Taste 50: It's the year of the farm

  • Article by: RICK NELSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 5, 2013 - 2:02 PM

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There are 79,400 family farms in Minnesota, but that number is just the beginning of the story. The figure, from 2012, comes courtesy of the state’s Department of Agriculture. Government has its idea of what constitutes a farm — and a farmer — and we have ours.

To us, the definition grows blurrier by the day. Is it the kitchen staff tending to a restaurant’s rooftop garden? Or the mushroom enthusiast, cultivating spores on a few acres outside St. Paul? Or a group of entrepreneurial urbanites coaxing heirloom vegetables out of inner-city lots?

It’s definitely the beyond-the-suburbs spread that supplies three-quarters of the needs of a south Minneapolis restaurant, and the family-owned operation that grows and mills a staggering variety of organic grains. It includes the farmstead dairies that deliver much-needed diversity to the supermarket milk case. From there, our curiosity took us to the ever-strengthening connections between urban consumer and rural producer: a trio of prairie-to-plate trailblazers, a locavore’s butcher shop, an Internet-based buyer’s club and a natural foods co-op’s conduit to fresh, organically raised vegetables.

Then there’s the retailer focusing on the rapidly expanding urban farm audience, the ultimate Hmong mentor farmer, the project that draws inner-city students to the land and the low-tech reason why we’re enjoying farm-fresh vegetables during less-than-hospitable growing conditions.

Here's this year's Taste 50:

Farmers’ best friend
It’s fitting that the state’s largest farmers market is home to the state’s most vocal farmers market advocate. For the past five years, first via a radio show and now on the “Fresh & Local” podcast, Susan Berkson has been extolling the virtues of the team effort that is the Minneapolis Farmers Market. “I get to be a cheerleader for something that’s worth cheering about,” she said, namely the 200-plus growers that make the open-every-day market happen. “Being interested in food is trendy now, but these are the people who have been doing the dirty, hard work, and doing it forever, and they’ll be doing it when it’s no longer trendy. They love the land, they love what they do and they have a great story. It’s a privilege to share it.” Berkson, who calls herself the market’s “chief gadfly” — is also the nimble texting fingers behind the market’s highly active Twitter feed (@MplsFarmMarket), and her affection for the market is boundless, in part because of the diverse community of shoppers who flood the place, particularly on weekends. “It’s the one public space where you see everybody,” she said. “It’s not your grandparents’ Minneapolis; it’s the true face of Minneapolis today. And everyone mixes and mingles in ways you wouldn’t see elsewhere. People talk to one another because they’re around food.”

Singing the blues
Thanks to University of Minnesota horticulturalists, those residing near the 45th parallel can revel in the particular joy of the just-picked blueberry. With romantic names like Polaris, Northblue and Chippewa, the winter-resistant plants have become a staple in commercial production across Minnesota. They’re also slowly but surely catching on with home growers. Take it from a professional, they’re worth the effort. “Lots of people are afraid to try growing blueberries because they’ve heard how hard they are to grow,” said Dorothy Stainbrook, who has spent the past decade cultivating 600-plus blueberry plants at her HealthGlen Farm near Forest Lake. “They are difficult to get started — you have to get the conditions just right — but once they get going, they’re incredibly easy.”

Small farm, big impact
Rediscovering indigenous seeds, returning to ancestral farming techniques and promoting nutritious eating are just three of the hallmarks of Dream of Wild Health Farm, an American Indian-owned and managed farm near Hugo. More than 3,000 Indian and non-Indian people participate in programs at the 10-acre farm each year, and the farm’s market stands share its agricultural bounty with the greater public.

The trend is …
The growth of CSA — community-supported agriculture — programs across the state can only be described as exponential. In 2008, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture tracked 27 farms involved in crop-share programs. Five years later, it’s just shy of 100. “Consumers are really placing a value on that relationship with the farm,” said Paul Hugunin, coordinator of the department’s influential Minnesota Grown program. “This is as close to actively participating in the production of your food as you can get without doing the growing yourself.”

Farm direct
Wondering if there was a better way to buy directly from farmers, entrepreneurs Josh and Natalie Kelly turned to a software solution. The result? Twin Cities Local Food, a sort of rural-urban Match.com for local foods and the consumers who love them. For their upstart online buyers club — now in its second season — the Kellys pair more than a dozen area farmers with an ever-growing number of consumers who pay $50 annually to buy from an ever-changing inventory; once a week, producers deliver fruits, vegetables, meats, eggs, dairy products and other items, fresh off the farm, to one of six Twin Cities pickup sites. “We feel like we’ve kind of hit a nerve,” said Josh Kelly. “Part of our desire was to get farmers better access to markets, and to get fresher, healthier food to customers. This medium, the Internet, is one more way we can enhance the availability of local foods.”

Wear it proud
It’s the T-shirt every self-respecting locavore will be wearing this summer, and it’s from — naturally — the Locally Grown Clothing Co. Just don’t tell anyone that it’s made in — shhhh — Iowa.

Linked to the land
Question chef Lenny Russo on the provenance of the Mangalitsa pork and wild boar that constitute the extraordinary three-year-old prosciutti at his Heartland Restaurant & Farm Direct Market in St. Paul, and he rattles off the farm names faster than he can count to 10. Teaming with small Midwestern farmers is a top priority at Russo’s economic engine for local agriculture. During peak growing season, the restaurant’s farm network swells to nearly 90 sources, a highly
personal supply chain. “It’s a matter of quality,” said Russo. “We know these farmers, we’ve visited their farms, and so we know the quality of the product they’re raising. But we also try to keep as much as possible of what we spend here in the local economy. It’s what John Kennedy said: ‘A rising tide lifts all boats.’ ”

Mighty duck
“Once I found it, there was no going back. Nothing else comes close.” That’s how Restaurant Alma chef Alex Roberts describes the duck from Pat Ebnet’s Wild Acres Game Farm in Pequot Lakes, Minn. It also explains why Roberts puts it to use all across his menu. Gizzards enrich ragus, livers go into pâtés. Legs are smoked, braised or confited in duck fat that’s rendered from the bird’s skin. The breast is generally pan-roasted, to order. “It just responds to everything, effortlessly,” said Roberts. As for Ebnet, “everyone loves Pat,” said Roberts. “He’s very good at his business; he’s efficient. It doesn’t hurt that he was a linebacker at Augsburg. He looks like he could break you in half, and he knows how to tell you like it is.”

Corny idea
More Minnesotans are fed by farmer Jerry Untiedt than any other. For 12 days, anyway. Untiedt cultivates about 20 acres of sweet corn near Monticello, Minn., for the exclusive use of owner Brad Ribar’s Corn Roast stand at the Minnesota State Fair. A beloved fair tradition — now in its 28th year — it almost didn’t happen. “When I proposed it, they said, ‘Ah, that’s never going to work,’ ” said Ribar. He got the last laugh. Last year, Ribar estimates he sold 180,000 roasted, butter-drenched cobs.

Organic produce twofer
Shoppers at the Wedge Co-op enjoy a rare urban-rural connection. After more than 30 years as a customer, the member-owned store started managing the landmark Gardens of Eagan organic farm (it’s actually in Northfield, moving southward from urban sprawl) since 2008, giving Wedge customers first dibs at the farm’s lovingly and skillfully raised cornucopia of kale, cauliflower, radicchio, cabbage and basil.

Raise a glass
Three cheers to the farmstead dairies that are bringing an exciting and much-needed diversity to the supermarket dairy case (from left to right): the Daninger family’s Autumnwood Farm in Forest Lake, the Maefsky family’s Poplar Hill Dairy Goat Farm in Scandia and the Minar family’s Cedar Summit Dairy in New Prague.

North Shore delicacy
Can’t make it to Lake Superior this summer? Get a taste of Gitchi-Gami with the mild-flavored, coral-tinted herring caviar that’s pulled from the lake’s chilly waters and processed at the remarkable Dockside Fish Market in Grand Marais. It’s one of the state’s great artisanal food products, ranking right up there with another North Shore delight: Wild Country maple syrup.

Perfect polenta
An impressive farmstead product is the fresh cornmeal from Greg Reynolds’ Riverbend Farm in Delano. After the fall harvest, Reynolds refrigerates the heirloom corn and grinds it on a weekly basis. “It’s not ground and stored like other cornmeals, and that’s the difference,” said Beth Dooley, author of the recently released “Minnesota’s Bounty: The Farmers Market Cookbook.” “But that’s Greg. Not many farmers are willing to work so hard to get something this good. The color is lovely, it’s still slightly moist when you open the package and the flavor of the corn really comes through.”

Buzzing about
Those funny looking wooden boxes that are sprouting in greater numbers on roofs across the Twin Cities aren’t heating and air conditioning equipment, they’re
apiaries. Many are the work of beekeeper and chocolatier Susan Brown. Roughly 100 pounds of honey can be extracted from Brown’s hives each year, and the amber, gently fragrant harvest is channeled into the strikingly elegant and delicious bonbons she makes under the Mademoiselle Miel label.

Godparents of local
The prairie-to-plate phenomenon seems so firmly embedded in our culinary psyche that it’s easy to forget that seasonal, local cooking wasn’t always a hallmark of the local restaurant scene. The movement’s foundations can be traced to three influential figures: Brenda Langton, first at her Cafe Kardamena in 1978, then her long-running Cafe Brenda, and now at Spoonriver; Ken Goff, and his 20-year tenure at the Dakota Jazz Club & Restaurant, which ran from 1985 to 2005; and Lucia Watson, who has been changing the menu weekly at her Lucia’s Restaurant since 1985.

Frozen treasure
The Genglers wisely eliminate the middle man. Not only does the fourth-generation farming family grow their organic vegetables across 1,500 acres of southeastern Minnesota farmland, but they also process them at their own Caledonia packing plant before shipping them. They’re the proud owners of one of the great, only-in-the-Gopher State brand names: Sno Pac.

Father figure
The large Hmong farming community at Minneapolis and St. Paul area farmers markets can be traced back to the efforts of a small group of hardworking and resourceful Laotian refugees, including 30-year farming veteran Xang Vang. In the early 1980s, a foundation-funded effort through the University of Minnesota Extension trained 150 Hmong families over a four-year period. “The trainees became mentors, and now we have nearly 500 Hmong produce growers in and around Minneapolis and St. Paul,” said Vang, who cultivates vegetables on a 16-acre plot in Afton with the help of his children and grandchildren. To call their work a success story would be an understatement. “I feel we have done an excellent job to establish our new life in this new land,” he said.

Cluck, cluck, cluck
When Lori Callister started raising chickens on her sixth-generation family farm in West Concord, Minn., the goal was to feed her family. “Then neighbors wanted some, then friends wanted some, and it just kind of grew from there,” she said. Sales started to take off when she set up a stand at the St. Paul Farmers Market in 2000, and eventually she branched out to a handful of restaurants and natural foods co-ops, where the words “Callister chicken” are synonymous with “quality.” Roughly 600 Cornish Cross broilers (an American standard) and Poulet Rouge (a darker-meat heritage breed) chicks land at the farm every other week, which results in roughly 12,000 to 14,000 birds per year, all processed on the farm. “For little guys, we’re on the larger end, but in the scope of things, we’re hardly a blip on the radar,” Callister said. The birds live out their brief but pleasant lives (two to three months) in a barn — no cages, ever — and feast on a Callister-specific menu of corn, soybeans, oats and hay. In the summer, they roam a clover-filled pasture, where they root out their favorite warm-weather delicacy: young dandelion greens. The diet, fresh air and exercise make for great-tasting chicken. And happy customers, particularly at the farmers market. “What other job is there where you walk in and people are happy to see you?” said Callister. “It’s such an ego trip, and I always tell people that all that wonderful one-on-one contact with our customers is our reward for all the hard work we do at the farm.”

A jug of wine and … a picnic
There are close to 40 wineries in Minnesota. None might exist were it not for the pioneering David Bailly, the attorney who founded Alexis Bailly Vineyard, the state’s first, when he planted winter-hardy French hybrid grapes in 1973. In the early 1980s, Nan Bailly followed her father into the challenging business (no wonder that “where the grapes can suffer” is the ABV motto), and under her astute guidance, not only is the winery known for its fortified dessert wines, full-bodied red blends and dry, crisp whites, but the enchanting Hastings property is also one of the area’s top picnic destinations.

No run-of-the-mill family
Minnesota food lovers could use more families like the Hilgendorfs. They may be known (and adored) for their organic corn chips — a summer picnic must-have — but for nearly 25 years, Doug and Lin Hilgendorf (and now sons Ross and Jeff, and son-in-law Curt Gwin) have been enriching the bulk foods aisles of Twin Cities natural foods co-ops with a staggering array of hard-to-find grains — hard-wheat berries, buckwheat groats, rolled rye flakes, spelt flour, barley flour — all grown and milled on their organic Welcome, Minn., farm and marketed under the Whole Grain Milling Co. name.

Pedal power
The food world is a constant magnet for entrepreneurial innovation. Take Nicholas Heimer. Smitten by the superb product coming off a South Dakota bison ranch, he became the company’s Minneapolis representative, selling at the Mill City Farmers Market. To set himself apart, Heimer relies solely upon a custom-built cargo bicycle, pedaling up to 500 pounds on his 10-mile round trip through city streets. He calls his business Buffalo by Bike. “The status quo is boring,” he said. “We’re moving into a new age and we need to think differently. Besides, when gas prices hit $4.30 a gallon, I knew that I’d made the right decision.”

Farm in the city
It’s tough to find a downside with Stone’s Throw Urban Farm. Make productive use of vacant city lots? Check. Build access to healthy, delicious food? Check. Create jobs? Check. Scattered across parcels in south Minneapolis and St. Paul’s Frogtown neighborhood, this wave of the future is funneling vegetables and herbs (the salad mix is particularly awesome) into a farmers market stand, a crop share program, a soon-to-open farm stand and a number of restaurant clients. Now in its second growing season, the farm grew out of three smaller urban ventures, with 150 volunteers backing up the six-person ownership team. “Most of us grew up on farms,” said Eric Larsen of his fellow partners. “We’re adapting that knowledge to the unique aspects of urban farming.”

A mighty meat market
Ten years ago, after careers as varied as snowplowing and advertising, Kristin Tombers found herself opening a meat market. But her Clancey’s Meats & Fish is no ordinary butcher shop. Her business plan? “I just started making conscious choices about where my food was coming from,” she said, transforming a cramped storefront into a source for many of the state’s premier beef, pork, lamb and poultry producers. Tombers and her staff of 10 are also experts at creating a dizzying selection of value-added products: pristine rendered fats, flavor-packed stocks and soups, rich pâtés and terrines, inventive sausages (try the spicy Thai pork version) and pancetta, bresaola and other cured meats.

The field-to-campus chef
After leaving his Corner Table restaurant to channel his local-foods mantra into a country club, and then a hotel, leading locavore Scott Pampuch is now sounding the drumbeat to a radically larger audience: the 18,000 or so daily diners who depend upon the University of Minnesota’s residence hall cafeterias and on-campus restaurants. “Cue the cuddly farm music in the background as I say this,” he said with a laugh. “But I want to make better food here at the university. I want people to eat real food, less processed food, more sustainably raised food, more nutritious food. Ultimately, I’m trying to make the university more local. I’m trying to say, ‘Look, we can do this.’ It’s the U of M; it’s not going to flip overnight. But change is going to come, in small bites.”

Lessons among the radishes
Because it’s ultimately a program about growing food to grow leadership skills, character and community connections for its 800-plus participants, nonprofit Youth Farm might be best at sprouting metaphors. Through a combination of farming and cooking classes, meals, gardening and other activities, Youth Farmers — ages 9 to 24, in three Minneapolis and two St. Paul neighborhoods — learn what adults have long known: that the best experiences are centered on food.

Mushroom mania
There’s a small plot in suburban Maplewood — less than an acre — where Jeremy McAdams is nurturing a different kind of urban farm: Cherry House Tree Mushrooms. Four years into a business that started as hobby, McAdams is thriving, constantly adding new mushroom varieties to the mix during his May-through-October growing season, carefully marrying mushrooms to like-minded timber: White oak for the two varieties of shiitakes, black cherry for the skinny-stemmed namekos, and aspen for the oyster mushrooms (golden, white, beige, blue and gray). On a price level, a small-timer like McAdams can’t compete with a thriving Pacific Northwest mushroom industry. His saving grace? Discriminating customers who appreciate a quality product. “Locally raised mushrooms have a firmer, meatier texture, and a longer shelf life,” said McAdams. “They just taste better.”

A miller’s tale
The fresh whole-wheat flour that Sun Street Breads baker/owner Solveig Tofte uses in her sublime sourdough loaves hails from Swany White Flour Mills in Freeport, Minn. “Milling flour is hard, it’s a craft unto itself,” she said. “Which is why it’s hard to find tasty local flour that’s available commercially.” After a devastating December 2011 fire, the Thelen family’s mill is back in business, busy converting North Dakota-grown hard red-spring wheat into the coarse-grind flour that Tofte purchases in 50-pound increments. “It just tastes good,” she said. “That’s the bottom line.”

Close, personal import
“Drink direct” is the slogan at Cafe Palmira, and it fits. Carlos Palacios sells the Arabica coffee beans — and brews them at his farmers market stands — that his family raises on their third-generation shade-grown farm in Palmira, a nearly mile-high operation in the Huehue­tenango region of Guatemala.

Bacon-licious
During peak tomato season, it’s not uncommon for the Birchwood Cafe to sell 100 BLTs a day. “We go through more bacon than any other vegetarian-friendly restaurant I’ve ever heard of,” said cafe owner Tracy Singleton with a laugh. A contradiction this vast could not be fueled by just any old bacon. No, Singleton is referring to the fatty, juicy, all-natural bacon from Tim Fischer, the pig-obsessed force of nature behind Fischer Family Farms Pork in Waseca., Minn. “Everyone loves Tim’s bacon, “ said Singleton. “I mean, Tim loves his bacon. This is going to sound cheesy, but Tim just loves pigs. He’s so cute when he talks about them. He gets this big smile on his face.”

Shop till you plant
Back-yard homesteading is easy with Egg|Plant Urban Farm
Supply. Owners Audrey Matson and Bob Lies stock their one-stop St. Paul shop with heirloom seeds, peat moss, canning and preserving supplies, how-to manuals, chicken feed, even chicks. Classes, too: worm composting, mushroom cultivation, the ins and outs of beekeeping. Can an aisle at trend-spotting Target be far behind?

The farmer-owned restaurant
The conduit from farm to diner doesn’t get any more direct than at the Wise Acre Eatery, where chef Beth Fisher’s farmhouse-inspired cooking is no marketing gimmick. The restaurant’s 30-acre farm — located about 20 minutes west of Chaska — is a biodiverse infrastructure designed to produce grass-fed Scottish Highland beef, pasture-raised heritage-breed pork, free-range poultry and a dizzying array of vegetables, some cultivated year-round under nearly an acre of greenhouse real estate. On average, nearly three-quarters of the restaurant’s needs are suppled by the farm. “There are only so many projects we can fit into the day, and so we buy from places who share our values,” said co-owner Scott Endres. “We’re not going to be milking cows anytime soon, so the good folks at Castle Rock blend our frozen custard to our recipe and deliver it, twice a week, in old-fashioned milk cans. We feel really good about that, and we love them for it.”

Hopping to it
There’s an unusual-looking crop shooting skyward at Hippity Hops Farms in Forest Lake: A quarter-acre of Cascade variety hops. By September’s harvest, each towering plant is covered in hundreds of thumb-sized, lime green cones. The crop was more than owners George and Leah Shetka — and their home-brewing friends — could possibly use. Fortunately, a chance meeting at a craft beer festival brought the couple together with Lift Bridge Brewing Co. brewmaster Matt Hall. The result: a limited edition, highly aromatic fresh-hop German ale that Hall dubbed Harvestör. The all-Minnesota beer sold out in a matter of weeks, and the partnership is already planning this fall’s beer-making festivities. “Matt told us that he’ll take all the hops that we can give him,” said George Shetka. With that kind of demand, it’s a good thing that the Shetkas spent part of the spring organizing the state’s first hops growers’ association; more than 40 people turned out for the first meeting.

Zero food miles
When just-picked yellow wax beans and pickling cucumbers start trickling into the kitchen at the Bachelor Farmer, they won’t have traveled far, just a flight of stairs. Rather than playing host to a bar or patio, the restaurant’s roof is devoted to a kitchen garden in the form of a series of raised planting beds — including plastic kiddie pools — where cooks Maria Ahlgren and Ian Heieie also cultivate chives, parsley, dill and basil. “Oh, and a small but mighty group of strawberries,” said executive chef Paul Berglund with a laugh. “We’re focusing on a few of our favorite vegetables. A lot of the cooks are really enthusiastic about working in a kitchen with its own garden.”

A good egg

Egg enthusiasts are on a first-name basis with someone they’ve probably never met: Larry Schultz. His Owatonna, Minn., farm is the source of remarkably steady stream of organic, free-range eggs. Their ever-increasing popularity is easily explained. “It’s the taste factor,” said Tom Vogel, marketing manager of the Seward Co-op, which has been stocking Schultz’s beautiful brown eggs for more than a decade. “Larry’s eggs are nothing like conventional eggs. It’s the size, it’s the texture, it’s the color and, foremost, it’s the taste. We sell a lot of Larry Schultz eggs. A lot.”

Green acres
A decade ago, a magazine article captured Todd Churchill’s attention and changed his life, along with the lives of countless top-quality beef lovers. The farm-kid-turned-financial-adviser found himself building Thousand Hills Cattle Co. In less than a decade, this network of Midwestern family farms has made prized grass-fed beef widely available to Twin Cities consumers. It’s a remarkable feat for a company built on the simple yet surprisingly radical idea of growing clover, brome and other grasses, then allowing beef cattle to do what they do best: graze.

Warm and comfy
Minnesotans can thank a decidedly low-tech farming advancement — the hoop house — for the ever-increasing varieties of early arrivals at farmers market stands. Think greenhouse, except the hoop house is unheated, and crops grow directly in the ground. They can range from improvised, low-cost projects to professional-grade structures that require significant investment. Either way, they work, passively capturing the sun’s warmth under a protective layer of plastic. In the past, chilly Minnesota spring weather prevented Laura Frerichs and Adam Cullip, owners of Loon Organics in Hutchinson, Minn., from harvesting produce for their Mill City Farmers Market stand until the second week of June. After adding two hoop houses, they’ve pushed that date up nearly a month. Come summer, some plants thrive in the controlled environment, particularly tomatoes. The couple cultivate a half-dozen cherry-tomato varieties and 15 different slicing and heirloom types under a massive, cathedral-like hoop house. “It’s hard to grow tomatoes outside after you’ve grown them in a hoop house, because the conditions in the hoop house are so perfect for keeping tomato plants at the optimum happiness level,” said Frerichs. “It seems almost too easy sometimes.”

Future farmers of America
Where do immigrants and minorities go to learn about farming? To Big River Farms in Marine on St. Croix, where the nonprofit Minnesota Food Association has been running classroom and hands-in-dirt training for certified organic vegetable production. Since 2008, nearly 60 participants have matriculated through the program, enriching the local food scene. “There are many faces representing local organic produce in this community,” said farm manager Aaron Blyth. “It’s not just the old white guy on the tractor, but folks from Burma and Iran and Somalia, and Hmong and Latinos.”

Follow Rick Nelson on Twitter: @RickNelsonStrib

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