Nonprofit Good Acre helps small farmers boost bottom line
BIG LAKE, Minn. (AP) – Lylee Vue farms about 4 acres of land near Big Lake, Minn.
She rents the land, where she grows everything from corn to potatoes to tomatoes to zucchini. She’s working on becoming certified organic, but says she’ll have to be chemical-free for five years to get the certification.
Vue, who is originally from Thailand, spends a lot of her time peddling her vegetables at local farmers’ markets, where weather and the whims of consumers can greatly affect her bottom line.
Vue also is exactly the kind of farmer the Good Acre is looking for.
The new nonprofit, started by the Pohlad family, is helping small-scale farmers farm smarter and sell more. The organization, housed in a shiny new barn-red building in Falcon Heights near the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus, is also reaching out to the public by way of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares, classes and a farmers’ market.
It’s a new way of affecting the food supply in a positive manner from top to bottom, and the farmers who are a part of the Good Acre, which has been operating for less than a year, are already seeing the benefits.
“Last year, the first year I grew for them, it was wonderful,” Vue told the St. Paul Pioneer Press. “My goal is to eventually sell all the food I grow to them. It will save me so much time, not having to go to all the markets.”
Farmers like Vue benefit from myriad services the Good Acre has to offer.
Besides the CSA, which has already sold out for the year, the Good Acre is also aggregating the produce from 19 small farmers and offering it to institutions that would like to buy local produce but lack the time to deal with the different farmers it might take to supply their operations.
Public school lunch programs in both cities, food service programs at universities and even a local culinary school will eventually buy from the Good Acre.
“Most farmers we deal with are 10 acres or less, and for institutions, that’s a problem,” said Emily Paul, director of kitchen operations at the Good Acre. “For us, that’s why we’re here.”
Nathan Sartain, culinary arts instructor and program director at St. Paul College, is interested in buying produce that might not look perfect, often called “seconds.” It’s less expensive, and it also helps teach his students, who might eventually have jobs that depend on them being able to make food costs in a restaurant kitchen, a valuable lesson.
“It really doesn’t matter how a piece of kale looks if I’m going to braise it,” Sartain said. “If there’s a couple of aphid bites on it, the micronutrient content is still there, the color is still there, the flavor is still there. We’re using these things to learn cooking techniques, so we’re going to alter the look of the vegetable anyway.”
Paul said farmers often till the less-than-desirable-looking vegetables back into the soil, so having willing buyers like Sartain will help boost farmers’ bottom lines.
The Good Acre’s 12,000-square-foot building has or will have other amenities that will help farmers make more money, too.
There’s a room with pull-down hose sprayers and a little conveyor belt where farmers can wash their produce more easily. There are also three large walk-in coolers where farmers will be able to rent space for a nominal fee.
“We plan to use the wash station and the cold storage,” said Phenhli Thao, a farmer who rents 12 acres in Inver Grove Heights and Ham Lake. Thao said he hasn’t had anywhere to store what he doesn’t sell at the many farmers’ markets he depends on for income. That produce can go bad within a day or two. Cold storage will extend the shelf life of vegetables for a week or so, Thao said.
Sometimes, services can be as simple as helping an immigrant farmer, who speaks little English, find answers to problems or fill out grant applications.
“English is my first language and I know how to use the internet,” Paul said. “That isn’t the case for all of our farmers.”
Translators are provided for farmers who need them, too.
The organization also offers classes – for farmers who are looking for more efficient or sustainable ways to grow their crops, and also to community members who want to know what to do with that kohlrabi.
The building is outfitted with a commercial kitchen where local chefs and nutritionists teach classes that help community members eat more healthfully. Eventually, Paul said, the hope is that other learning institutions use the kitchen for their classes, too.
Since it’s a commercial kitchen, it will also be available for rental if a small producer of a product like jam or kimchee needs a place to make goods for sale.
At a recent class, taught by local chef Beth Fisher, who until recently ran the very farm-to-table (as in the eatery has its own farm) restaurant, Wise Acre, students made a hearty rice bowl, filled with everything from a beet-and-apple relish to roasted root vegetables to lentils and curried walnuts.
The classes run the gamut from that one, which is more focused on techniques, to a class that teaches what to do with your CSA share, to classes focused on making dinner on a budget.
The organization has also offered CSA shares to low-income families through Appetite for Change, and they will teach them how to use the produce, Paul said.
In addition, the group is building hoop houses, which are basically large greenhouses, on the land outside the building to help teach farmers how to extend their growing season.
The possibilities for the building and the Good Acre, it seems, are endless.
“It’s a really important thing they’re doing, and I’m really glad they’re doing it,” Sartain said. “They’re all really excited about what they’re doing and they should be. They can really make a difference.”