The Women's Environmental Institute is tucked away atop a sweet patch of farmland on the St. Croix River, an hour's drive from Minneapolis. The institute's Amador Hill Farm program in North Branch, is a 70-acre organic farm mecca, with eight hoop houses growing seasonal produce, a greenhouse, an apple orchard and 20 acres of tillable land for farming in warmer months.

Volunteers, masked and gloved, have been hard at work in the 100-foot hoop houses and fields, harvesting seasonal produce for the midsummer community-supported agriculture (CSA) boxes — summer squash, greens, cabbage, cucumbers, green onions and soon, Brussels sprouts, eggplants, tomatoes and peppers.

"It's kind of like working on a golf course, because everyone is really separated out," said Jacquelyn Zita, WEI's farm manager and director of education and operations.

Small, sustainable farming operations like the Amador Hill Farm have become more important now than ever. In an effort to keep up with demand, the farm has accelerated its production since COVID-19 cast a shadow over Minnesota.

"It is the moment for small farms," said Zita, a former Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies professor at the University of Minnesota. "It's the moment where we can grow food for our communities. It's also an educational moment around local food that's reliable and grown with sustainable methods. … People are realizing there is a question of where their food is going to come from in the coming months."

Zita and Executive Director Karen Clark are the two remaining co-founders of WEI, begun in 2003. The nonprofit's origins can be traced back to a conversation between environmental advocates over coffee at the now-shuttered Black Mesa Coffee in Minneapolis. Within six months, the group had raised enough money to buy the Amador Hill property.

The produce picked at Amador Hill gets packed up and transported to CSA box drop sites in North Branch and throughout the Twin Cities metro area, including Birchwood Café in the Seward neighborhood and Urban Growler in St. Paul. The produce is also sold at the Mill City Farmers Market in Minneapolis.

Though profits from the CSA program sustain the operation at Amador Hill, the institute also participates in programs that distribute portions of the produce to three clinics near the farm and to local food shelves.

"Everyone who's farming right now — especially small farms that are supplying within a regional foodshed — are continuing to do really critical work. It was essential before COVID-19 and it's essential now," said volunteer Sarah Hunt, who travels from the Twin Cities to work at the farm weekly.

"I'm really grateful that I have an outlet like this — to contribute in low-risk ways to producing nutritious food to feed the local community."

Zita said that the COVID-19 pandemic, which is "awful in just about every respect," has presented a rare opportunity for people to start relying more on local food production, whether they are based in urban or rural Minnesota.

"The global food system has fallen apart. Just the idea of flying long distance with produce from California is not making sense anymore," she said.

The focus on keeping food local is one that WEI has spent time and resources cultivating. Four years ago, it launched the North Circle Project, an effort to connect organic farmers in east central Minnesota and Wisconsin. More than 20 farmers and producers in the region contribute to the North Circle Online Farmers Market, a hub with locally grown produce for purchase.

"It's really encouraging people to transition to organic, and it's made a difference for some of these farmers who have been able to stay alive [because of the program]," Clark said.

A consistent piece of WEI's work is fostering urban agriculture within low-income communities in the Twin Cities and nearby suburbs. WEI has supported projects benefiting neighborhoods from Minneapolis' East Phillips — what Clark calls a "food desert" — to the community of White Bear Lake, faced with toxic lead dust from the local fishing tackle and battery component company Water Gremlin.

The institute also has a longtime partnership with prominent urban farmer and ex-NBA player Will Allen, who visits WEI each year for a workshop. A wide variety of classes also take place on the farm, from "Organic Farming 101" to "Making Pickles."

"We work across the rural and urban divide," Clark said.

WEI encompasses more than just a dedication to organic farming; at its core, it is an educational space committed to teaching sustainable farming methods and advocating for environmental justice. Amador Hill visitors vary from neighbors to schoolchildren from the Twin Cities to volunteers taking advantage of training opportunities.

Krystal Morley started volunteering at WEI last summer. She works on the farm in exchange for attending WEI programs that offer hands-on training and so she can take home food from the CSA.

"We have folks who have not had a chance to do any farm work, but are aspiring to do urban farming or they want to even set up their own farms. … We are proud of the farmers who have spun off from WEI, because they seem to be going forward with a commitment to strong organic farming," Clark said.

"It's not easy," she added. "You have to really want to do this kind of farming and know why you're doing it. It has to do with your own health and the health of your family, but also of the Earth."

Liv Martin is a Twin Cities-based freelance writer.