In Litchfield, one of Minn.'s growing numbers of small farms builds from ground up

  • Article by: ANNE POLTA , West Central Tribune
  • Updated: July 13, 2013 - 12:05 AM

LITCHFIELD, Minn. — The peas are ripening at Prairie Drifter Farm and ready for Joan and Nick Olson to pluck off the vine and offer to visitors. The taste is fresh, crisp and sweet.

Under the July sun, vegetables are bursting forth on the 33-acre organic farm south of Litchfield. The Olsons point to each row: Over here is kale, with broccoli and cabbage beyond. Over there is garlic, whose scapes were harvested in late June for the Community-Supported Agriculture boxes the couple delivers to their shareholders each week during the growing season.

One seedling at a time, the Olsons are building a sustainable way of farming and feeding their family, neighbors and customers, the West Central Tribune reported (http://bit.ly/18KDeCv).

The couple, both 35, are in their third year as the owners of Prairie Drifter Farm. They have 62 CSA shareholders who receive weekly boxes of locally grown fresh greens and vegetables. Their produce is also on the shelf at food cooperatives in Litchfield and St. Cloud.

"It's allowed us to connect really well with a community we're new to," Nick said. "There's some freedom in being able to manage a farm. It's also really rewarding to know we're stewarding a piece of land."

Prairie Drifter Farm belongs to a local food movement that has been surging in Minnesota over the past decade. At one time, the Land Stewardship Project's annual directory of CSAs contained just a handful of farms. This year there are more than 80, not including those that opted not to be listed.

Nationally, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that 5 percent of American farms are involved in some form of local food production.

Neither of the Olsons grew up on a farm. But as licensed teachers working in environmental education, they couldn't avoid seeing the connection among food production, the environment and consumer choices.

Various experiences -- a teaching stint by Nick in Argentina, summers spent working on organic farms -- roused their interest in starting a farm of their own. The clincher came with two years at Earthrise Farm in rural Madison, Minn., where they managed the vegetable production and the internship program.

"We really knew at that point this was what we wanted to do," Joan said.

Three years into farming, the enterprise has grown each year.

There's a heated greenhouse where seedlings are started early in spring. This year a hoop house was added to extend the growing season. Three acres are planted with greens and vegetables, and the Olsons plan to add another acre next year. They manage another seven acres of cover crops, mostly alfalfa, to build up nutrients in the soil.

As farmers, their year has acquired a rhythm. Mid-March is time to start nurturing baby plants in the greenhouse. By late April, weather permitting, they're out in the fields.

"Once we start, we're just rolling -- transplanting every week, direct seeding every week," Joan said.

Dozens of crop varieties, from bok choy and eggplant to tomatoes, peppers, onions and potatoes, go into the ground.

The first CSA boxes are ready for delivery by mid-June, when the early crops are in full flourish. At the peak of summer, they harvest and deliver to CSA subscribers and food cooperatives twice a week -- Tuesdays for their local customers in the Litchfield area and Thursdays in St. Cloud.

Aside from a part-time employee hired this year, the Olsons do most of the work themselves, accompanied by their 2-year-old son, Abe.

"We spend a lot of time outside," Nick said. "One of the big rewards is being able to be together as a family."

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