Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

A community garden

Direct-to-consumer agriculture thriving near Babbitt

Keith Vandervort
Posted 6/12/19

BABBITT – Growing food contributes to climate change (making fertilizer, running machinery, transportation, cooling, etc.), and climate change affects agriculture in ways that are ever increasing …

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A community garden

Direct-to-consumer agriculture thriving near Babbitt

Posted

BABBITT – Growing food contributes to climate change (making fertilizer, running machinery, transportation, cooling, etc.), and climate change affects agriculture in ways that are ever increasing and mostly adverse. How can residents in northern Minnesota fight back?

Growing veggies on rocks in the shade in a short season is not a sustainable answer. 

Van Conrad and Ellen Root think they have a better one.

Conrad attended a recent gathering of the Ely Climate Change Discussion Group to talk about his small farm near here where he and Root grow fresh fruits and vegetables commercially. They deliver their produce to customers as well as attend regional farmers markets during the summer.

“Up here in northern Minnesota, a frost can happen just about any time of the year, so at Northern Delicious CSA (community supported agriculture), we take advantage of the short growing season and strive to provide our neighbors and visitors with a steady supply of fresh, healthy, in-season salad greens, vegetables and fruits,” Conrad said.

“Northern Delicious delivers locally-grown produce harvested fresh from our farm. We take pride in distributing ready-to-use vegetables, fruits and herbs grown without the use of synthetic fertilizers or pesticides,” he said. They also offer drop points in Ely and Babbitt or shareholders can pick up their weekly allotment at the farm, beginning in July this year because of the late spring, and ending sometime in October. Their operation is now in its sixth year of production.

“We moved here to be close to the millions of acres of wild lakes, rivers, and forest that exist in this region,” Conrad said. “The land we farm was cleared by Finnish settlers who arrived at the end of the 19th century. They built a sturdy barn that we still use today. We have about four acres of intensive production.”

Northern Delicious CSA is located on the Birch River west of Babbitt. “We’re not fertilizing, because I wouldn’t want to screw it up,” he said. “There is not a lot of potential for that river to get polluted because it flows into the Boundary Waters pretty quickly.”

He assured the groumembers that he has a substantial buffer zone between the wetlands of the river and the farm production acreage.

Being a community-supported agricultural operation, Conrad and Root grow a large variety of vegetables— as many as possible, actually. “They get cut from the team if they get too labor intensive,” he said. “We abide by organic standards for pest control, so the ones that harbor too much pest pressure will be eliminated for that reason, rather than trying to kill the pests.”

Community-supported agriculture has existed in Europe for decades. The growing model was first attempted on the East Coast of the United States in the 1980s, according to Conrad. Participants buy a subscription to a weekly or bi-weekly share, depending on the time of year.

“In our CSA, we deliver vegetables and fruits for 14 consecutive weeks, once the growing season is going late in June,” he said. Shareholders pay for their membership at the beginning of the season. “I find this to be a very useful model for being a beginning farmer, and being able to have the cash up front to pay for seed, supplies, or what is needed.”

Northern Delicious has close to 100 members this year. They started their first year with just 15 members. He planned for a certain number of customers this year since he started planting in early April. “Everything is planned out for a certain amount of customers, so at some point, I can’t take anymore for this season,” he said.

Members can join together and split a share, if a full share is too much for one person or small family. “We divide what we harvest each week and equally distribute it to each share,” he explained. Harvesting is done on Mondays and Tuesdays and deliveries are made every Wednesday through October. Shareholders can opt to work at the farm to help pay for the cost of the membership

Conrad studied horticulture in college and said he has always been interested in growing things. He formerly worked on a sheep farm. “I kind of stumbled through this on my own so far,” he admitted. “I visited many farms in recent years, and I wish I had done that a little bit more early on.”

Organic gardening procedures are a big part of the Northern Delicious operation. “I typically will begin by plowing a new section in the fall and plant it with oats in the spring, then let that grow and chop that in,” Conrad said. “In year three, I fertilize the field with pelletized chicken manure for organic production, along with wood ash, crushed limestone to give it a balanced feeding and let the plant matter decay in the soil.”

He uses no synthetic fertilizer. “I prefer to have the soil provide the nutrients in a more stable fashion,” he added, rather than add something that is water soluble and washed away too quickly.

After the feeding of the soil, Conrad covers the plot with black fabric and then grows squash, pumpkins and melons. The matter stays in the soil to help decompose sod clumps and whatever other matter exists. “The fabric keeps the weeds from growing up,” he said. I have holes cut where the squash come through.”

In the fourth year, the fabric is removed and finished compost is added. “Our soil is so sandy that adding compost is the only way to add nutrients that can’t be washed out,” he said. “We use just plant matter compost, such as chipped trees, grass clippings and stuff.”

Conrad and Root grow several varieties of berries and vegetables and add and eliminate varieties based on success and failures. “This year I’m giving up on Brussels Sprouts because they are a big cabbage maggot draw,” he said. “Rutabagas are also really difficult because the cabbage maggots like them, too.”

The use of two 30x100 hoophouses helps Northern Delicious extend the northern Minnesota growing season. “We like that we can close them and add heat overnight when the frosts hit in the fall so we can continue producing tomatoes, peppers and egg plants until the season is over,” Conrad said. This year he is transitioning from wood heat to kerosene heaters.

For the past five years, Conrad and Root have been experimenting with their farm and are now looking to develop their vision. “From what I can see, trying out the wholesale root market looks good, in terms of doing less work and having less diversity of crops,” he said. “The CSA has been a great way to start out and I’ve learned a lot about growing many different crops. I’m slowly trying to change that so this is less labor-intensive and less diverse.”

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