a small weekly farmers market.
Expanding the marketplace
So what does it take to market a carrot (or a potato or rhubarb)?
Ask a major vegetable grower and you’ll find the answer in the produce aisle at the supermarket.
Pose that same question to a farmer with limited acreage and funds, and the answer may be more circumspect. That’s where the Good Acre steps in.
Its mission is to expand marketplace opportunities to low-income and immigrant farmers, those who can make use of the warehouse’s infrastructure to keep costs down. Not so incidentally, it also promotes access to locally grown produce and provides educational opportunities to the public (cooking classes and CSA newsletters) and farmers (how to extend the season with a hoop house; how to be certified organic).
The Good Acre opened its doors last fall as an initiative of the Pohlad Family Foundation, prompted by an idea that bubbled up among three Pohlad women: Sara, a third-generation Pohlad family member; her sister-in-law Lindsay, and cousin-in-law Allie.
“We are trying to open the doors to all small farmers who don’t have access to what we are offering, because of their ethnic background or that they are immigrants, or their lack of access to land,” said Sara Pohlad, chairman of the board at the Good Acre. “There are lots of things that make it very difficult for them to thrive.”
They looked at other food hubs around the country and, with the foundation, came up with a plan that they anticipated would work here.
Although initially the nonprofit was funded entirely by the foundation, the Good Acre staff is working on fundraising and development, with grants and sponsorships and income from the commercial kitchen and CSAs.
“We don’t want to do too much too soon,” Pohlad said. “The possibilities are endless. But we know that we need to take our time and have longer-term planning.”
Nathan Sartain, culinary arts director at St. Paul College, sings the praises of the Good Acre, where he buys produce, including the seconds — vegetables that might be overlarge or blemished but that his students can use in a braise or purée, where appearance doesn’t matter. “It can be cumbersome to work with individual farms,” he said. “One tax ID and I can order what I want, and the Good Acre does all the legwork.”
With the culinary program, ethical procurement of ingredients is part of the classroom discussion. “We take opportunities to reinforce that,” said Sartain, who uses the Good Acre as a lesson.
Two farmer cooperatives work with the nonprofit: the Hmong American Farmers Association and Shared Ground, a Latino network.
“The food hub model opens doors,” said Williams of the Good Acre. “These are farmers. They have no time to be at eight farmers markets.”
Back in Spring Valley, Phua and Blia Thao are still at work. The Hmong couple, originally from Laos, where their parents were farmers, moved to the U.S. in 1976. The Thaos settled in Nebraska, where Blia went to work for a phone company and Phua tended a family garden and took care of their children. In 2004, after Blia’s retirement, they began to farm here.
“We work every day. No break,” Phua says with a smile. “We’ve been inside all winter.”
The Thaos had picked 200 pounds of snow peas the previous week for CSA shares. And they are ready for more.
“I’m never bored,” Phua says. “I love the days when we work all day.”