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Featherstone Farm: fifteen years of growth


Fri, Feb 19th, 2010
Posted in Agriculture

Pictured left to right are Senator Ropes, Peggy Hanson and Senator Torres Ray, displaying winter-stored turnips. Photo by Karen Reisner

Senator Sharon Erickson-Ropes, representing Fillmore, Houston and Winona Counties, traveled with Senator Patricia Torres Ray, whose district is in Minneapolis, to a few southeast Minnesota farms on February 13. Among the farms they visited was Featherstone Farm west of Rushford. Ropes said to be effective in the Senate it is important to build trust and foster relationships, to develop an understanding of other member districts. This helps them to work together in the Senate. She explained that her southeast Minnesota district has the land and ability to produce the food and the Torres Ray district has a large portion of the consumers. Ropes suggested the idea of knowing your food by knowing your producer farm is not going away. Featherstone is one of several farms growing fruits and vegetables or producing meat locally for local consumption.

Torres Ray is the first Latino to serve in the Minnesota Senate. Saturday morning was another one of our beautiful winter mornings decorated with crystalline white hoarfrost backed by a brilliant blue sky. Torres Ray was thrilled with the stunning splendor. She seemed equally impressed by the reach of Featherstone Farm and their produce that lands in her district.

Featherstone Farm was started by Jack Hedin and Jenni McHugh in 1995 with a quarter acre of strawberries located at Zephyr Valley Land Co-op south of Winona. With partners Ed Hedin and Rhys Williams, the farm has grown and evolved from five acres, which served the farmer's market in Winona and Rochester, to an eighty-acre organic truck farm that today serves co-ops, natural food stores, wholesalers and has over 500 members in its Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. The office for the farm, storage, washing facility and about thirty-six acres of their leased property is located near Rushford on bottomland. Fruits and vegetables produced are certified organic. Produce raised on the farm has been distributed through wholesalers in Chicago to a six-state area and southern Canada. In the last year or so the farm has added experienced managers for the growing business.

The CSA members are shareholders who make an investment before the beginning of the growing season. The truck farm delivers pre-packed small or large boxes filled with certified organic fruit and vegetables to predetermined drop points from early June through October. Deliveries are made once per week to Rushford, Houston, Winona, Rochester and the Twin Cities. Hospitals and school districts are being encouraged to buy local. Ropes suggested the fruits and vegetables can help fight childhood obesity. She said the growth of sustainable agriculture can provide an economic stimulus in Minnesota agriculture. She questions what resources the state needs to help promote the production and sale of local foods in the state. Ropes remarks that we don't need to get our tomatoes from California.

Featherstone Farm produces some "heirloom" varieties of vegetables. For example, heirloom varieties of tomatoes are grown locally that possess a superior flavor, texture and are much juicier. However, as Evan Meier, a Featherstone employee, points out, the down side of heirloom tomatoes is their rather short shelf life. They need to be picked and moved out. Tomatoes that are shipped cross country are grown to allow for an extended shelf life while settling for reduced flavor and quality. Ropes noted other upsides of buying locally is the production of less 'carbon' and less road damage.

Recently, Featherstone Farm has expanded their program through the winter months for certain storable vegetables including carrots, turnips, cabbage, squash, rutabaga, onions, and parsnips. Peggy Hanson, Lanesboro, who helps write a newsletter and blog for the farm, says long-term storage is dependent on maintaining a favorable temperature and humidity. The winter program extends the service for those who subscribe to it through March.

In season, trucks are on the road making deliveries five days of the week to twenty stores, co-ops, restaurants and CSA delivery sites. Of course, the kinds of produce delivered at any point in time depends on what part of the growing season it is. Shareholders can place special orders at a wholesale price to obtain produce for canning, freezing or special occasions.

Evan Meier, who worked previously as a mechanic, is responsible for the equipment on the farm. Plants are started from seed in the greenhouse and transplanted for some plants with the aid of mechanical equipment. However, the bulk of the harvesting is done by hand with the exception of some potatoes and now with a new purchase, carrots. The farm employs twenty-two or more people. Among them are five brothers from Mexico who have worked for Featherstone for about five years. They live together as their families are back in Mexico. Ropes explained her ancestors from Norway did the same thing. When they first came to America, they left their families behind initially. The farm now sells seasoned firewood in the winter, in part to help provide year round work for their good farm workers. Hanson suggested young people can come to work on the farm to learn skills to allow them to start their own.

Meier explained while touring their produce washing and storage portion of the building that they have a system to catch the soil being washed off the produce which is then recycled back on the fields.

A weekly newsletter is posted on the Featherstone Farm web site which includes updates, recipes, and related articles for healthy living. Peggy Hanson contributes to the newsletter and is working on a blog, which she says will provide more service to members. Subscription forms are available on the web site. A Featherstone Farm Cookbook authored by Mi Ae Lipe, a former long-time shareholder before moving to Seattle, was published in 2008. It uses fifty different fruits, vegetables and herbs raised at the farm in recipes.

Featherstone practices sustainable agriculture. Some of their acreage suffered from the 2007 flooding. However, the three acres west of Rushford where their office and facilities now are, and the acreage leased there, did not flood. The goal is to produce tasteful, healthy organic fruits and vegetables while caring for the soil and the environment and to serve local communities and consumers. They want to grow the CSA membership to over 900 members with the lions share of them located in Minneapolis. They are hoping to continue with the winter program and grow that.

Some private businesses are recognizing the benefits of locally grown produce and are encouraging their employees to take advantage of the healthful fruits and vegetables, just like some encourage exercise programs in an effort to control health related costs. Companies may subsidize the CSA membership cost for their employees.

For more information on Featherstone Farm google www.featherstonefarm.com.

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