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A growing market

Sun, Aug 20th, 2000
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By Jill O'NeillMonday, August 21, 2000

Jack Hedin does not look the part of a professional. His muddy jeans, T-shirt and rubber boots wouldnt even fit in on casual Friday. But to Suzanne Cooper and her family of Winona, Hedin and the crew at Featherstone Fruits and Vegetables are some of the most important professionals in their lives.

"In an era when people are so out of touch with their food, it is gratifying to eat produce grown by somebody we know and trust," says Cooper. "The ties we have with the folks at Featherstone are even more personal than the relationship we have with a physician." Cooper is one of 110 southeast Minnesotans who receive a weekly supply of fresh seasonal fruits and vegetables from Featherstone.

Nestled in the scenic Wiscoy Valley north of Rushford, Featherstone is managed in partnership by Jack Hedin, Jenni McHugh, and Rhys Williams. The twenty acre certified organic farm adheres to strict organic standards and is inspected periodically throughout the year by the Organic Growers and Buyers Association. The diversified farm sells their produce through a subscription farming program called Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), as well as selling at the Rochester and Winona farmers markets and distributing wholesale to a variety of stores. "About a third of our business is to the CSA," says Hedin, "another third to one half is wholesale distribution, and the remaining is to the farmers markets."

CSA is a concept that originated in Europe about 35 years ago and has begun to take hold in the United States over the last decade. The idea came from consumers who sought a connection to their food supply and wanted access to healthy and tasty food. Every community supported farm is unique, however they all operate under the notion that consumers pay money in the early spring to help meet the farms operating costs and to share the risk for the upcoming growing season. The payment is called a share and in return, the grower provides shareholders with a supply of fresh, locally grown, seasonal produce.

Every week, from May to November, Featherstone CSA members pick up a colorful box of pre-packed, fresh produce at sites in Rochester and Winona. The season begins with baby spinach, broccoli, greens, strawberries and cherry tomatoes. Mid-summer delivers such tasty treats as watermelon, raspberries, sweet corn, eggplant, green beans, tomatoes and sweet onions. Fall gardens provide members with apples, carrots, celery, cauliflower, garlic, leeks, potatoes, and winter squash. Each delivery box has a farm newsletter that contains recipe ideas, farm updates and information on lesser known vegetables.

In addition to receiving boxes of locally grown organic produce, members are invited to visit the farm at anytime during the season. "Members really enjoy being able to explore the farm with their children," says Hedin. "They like the sense of involvement with where their food comes from." Featherstone hosts on-farm field days and events for members, including a Spring Strawberry Social, mid summer canning and salsa workshop and an autumn Hoe-Down Harvest Party.

Featherstone had their first significant market year in 1997 and has been expanding ever since. Hedin reports that the market demand for quality, Minnesota-grown produce is staggering. "We could certainly continue to expand acreage wise, but our goal is to refine the system and produce more produce off of the same acreage. Were confident that our gross volume sales will continue to grow dramatically." This spring Featherstone began shipping a significant amount of produce to a Minneapolis food co-op and has been offered production contracts that will lock in prices for next years growing season.

The face of the farm continues to change in the search for increased efficiency. Several plastic greenhouses now tower over the tidy fields at Featherstone. Hedin reports that it has taken them years to learn about the significance of the cool, moist valley climate that inhabits their farm. "Certain crops simply dont do well unless they are in a warm and dry environment." A recent grant from the University of Minnesotas Experiment in Rural Cooperation program has enabled Featherstone to construct two portable greenhouses. Currently the farm is harvesting 800 pounds of tomatoes per week from a 3,600 square foot greenhouse. Nearly every greenhouse tomato is grade-A, market quality, compared to the 80 percent cull rate of field crop tomatoes.

As far as pricing goes, Featherstone reports that their sole competition at this point is California. "Were not competing with any of the local organic growers, " says Hedin. "We pretty much have to accept what the California price is, and it fluctuates wildly. Two weeks of hot weather in the San Joaquin Valley will drive the price of broccoli up from $14 to $19 per box." However Featherstone is seeing an increasing number of co-op and natural food store managers who are willing to pay significantly more for locally grown organic produce.

With gross annual sales of $110,000, Featherstone, like most new businesses, is climbing a growth curve. "We certainly arent making much money right now, but the market demand is out there," says Hedin. "Were confident that our sales will continue to rise, the challenge for us will be meeting the demand." The partnership hopes that the farm will provide a modest living for their families. Success, according to Hedin, depends heavily on a love and knowledge of growing. The partnership has thirty years of combined specialized experience that provides them with the management skills necessary to keep up with the business.

Featherstone relies on the help of an annual apprentice, local part-time labor, and a group of Hmong families from the area with whom they exchange garden space and produce for labor. Apprentices are involved with all aspects of the farming operation, including planning, production, and marketing. "The apprentice program is a very important part of our operation," says Hedin, "because it is how we learned. We feel strongly about passing on information and sharing what we do with other people."

While the three partners continue to perfect production techniques and pass on their skills, they are also having to contend with their largest customer complainttoo much produce in the weekly delivery boxes!

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