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Minnesota Homegrown

Minnesota and California might seem worlds apart in terms of general climate, but the Twin Cities area of the Midwest has strong roots in food production. According to the creators of Radical Roots, a documentary about this movement, “The Twin Cities has by far the largest number of food cooperatives in the country, including several of the largest, forming the basis for an alternative food economy, which helped it be named the number one metro area for local food in the nation.”

There are presently more than 30 farmers’ markets in Minneapolis alone. The local urban farming organization, Gardening Matters, estimated that in 2014, Twin Cities gardeners planted on almost 20 acres, producing nearly 450,000 pounds of food valued at $500,000-$1 million.

Like California—and everywhere else on the globe—changing weather patterns can have a devastating impact on food production. And in Minnesota, where the growing season is particularly short because of extensive winter conditions, sustainability of local crops is keenly felt.

The summer of 2007 was a “watershed moment” for Featherstone Farm owner, Jack Hedin, in terms of understanding the immediate impact of global climate change on agriculture. A series of storms in August produced a breathtaking 23 inches of rain in 36 hours, essentially erasing Hedin’s farm from the map because of flooding. He wrote in an essay that was published as an op-ed in The New York Times, “We found butternut squashes from our farm two miles downstream, stranded in sapling branches five feet above the ground. A hillside of mature trees collapsed and slid hundreds of feet into a field below. The machine shop on our farm was inundated with two feet of filthy runoff. When the water was finally gone, every tool, machine and surface was bathed in a toxic mix of used motor oil and rancid mud.” He pointed out that a Minnesota climatologist concluded that three “thousand-year rains” had occurred in the area in seven years.

Since then, Hedin has relocated his certified organic 140-acre farm in southeastern Minnesota and invested in sustainability. The farm produces around 70 varieties of fruits and vegetables for distribution to natural food stores, wholesalers and CSA members throughout the region. In 2011, he installed a 38kv photovoltaic array that produces over half of the electricity consumed in the farm’s packing shed, machine shop, offices and irrigation plant.

Featherstone received a USDA grant to upgrade pastures to reduce runoff and protect the Root River watershed. It has transitioned more prime acres to organic management, and allows a longer, soil-building crop rotation to take root. The farm has grown more efficient over the years, allowing a more diverse number of vegetables to be produced per gallon of diesel fuel consumed.

This is the necessity of the future, writes Bill McKibben, author of Eaarth. “For 100 years we’ve substituted oil for people. Now we need to go the other way. In a world more prone to drought and flood, we need the resilience that comes with three dozen different crops in one field, not a vast ocean of corn or soybeans. In a world where warmth spreads pests more efficiently, we need the resilience of many local varieties and breeds. In a world with less oil, we need the kind of small mixed farms that can provide their own fertilizer, build their own soil.”

McKibben goes on to say that researchers predict it will routinely get so hot that wheat and corn crops will suffer, perhaps as much as a 40 percent drop in yield. In 2003, when heat impacted France, corn production fell by a third, fruit harvests by a quarter, and wheat by a fifth. At least 30,000 people died.

Wisconsin’s Steady Hand Farm is another example of the new sustainable food producer. The young family maintaining the 70-acre site also sponsors a North Minneapolis urban gardening program for youth, and offers an acre of permanent habitat for honeybees and wild pollinators on the farm, in partnership with Pollinate Minnesota.

As the couple conveys on its website: “We come to this work with a passion for messing in the dirt, growing safe, clean food, and with a concern for the food system. We want food that is safe to eat for our family and community. That means food raised without synthetic chemicals and being mindful of all the inhabitants of our farm—humans, animals, bugs and smaller bugs. We also want our food to reach all kinds of people. Healthy, safe food ought not to be a luxury. As our business progresses, we will look for opportunities to expand our markets to neighborhoods with less access to fresh produce.”

Mikki Morrissette is the founder of mplsGreen.com, whose mission is to build awareness of the positive collective impact of our interlocking efforts in cleaner garbage, renewable energy, local food, and smart design.

Three Tips to Sustainability at Home

Russ Henry, co-chair of the HomeGrown Minneapolis Food Council, offers this advice:

  • Buy local, organic food which supports the farmers who are protecting everything from the pollinators we need to the microbial nutrients our diverse underground requires for healthy, sustainable food and watersheds. That means more shopping at local farmers’ markets.
  • Plant bee- and butterfly-friendly plants to encourage a healthy ecosystem that protects our water, contributes to our food shelf, and sustains food system pollinators. Learn more at mplsGreen.com/kids-how-to-plant-for-bees-and-why.
  • No more Roundup®! We have no business spraying as much pesticide as we do, because we don’t know how it’s affecting the little critters we need. Some of the toxins stick around for many years, breaking down the environment. We need a safe and clean food shed and watershed. Stop using poisons willy-nilly! Additionally, less lawn, more garden!
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