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Harvesting garlic, building community at Prairie Drifter Farm

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Volunteering for the harvest

About 20 share members worked along with Prairie Drifter Farm employees during the garlic harvest July 21.

Nick and Joan Olson will step outside their rural Litchfield 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 Olson said with a chuckle.

It will be that way while the garlic, harvested by a crew of 20 volunteers on a warm July 21 afternoon, dries and cures inside a hoop structure south of their house. Then the cloves will be packaged and distributed to the 230-some families who receive vegetable “shares” from Prairie Drifter Farm.

The garlic will share space in the dark brown, wax-coated cardboard share boxes with some of the about 50 other types of vegetables that the Olsons grow and harvest on their farm southwest of Litchfield.

The Olsons founded Prairie Drifter Farm in 2010, on a rented farm near Montevideo. That was after serving two-year internships on community-supported agriculture farms, then managing a farm near Madison for two years.

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 farm shares to the area immediately, and that first year about 35 area families received vegetables from the farm.

Prairie Drifter Farm crew

The Prairie Drifter Farm crew harvested green beans Monday afternoon on the farm southwest of Litchfield. The farm is owned by Joan and Nick Olson. Pictured are, left row, from front, Abe and Freya, the Olson children, Joan; and right row, Nick, and full-time employees Abby Dickhudt of Mankato and Lily Sevilla of Minneapolis.

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 from the farm throughout the growing season. The model allows the farmer and consumer to share in the risks — bad weather, poor growing season, or pest damage — and rewards of farming.

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 Olson 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,” Nick Olson said of produce from Prairie Drifter. “We’re certified organic, and we’re obviously local. They’re receiving that … right from the field. Really fresh. It’s unlike the supermarket, where (produce) is picked when it’s not ripe and (growers are) hoping it will ripen on the way to the store.”

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.”

This is the seventh year the Olsons have had full-time employees. They, too, are part of the Olsons’ philosophy of growing the connections and community of local farming.

Both Nick and Joan have backgrounds in education, and believe strongly that beyond being employers, they are teachers of community-supported agriculture.

“When we hire folks ... we’re kind of spreading that net to see if we can’t find people who might want to be in agriculture in the future,” he said. “Our hope is that by being able to share information and do some teaching, we add value to the employment.”

Beyond employees, the Olsons also enjoy sharing the small-scale agriculture experience with members by scheduling things like “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. Nick said he worried about the crop, due to the wet spring, but he was pleasantly surprised by its success when harvest arrived.

Placing the garlic

Share members work together to spread out garlic plants on pallets inside the greenhouse at Prairie Drifter Farm.

While the garlic harvest typically comes in mid-July, it is preceded by a kind of pre-harvest of garlic scapes — the flower bud of the garlic plant, which is removed in late June to allow the plant to put all its energy into growing the clove. The scapes aren’t a throwaway, however. Their mild flavor is reminiscent of chives or scallions, with a hint of garlic, and as such, a bunch of scapes is included in each member’s share box.

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 continued. “People talk and get to know each other while they’re working. They have fun. If it was just the four of us out there, it would have been a lot less interesting.”

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