Nick and Joan Olson will step outside their Litchfield Township home every morning this week and be greeted by the sweet smell of success.
Success will smell a lot like garlic. But that’s life on a community-supported agriculture farm in the days following a garlic harvest.
“When we go out each morning now and walk by the greenhouse, we get that same smell,” Nick said with a chuckle.
It will be that way while the garlic dries and cures. Then the cloves will be packaged and distributed to the 230-some families who receive vegetable “shares” from Prairie Drifter Farm.
Along with garlic, the wax-coated cardboard share boxes will also include some of the 50 or so other types of vegetables that the Olsons grow and harvest on their farm northwest of Hutchinson.
The Olsons founded Prairie Drifter Farm in 2010, on a rented farm near Montevideo. They caught a break in December 2010 when they found their rural Litchfield farm at an affordable price and in an area they believed their brand of farming could be successful. They began offering shares to the area immediately, and that first year about 35 area families received vegetables from the farm.
Community-supported agriculture is a term coined in the 1980s to describe a program that connects a producer, or farmer, to the consumer. The consumer becomes a sort of subscriber to the farm, paying an annual rate in return for receiving produce throughout the growing season. The model allows the farmer and consumer to share in the risks and rewards of farming.
Prairie Drifter isn’t the only local CSA farm, either. Others such as Loon Organics and The Farm of Minnesota also serve clients in the area.
But CSAs also foster a bond between producer and consumer that typically grows beyond a basic business relationship.
“There are so many things pulling us further and further away from community,” Nick said. “This way that we’re farming is kind of like trying to pull that back.”
Building that sense of community, Olson said, happens when share members pick up their boxes at one of four Prairie Drifter distribution points, including Natural Food Co-op on main street in Litchfield, as well as sites in Dassel, St. Cloud and Sartell.
“They’re in there picking up their boxes (but) they’re engaging with each other around the box,” Nick Olson said. “Even that small piece is building community.”
In addition to community building, CSA farms build a much stronger connection to the food and the land. Many of Prairie Drifter’s members eschew the in-town pickup of their shares and instead drive to the farm about five miles southwest of town to grab their share box, to check on the farm, and chat with “their” farmers.
But no matter how they receive their share box, members receive the freshest produce one can expect, outside of picking it from their own garden.
“It’s local and organic,” Olson said of produce from Prairie Drifter. “We’re certified organic, and we’re obviously local. They’re receiving that … right from the field.”
Those benefits have helped Prairie Drifter Farm max out its memberships, to the point of having a waiting list the past couple of years. After starting with 35 families that first year, the farm now has about 230 family share members.
The Olsons sell both full shares, which provide one box of vegetables each week of the season, and half shares, which provide a box of produce every other week. Fulfilling the mix of full and half shares sees the Olsons, their children, Abe, 8, and Freya, 5, and their two full-time employees harvest vegetables to fill about 150 boxes each week.
“The number we’re at now has been there about three years,” Nick Olson said. “We stopped at that number … because that’s what felt like the right spot for the current time. Every winter we’re evaluating, but it seems like this works for us, works for the land, works for our employees.”
The Olsons also enjoy sharing the small-scale agriculture experience with members by scheduling things such as “farm walkabout,” “Kids Day at the Farm,” and an annual share member potluck and pumpkin pick.
And, of course, the garlic harvest.
They planted about 60 pounds — or approximately 2,300 toes — of German white garlic this spring. The garlic plot consisted of five beds, each with three rows of about 140 feet, for a total of 3,000 row feet.
In the farm’s early years, Nick and Joan harvested their garlic crop themselves, but as membership and need for garlic grew, they offered the on-farm experience to share members, under the idea that many hands could, indeed, make light work.
“We try to involve share members in lots of ways, the garlic harvest is one of the things people enjoy,” Nick Olson said. “And when we have all those people out, we get it done in one swoop.
“Plus, it’s just another way to build those connections,” he added. “People talk and get to know each other while they’re working. They have fun.”