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Spotlight on four Minnesota farms for locally grown food.

Riverbend Farm
Delano, Minnesota

As a high school student, Greg Reynolds dreamed of being a farmer. He wasn’t a country boy, but he didn’t grow up in the city either. His Anoka upbringing was “small town,” he said, but not necessarily idyllic. “The late ’60s and early ’70s were a time of oil shortages and dissatisfaction with the way things were,” Reynolds explained. It doesn’t surprise him, therefore, that these childhood experiences influenced him to seek a career that combined sustainability, problem-solving and nature. In 1992, Reynolds and his wife Mary purchased a plot of land and named it Riverbend Farm.

Riverbend is located near Delano, about 35 miles west of the Twin Cities. The Crow River cuts through the gently rolling land, dividing it in two. The farm has been certified organic since 1994. Although the Reynolds started their operation tilling just two acres, they now farm roughly 30. To maintain a competitive edge, the farm produces hard-to-find vegetables like unusual eggplant varieties, heirloom tomatoes, specialty muskmelons and more. Crops rotate on a four-year plan which ensures healthy practices.

Farming, Reynolds said, “Is a very satisfying way to make a living, but it takes a huge commitment.” As this summer was particularly dry, Reynolds spent long days watering the fields.

Challenges aside, however, Reynolds finds it easy to keep his enthusiasm going for Riverbend. “It’s easy to be excited about doing the work of farming,” he said, noting that marketing is one aspect he really enjoys. “It is a much harder [way] to make a living than I ever imagined,” he confessed, yet he feels secure in one of his guiding principals: “I think that we should leave the land in better condition than we found it. Our grandchildren should be able to farm here,” he said.

Eggplants are plentiful on Riverbend Farm and owners Greg and Mary savor the smooth texture of the cooked vegetable. “Mostly,” said Greg, “we just eat it roasted with garlic or topped with blue cheese.”

Thousand Hills Cattle Company
Cannon Falls, Minnesota

Todd Churchill grew up on an Illinois farm wearing cowboy boots and eating beef. Yet adulthood pulled him away from his roots. After college, he found himself working as an accountant in Cannon Falls, Minn. and eating chicken. “I realized I wasn’t eating beef anymore,” he said. “I just didn’t like it. I’d order a steak in a restaurant and leave half of it on my plate. It was all gristle and bone.” Even the beef he’d cook at home was “…tough, rank and gamey,” he said.

He began to wonder if his taste buds had changed or if it really was the meat. Because Churchill’s family still owned a cattle operation, he started attending conferences where Argentine and New Zealand ranchers spoke openly about their grass-fed cattle practices. Through much research, Churchill came to believe that American ranchers had lost their way. After World War II, he said, many farmers converted their grazing lands into corn and bean fields. Cattle were kicked off the newly tilled fields and corralled into smaller, muddy pens and given factory-produced feed. The new diet produced a fattier meat. It wasn’t his imagination. Beef had changed.

Something else was gnawing at Churchill, too. Just as he had left the family farm, young adults were fleeing rural America. Why? Churchill hatched a theory. “In the pursuit of cheap food, we’ve produced food that makes people sick,” he said. “Who wants to get up every morning to make a product that makes people sick? No one. I wanted to create something exciting to keep kids in rural America. What if you could raise food that healed people?” he asked.

Luckily, Churchill found a way to combine his two growing interests: grass-fed cattle and healthy rural economies. He created Thousand Hills Cattle Company, a group of ranchers who raise grass-fed cattle. By banding together, the ranchers are able to pool their know-how and marketing resources. Since the company began in 2003, it has grown to include roughly 40 farmers in the six-state region.

Grass-fed herds get daily exercise as they graze pasture land. Because the cattle is eating straight from the earth, it is eating a chemical-free diet. A herd’s manure continually re-fertilizes its own food chain, creating a sustainable cycle. Grass-fed beef also has a higher rate of omega 3 fatty acids than other beefs. Plus, said Churchill, grass-fed beef is “…succulent, tasty and rich. I’m not a gourmet kind of person,” he said, “but if it’s the most tender, with the least gristle, free of chemicals and healthy for me. Why wouldn’t I eat it?”

Hoch Orchards
LaCrescent, Minnesota

Hoch Orchard is small family farm located West of LaCrescent and South of Nodine Minnesota, owned by Harry and Jackie Hoch. Their orchard’s first trees were planted in the mid 1940s.

Hoch Orchard strives to produce high-quality apples with minimal pesticide use. The apples sold under the Hoch Orchard label are allowed to ripen naturally without the use of plant growth regulators or ripening agents. The apples are cleaned and packed on their family farm. They do not apply wax, food-grade shellac or any post-harvest pesticides to the apples.

They also practice Integrated Pest Management by monitoring pest population levels. This allows them to dramatically reduce the amount of fungicides and insecticides they use. Their goal is to produce high-quality apples while minimizing chemical inputs. They want to produce the best apples possible while being environmentally friendly and economically feasible.

Faribault Dairy
Faribault, Minnesota

Faribault, Minn., produces something no other town in the United States can claim: cave-aged blue cheese. In fact, Faribault was home to the first blue cheese plant in the nation. In 1936, a cheese maker purchased a series of caves dug into the bluffs along the Straight River near the busy downtown area. Originally, the caves were dug as part of a brewery, but with Prohibition in full swing and the beer plant closed, the caves were vacant and for sale. The new cheese plant was christened Treasure Cave, but it didn’t have staying power. A series of owners eventually sold the company to ConAgra, who closed the plant in 1991.

Jeff Jirik and Randy Ochs were two of the last remaining employees when ConAgra shut the cheese plant’s doors. While they may have lost their jobs, they discovered their entrepreneurial streaks. A decade passed, but in 2001, Jirik and Ochs bought the caves and reopened the plant, naming their operation Faribault Dairy. “It took 10 years for Jeff and Randy to get the wherewithal to take the plunge and reopen,” said Mike Gilbertson, sales and marketing coordinator for Faribault Dairy. “They were cheese makers at heart, and they really believed the plant should never have been closed.”

Now, just seven years later, Faribault Dairy cheeses can be found in grocery stores in nearly every state. Twenty employees produce two cheeses—Amablu and St. Pete’s Select. Both are artisanal, which means they are made entirely by hand.

“Our caves are 19 feet high and 20 feet wide. We can fit over three football fields in the caves. You really have to see it in order to grasp it,” Gilbertson continued, crediting the caves as a key to Faribault Dairy’s success. The caves are carved from St. Peter sandstone, which is unique to the upper Midwest. It was left behind as the last ice age retreated. “Cheese gives off traces of ammonia when it ages, and the sandstone acts like a filter. It absorbs the ammonia, and that gives the cheese a clean flavor that we’re very proud of,” Gilbertson said. “It’s something no one else in the U.S. can do. We’re the only cheese makers who can say our cheese is cured exclusively in caves.”

Kelly Westhoff lives and writes in the Twin Cities.