Profiles in Community

Sustainable Farming — “I felt like we were growing a community.”

May 31, 2019

John Fisher-Merritt knew his purpose, and did not hesitate for a moment before answering. He had created a demand for, and built a community around, high quality, sustainably grown food.

Now came the questions: Why he would apprentice young, local farmers, give them all the secrets of his farming success, and even access to his customers? Didn’t he feel like he might be creating competitors?

“Well, we had so many people on the waiting list” for his organically-grown produce, he recalled. “I felt like we were growing a community.”

Fisher-Merritt shared how through the 1970’s and ‘80’s he and his wife, Jane, had struggled just to keep his original Food Farm near Holyoke going. In 1976, he took a job at the Whole Foods Co-op in Duluth and introduced members to organic tomatoes from his farm.

Moving to a farm just south of Wrenshall in 1988, they opened up the Food Farm to u-pick farming, but found that people were often too busy to drive out to the country and pick their own vegetables.

Fisher-Merritt tried to grow his farm through both farmers markets (he was the first president of the Carlton County Farmers Market) and direct delivery to customers who called in their orders. Neither of these methods was enough to support full-time farming.

But an idea that would have a lasting impact on local farming was just around the corner.

“In 1992 or ‘93 we heard about the concept of community supported agriculture (CSA),” Fisher-Merritt said.

Considering how this idea might work, “I asked every one of our clients how they’d feel about the CSA concept — getting a delivery every week, all summer long, and paying in advance. Every one of them said, ‘You mean I don’t have to call in my order? You mean it just comes? Sure, I’ll do that!’

And so, community supported agriculture came to Carlton County.

The idea was to engage farmers and eaters in a community that could share the risks and rewards of sustainable agriculture. Members would purchase shares before the growing season began, and have the assurance of knowing where their food came from, how it was grown, and who was growing it. They would receive an allotment of produce weekly, often harvested fresh that same day, throughout the summer months and into the fall.

“We ended up with 50 shares the first year (1994), and that was the first year we were able to pay ourselves for our labor,” Fisher-Merritt said.

The next year they wanted to get 75 people signed up, but got 80.

“By the third or fourth year we had 100 shares, and people on a waiting list,” Fisher-Merritt remembered.

The Food Farm, Carlton County’s first CSA farm, was quickly becoming a model of sustainable, organic farming practices and people wanted to learn more.

Rick Dalen of Northern Harvest Farm examines an early-season tomato plant.

Enter Rick and Karola Dalen, recent graduates from UMD, who were intent on becoming CSA farmers.

Fisher-Merritt took them under his wing at the Food Farm in 2005-2006. In exchange for their 40 hours of labor each week, he gave them his customer waiting list, and let them farm an acre and a half of his own land to serve those new customers.

They were allowed to use Food Farm equipment, and to put everything that they could learn from Fisher-Merritt about sustainable farming directly into their crop.

Rick Dalen recalled those early days: “We had about 30 members that first year. We were living in West Duluth, an 18-mile commute, growing plants under lights, starting stuff in our apartment, and schlepping it out to the Food Farm,” he said.

“We had a lot to learn, and this was the best way to learn it,” Dalen added.

The Dalens also had the help of Fisher-Merritt in locating a nearby farm for them, and they were soon able to purchase that land for their Northern Harvest Farm (also near Wrenshall), which, like the Food Farm, operates on the CSA farm model.

“The Food Farm really paved the way for us, opened up this market, helped train farmers like us, and gave us this opportunity. They have continued to be a huge source of inspiration and support for farmers like us. They were central to getting this whole thing going,” Dalen said.

Like other CSA farmers, Dalen maintains that the way crops are gown can make a real difference.

“If you taste our carrots, or the Food Farm’s carrots, there’s a quality that comes from doing farming the way we do it. It’s small scale, a more human scale, paying attention to the soil health, using good practices like crop rotation, cover crops, basic organic farming practices. It all makes a big difference. It’s like night and day, and you can taste it.”

Shortly after Rick and Karola Dalen departed to start their Northern Harvest Farm, Catherine Conover arrived at the Food Farm. She had already served an apprenticeship on a CSA farm in Massachusetts, but came to work for Fischer-Merritt in 2008-2009, where she received additional training in sustainable farming practices. In 2010 she purchased the land for her Stone’s Throw Farm (also CSA) just across the road from the Dalen’s Northern Harvest Farm.

Catherine Conover has her vegetable crops off to a great start in one of her “high tunnels” at Stone’s Throw Farm.

Conover related that, while CSA Shares are about 90% of her sales, she also likes to take her produce to farmers markets.

“The Carlton County Farmers Market is really low key. Come when you can, bring what you’ve got. Farmers markets are more affordable for many people than purchasing an entire share,” she said, adding that this is often a great way to meet new people interested in high quality, locally sourced food.

For those wanting to have that close connection to the food, the farm, and the farmer that community supported agriculture offers, Conover still has CSA shares available at Stone’s Throw Farm for this growing season.

With parents devoted to growing a community around sustainably farmed organic food, Janaki Fisher-Merritt, the son of John and Jane, followed the trail that they had blazed. Now co-owner of the Food Farm with his wife and partner Anne Dugan, he summarized how all this came to pass.

“My dad started building a community, not of farmers, but of eaters, people who were interested in organic food and the environmental issues surrounding food, and in being connected to the land in a different way,” he said.

John Fisher-Merritt, left, has helped farmers in the Wrenshall area create their own community supported agriculture farms. His Food Farm was the first CSA in the area and he willingly created competition to grow the movement. Today, his son, Janaki, runs Food Farm. Contributed photo.

He added that, “These people saw that their choices in how they ate and what they ate had a direct impact on how land was used.”

“Taking responsibility for how you eat is taking responsibility for how the land is used. People feel that fairly personally, once they get that bigger picture,” he observed.

Still learning how to farm more sustainably, preserve water quality, and improve the land, the younger Fisher-Merritt has brought new innovations to old practices. In transforming a traditional root cellar on the farm into a state-of-the-art model of cooling efficiency, he enabled the Food Farm to preserve the freshness of their harvest and offer their members Winter Shares that last well into April.

The senior Fisher-Merritt marveled, “It was a whole different ballgame when we could sell winter shares, and people loved it. Last year we had 50,000 pounds carrots in that root cellar, along with cabbage, rutabaga, beets, parsnips, the whole works.”

There are 11 CSA Farms in Northeast Minnesota/Northwest Wisconsin that are registered with the region’s CSA Guild. Three are found right here in Carlton County. Find out more about them and how to become a part of the “farm to table” community at www.csaguild.org. Additional information may be found at the Sustainable Farming Association website, www.sfa-mn.org/lake-superior.

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