At 5 p.m. last Tuesday, when many workers were heading home, employees at one downtown Minneapolis public relations firm capped off their workday by getting their hands dirty in a Delano farm field. Together, they picked beans and beets, pulled weeds and hoed the pumpkin patch at the organic vegetable garden sponsored by their employer, Haberman & Associates.
"It's an experiment," said co-founder and CEO Fred Haberman, who hatched the idea earlier this year with business partner Liz Morris Otto, who hosts the garden at her hobby farm. The garden grew out of their desire to walk a row in their clients' shoes, according to Haberman. With several clients in the sustainable agriculture and organic food industry, including the National Cooperative Grocers Association, Organic Valley and Annie's Homegrown, "We were talking about what's the best way to get people, including me, to learn what our clients are going through and where our food really comes from," he said. "Our mission is telling the stories of pioneers, and we also try to do pioneering things ourselves. We decided to create our own CSA" (community-sponsored agriculture).
Haberman's garden, dubbed the "Dude Ranch," is unusual, but it reflects a cultural movement: the growing U.S. appetite for bringing food production closer to home. The National Gardening Association (NGA) recently projected a 19 percent increase in food gardening in 2009, with 43 million households expected to participate. They're motivated by a desire for better-tasting, better-quality food, to save money on food bills and to grow food they know is safe, according to NGA data.
Such consumers represent a robust business sector identified as "Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability" or LOHAS. "We spend a lot of time marketing to them," said Haberman, whose firm also lists a number of health care clients and who has a personal passion for organic food and its health benefits.
Sponsoring a garden "suits our needs, because of our client mix," said Morris Otto. But it also provides a relatively low-cost way to offer employees an added benefit in a business climate when many benefit packages are being downsized. Haberman & Associates, which projects net fee income of $3.8 million for 2009, a modest increase over 2008, has not had to cut its staff or benefits during the past year. "We're not suffering as a business, but times are tough," she said. "We wanted to do this as a gift to our employees. And it's a huge team builder and culture builder."
The company invested about $5,000 to get the garden up and growing, plus another $5,000 in soft costs (time spent on research and coordination), Haberman said. Approximately two-thirds of the company's 30 employees have committed to making at least three visits during the growing season to tend the garden. The company also hires two 13-year-old neighbors to help with daily chores, such as watering.
Employees who work the garden get "first dibs" on its produce, Morris Otto said, but all employees will share in the bounty. "Our goal is that every employee will touch the garden in one way or another."
Employee David Hlavac said he "jumped at the chance" to sign up for garden duty. "I thought it was great, the coolest employee benefit ever. This is a real benefit: food that we can take home and eat."
Renee Kelly, who lives in a downtown apartment and has no previous gardening experience, said working in the garden helps her relate to her clients, which include food co-ops and organic farmers. She also enjoys spending time with her colleagues in a different setting. "There's a sense of calm out here. You can get away from the desk and the computer and get to know each other on a deeper level."
Big plans for the garden
Haberman & Associates has big plans for its garden. It will host a harvest party in September and will can some of the yields to share as holiday gifts. Excess produce also will be donated to food shelves, Haberman said. The firm hopes its garden will be a model for other organizations, and invites them to seek further information at its website, www.modernstorytellers.com.
While corporate vegetable gardens appear rare, some local employers are making organic food more accessible to their employees in other ways. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is in its second season of sponsoring a worksite CSA dropoff, said Alexis Donath, who coordinates the program. Participation has more than doubled, from 51 employees last year to 116 this year.
Worksite CSA dropoff programs do appear to enhance employee health, said Marcus Thygeson, associate medical director/vice president for consumer health solutions for HealthPartners, which is studying the impact of participation on healthy eating habits.
Thygeson said he was not aware of other company-sponsored gardens, but "it's a neat idea. It's part of the whole movement of residential farming, turning your lawn into a vegetable garden," he said. "Pretty soon the whole country will be growing food."
That's something Haberman would love to see, as an alternative to the traditional manicured landscape of most corporate headquarters. "I hope other companies are inspired to do this," he said. "Wouldn't it be phenomenal if General Mills took that big grass lawn and planted an organic garden? Imagine the food that could be created."
Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784