As a rising sun lifts the chill from his rows of vegetables, Mohamed Gaabane pulls radishes, a singular lank figure in pursuit of the American dream.
This is Big River Farms, a 60-acre farm "incubator" near Marine on St. Croix, where immigrant and minority farmers learn how to produce crops that will find a ready market in Minnesota. It's here, where the field is a classroom, that they learn to grow organic food with dreams of something bigger.
Having been a farmer in Somalia, Gaabane looks forward to the day when he can return to farming in Minnesota. He wants a place where he can raise chickens and goats and grow kale, tomatoes, squash and other vegetables for his native community in the Twin Cities.
Across the field, Amy Doeun packs vegetables into boxes for delivery to customers. She and her husband, Proeun, a native of Cambodia, enrolled at Big River Farms three years ago. Their dream is much the same as Gaabane's -- to learn enough about agriculture to become independent farmers.
The Doeuns, a cross-cultural St. Paul family, have four children. Proeun drives a metro bus when he's not at Big River. Amy said they've been told by friends that they're "throwbacks" to an earlier time when farmers toiled away without help from machines to fill tables in nearby homes.
"I think it's a real big sense of accomplishment that we grew all this food that we're feeding all these families, feeding our family," Amy said. "It's a lot of hard work, but it's rewarding work."
Big River Farms, a program of the Minnesota Food Association (MFA), began operations in 2005 at its current location in the Wilder Forest in northern Washington County. Its mission: To train those enrolled in every aspect of farming, including the hard work of selling that comes after crop production.
Farming at Big River is done by hand. Plots vary in size, from a couple of rows to an acre or so, but they're never called "gardens." They are small-scale "farms" where enrollees learn the same practices that apply at bigger farms. They're even encouraged to name their farms, said Glen Hill, the MFA's executive director.
"They should have an identity. They should have a name to their farm. They should have a brand," Hill said.
The Doeuns did just that. They gave their operation a name: Crazy Boy Farm. And they started a website to promote their production and sale of organic vegetables.
Under that name, the family now sells boxes of vegetables to 29 customers in the Twin Cities. Amy's packing of vegetables at the farm last week was the 15th of the season. Brussels sprouts, winter squash, carrots, soybeans and broccoli all went into the boxes -- moving the country to the city.
They, like other farmers at Big River, sell their vegetables through the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. Customers pay $500 for their weekly deliveries of vegetables. Hill said CSA is one of several markets available to Big River farmers.
Immigrant farmers are taught to look beyond obvious markets for their food -- and to plant "high-value" crops that will bring higher prices -- to avoid going broke, Hill said.
"People want to grow food for their [native] communities, which is very noble and the right thing to do," he said. "When you get to the commercial standpoint, what is the market and what will it do? You're never going to be commercially viable selling only at farmers' markets."
Farmers must earn $500 to $800 a day at farmers' markets to make money, Hill said. They also need coolers to keep their leftover produce from spoiling.
At Big River, a one-acre farm costs $800 for a season, which includes space in the vegetable cooler. That amount includes a series of classroom courses taught in St. Paul during the winter as well as considerable instruction in the field.
Immigrant farmers are discouraged from trying to plant too much land at Big River because of the work involved in farming by hand.
"Free is not good, too cheap is not good, because we're trying to teach budgeting," Hill said.
By the time the sun was high in the sky, chasing shadows from the crops, Gaabane was still at work harvesting his radishes.
Farm Manager Aaron Blyth had agreed that very morning to buy 160 bunches from Gaabane for the CSA boxes.
"He'll be out here until the sun goes down," Hill said of Gaabane, a committed farmer who works steadily all day. "So for his first year and on a quarter acre, he is doing pretty well."
Kevin Giles • 651-925-5037 Twitter: @stribgiles