Vegging out at work in company gardens

  • Article by: KIM PALMER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 7, 2010 - 10:59 PM

More companies are ripping out manicured lawns to create on-site vegetable gardens as healthy perks or volunteer opportunities for employees.

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Tavi Sivongxay tended her cherry tomatoes in the Quantum Controls company garden behind the Chanhassen company building.

Photo: David Brewster, Star Tribune

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When machinist Glen Davis wants fresh tomatoes, he doesn't have to buy them -- he just picks them off the vine at his workplace, Quantum Controls, a small design and manufacturing firm in a Chanhassen office park. Last spring, owners Pete Pemrick and Wendy Eggers decided to till a grassy area behind their building, haul in black dirt and turn it into a vegetable garden for their employees.

"We enjoy gardening at home, but some of our employees live in apartments," Eggers said. "We thought the garden would help promote healthy eating."

Davis, who also grows watermelons, celery and cauliflower, likes sampling his co-workers' surplus crops, and getting outdoors during breaks to pull weeds or "just watch the garden grow," he said. "I get the satisfaction of growing my own food, and the camaraderie with other employees."

Quantum Controls has lots of company this growing season. Business-sponsored edible gardens are sprouting all around the Twin Cities and nationwide -- at mom-and-pop operations and corporate headquarters alike.

Company veggie plots were virtually unheard of a few years ago, but a perfect storm of factors have combined to spark a trend. The local-food movement and concerns about food safety and the environment have fueled a resurgence in edible gardening.

And in a faltering economy, with wages frozen or reduced for many, saving money on grocery bills is a bonus for both workers and bosses.

"It's an innovative, inexpensive way to provide a benefit for employees when times are tough," said Fred Haberman, co-founder of Haberman & Associates, a Minneapolis public relations firm that sponsors a garden on farmland owned by one of its partners in Delano. Haberman's "Dude Ranch," started last year, has been featured in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times and recently was named one of the top benefits ideas of the year by Human Resources Executive magazine.

At most company gardens, the produce goes home with the workers. Haberman has a core group of "diehards" who trek to Delano to tend and harvest the crops, Haberman said, but all employees share the garden's bounty. Each week, Liz Morris Otto, "chief gardening officer" and owner of the farmland, delivers coolers of produce to the company's downtown office. This year, the company added a second drop-off at Open Arms, a charitable organization, and is considering creating a small downtown satellite farm next year. "Accessibility is key, so employees participate," Otto said.

Grass gets the boot

The homegrown revolution is radically rewriting the rules about what constitutes an acceptable corporate landscape. While traditional manicured lawns are still the norm, many companies are now tearing up their water-guzzling turf grass and replacing it with food-producing plants -- just as the White House in 2009 tore up part of the South Lawn to put in a vegetable garden, the first since FDR's presidency.

Last year, Ralph Hegman, owner of Hegman Machine Tool in Maple Grove, put in a garden for his employees at the suggestion of his wife, then a graduate student in horticulture. "It was so silly to have all that grass," Hegman said. He and his wife bought plants and materials, and a few employees installed the garden. "It's an investment in employee morale and health," Hegman said.

Controller Don Gerlach helped build the raised beds out of "selfish motivation -- for fresh produce." He gardens at home, but he and his wife don't like all the same vegetables, he said. "The garden brings business more down to earth. It's a great use of space."

Cut Fruit Express has been providing free garden space to employees at its Inver Grove Heights facility for five years, according to employee Linda Kelly. "Many of the 'growers' live in apartments and do not have the space available for growing vegetables," she said.

Aveda also has a large vegetable garden, now in its second growing season, at its Blaine headquarters. "We have an organic cafeteria on-site, and we use as much local produce as possible," said Evan Miller, director of global communications. "We thought, 'Why not start growing our own?'" Employees tend the crops, often during the workday. "As long as it's OK with their supervisor, they're free to go out whenever," Miller said. "It's given some people an outlet to do gardening that they can't do at home." Even employees who want the fresh food without the toil can participate in a crop share for $10 a season.

A giving garden

Some company gardens take a different approach -- donating all their produce to charity. At Blue Cross Blue Shield's headquarters in Eagan, employees grow vegetables for Lewis House, a shelter for victims of domestic violence, and for the Eagan food shelf. The garden was an employee-driven initiative, according to Susan Brousseau, senior IT business liaison. It was inspired three years ago when she and two colleagues were returning from lunch. "We saw all the sprinklers going on the lawn, and Joan [Barrett] said, 'We need a garden -- all that water and flat space.'"

The women asked their employer for permission to dig up the lawn. "We knew we wanted to donate the food," Brousseau said. "Food shelves' needs have gone up so significantly." Now, the company has about 40 active gardeners and also sponsors "Adopt a Crop," in which departments take responsibility for parts of the garden.

A few companies have plots that produce food used in their own kitchens, such as the rooftop garden at Hennepin County Medical Center, which grows herbs for use in the cafeteria.

"Herbs are expensive to buy," said Lisa Nadeau, a dietitian and operations manager for food and nutrition. Patients, as well as employees, benefit, she said. "One whole planter bed is Hmong herbs, traditionally used for women after giving birth. We provide that for patients who request it."

At Common Roots Cafe in Minneapolis, some menu items are now made from produce grown in a garden across the alley. When two rundown roominghouses were torn down, cafe owner Danny Schwartzman "had the opportunity to do what I always wanted to do," which was create an urban kitchen garden. About 10 percent of the cafe's produce, in dollar purchases, now comes from the garden, he said, "but being cost-effective was not the goal. For me, it was to get people thinking about local food."

Even some companies that don't provide gardens are offering garden-related benefits. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency offers an on-site crop share, as well as a program to help employees grow food at home, including classes and activities throughout the growing season. And while company-supported gardening is a new trend, it's rooted in an old one, according to environmental engineer Steve Gorg.

"We're reinvigorating the Victory Garden concept from the World War II era," he said, "to offset the environmental impact of growing and transporting food."

Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784

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