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From culinary classes to CSA shares, this Falcon Heights nonprofit is fixing our food system

July’s Teen Cooking class with Via Yang

July’s Teen Cooking class with Via Yang Tony Nelson

The Good Acre’s sleek red warehouse rises amid the green fields of the U of M’s farm, just off Larpenteur Avenue in Falcon Heights. Enter its double doors to stacks of CSA boxes; black buckets of towering hydrangeas, dahlias, and echinacea; and jugs of brewing kombucha.

The kitchens bustle with small food processors. You might meet the Latina women of Señoras de Salsa, their laughter mingling with scents of garlic and cilantro; come evening, Yia Vang, the hip young Hmong chef, is teaching college-bound students the art of banh mi. By next morning, “lunch ladies” and administrators will file in for culinary farm-to-school training. This food hub is a warehouse and packing facility, with licensed commercial kitchens, a cooking school, a culinary training center, and a community gathering space.

“I stay behind the scenes,” Rhys Williams, the Good Acre’s executive director, likes to say. But this quiet and unassuming man is at the center of it all. Tall, gray-haired, mustache twitching in a wry smile, Williams is fit and weathered, still very much a seasoned farmer. He’s growing an alternative food system, one that responds to the needs of small and immigrant organic farmers by connecting them to institutions, processors, chefs, teachers, co-ops, and home cooks.

“Seems every week we are giving a tour to a different group—youth groups, entrepreneurs, nonprofits, businessmen, retired farmers,” he says. Everyone involved in fixing our food system wants to know how everything here gets done.

Early in his career, Williams spent several years working in orchards on both coasts before moving to Minnesota and becoming a founding partner of Featherstone Farm in Rushford, one of the state’s largest organic growers. Over a decade later, he joined Co-op Partners, a wholesale distributor, as a buyer of certified organic produce. He saw that as the organic sector grew, established farmers could supply enough to co-ops and restaurants to lock up contracts. This kept farmers who were just starting—especially immigrant farmers—out of the wholesale market.

“Farming here is tough enough, and relying on farmers markets for income is just too risky,” Williams explains. If the weather is lousy, no one shows up, and the food gets donated or thrown away. CSA sales provide reliable income, but farmers need diverse markets. Entering the distribution system is the biggest challenge small-scale farmers face.

“I can’t imagine doing this work when English is your second language,” Williams says.

His career in organic food includes a lifetime commitment to environmentally sound practices that protect the water and soil and are in line with his values of food access and equity. Williams has been on the board of the Land Stewardship Project, on the Minneapolis Home Grown Food Policy Council, and has been a USDA grant reviewer on community foods. He helped create the Hope Community Garden, and served as an advisor to the Minnesota Food Charter and Roots for the Home Team.

As ED, he’s cultivated a staff of professionals who share his vision and passion. Take David Van Eeckhout, TGA grower support specialist, who brings 20 years of experience from his Hog’s Back Farm to his work with TGA farmers—advising, mentoring, and providing resources. He’s filling the role once played by older farmers who shared their wisdom with sons and daughters in line to take over the farm.

TGA’s farmers have access to the warehouse’s state-of-the-art washing lines, sorting and packing tables, refrigerator, and freezer storage. They learn how to build hoop houses for season extension, start early crops, and use TGA’s farm manuals written in English, Hmong, and Spanish. “Selling my produce to the Good Acre has helped me increase my revenue and decrease my produce loss,” notes TGA farmer Lyee Vue.

Each week, over 500 CSA members pick up boxes of seasonal produce from over 40 small farmers. This guarantees farmers receive a fair and stable price while the member’s boxes are filled with a bountiful assortment; no one gets stuck with a week’s worth of kohlrabi.

TGA’s cooking classes for youth, adults, and families—Indian Vegetarian Cooking, Open-Fire Cooking (at Gibbs Farm), Global Summer Salads, Pickling and Canning—sell out quickly, and sliding fees for classes and CSA shares make them accessible. One CSA member was so delighted by her box’s freshness and variety that she purchased 15 additional shares for several college-age America Corps workers living nearby. “She saw they were eating just chips and pizza,” says Anna Richardson, CSA manager. “These students love it. They’re realizing how easy it is to eat fresh, healthy, delicious food.”

There’s also the Maker to Market food-business accelerator program for entrepreneurs, a partnership betweenTGA and Lakewinds Co-ops. Makers source local ingredients from TGA and use its commercial kitchens and storage space; Lakewinds provides expertise on labeling and marketing, and guarantees shelf space in its stores. Gyst Ferments, Señoras de Salsa, and Caldo Foods are among some 20 other producers cooking up new products for our local economy. “This effort is creating a community of processors,” says Natalie Vanderburgh, kitchen manager. “Working in the same spaces, they share information and ideas.”

TGA makes the wholesale market accessible and profitable to small and immigrant farmers. “Good Acre Farmers receive about 80 to 90 percent of each dollar in sales,” says Nick Mabe, sales and logistics director, whose accounts include the U of M, Armark, Hamline, several hospitals, and more than 14 school districts. This past year, TGA supplied over 90,000 pounds of produce to schools. “We understand that institutional food service accounts are often understaffed and overworked, so we assist in the role of farm-to-school coordinator by managing local farmer relationships and by offering our culinary training services,” Mabe says.

“We don’t just sell vegetables, we help the districts build a road map,” says Emily Paul, TGA programs director. “We strive to make local seasonal vegetables a way of life at school, not just a token side dish or a one-off sampling.” TGA’s extensive storage space has ample room for crops like sweet potatoes, carrots, and winter squash so that schools can include local items on their menus throughout the school year.

Recently, TGA launched a culinary training program for school “lunch ladies,”—aka Nutrition Service Department staff—with classes in scratch cooking of vegetable dishes that kids will like and that meet the USDA’s nutritional guidelines. “TGA held our hands the entire process and have made getting local food on Roseville, St. Anthony, and New Brighton’s cafeteria trays a reality,” says Angela Richey, nutrition services supervisor for Roseville Area Schools.

Beyond lunch, local food is entering the classroom. TGA is working with Anoka-Hennepin School District to build a FACS (Family and Consumer Science) curriculum focused on local food, agriculture, and career opportunities in the food industry. “By expanding our food skills and food system training to include FACS teachers, we’re expanding the scope of Farm to School to include not only what kids have for lunch in the cafeteria but what they’re learning in the classroom, hopefully sparking systemic change,” Paul adds.

What’s next? “I’m working with farmers, processors, and schools to create a pipeline for ‘seconds,’” says Williams, referring to those tomatoes and zucchini and potatoes that are not quite right for the market and too often left to rot in the fields.

Like organic farming itself, the Good Acre’s holistic, integrated approach is weaving a web of farmers, food makers, cooks, and eaters through support services, warehouse infrastructure, classes, and trainings. Unlike most commercial growers and processors, this is an enterprise that does not measure success in pounds harvested or money saved. Here, decisions are made with an eye to the soil’s fertility, human health, fair wages for workers, and animal welfare. Its highest consideration is not the immediate impact on the bottom line but on growing a hopeful, vibrant, delicious future for us all.

The Good Acre
1790 Larpenteur Ave. W., Falcon Heights 
651-493-7158; thegoodacre.org