Fargo man looks to put backyard farm crops into restaurants across Upper Midwest
FARGO—Paul Peter Nielson's backyard is no longer a backyard.
Instead, it's a large sheet of black plastic, 30 by 50 feet, held to the ground by bales of hay. Over to the side, there are piles of sod, a toppled wheelbarrow, a shovel. Edible violas and pansies in purple, yellow, white and crimson sit patiently, waiting for planting.
"People are so, 'I want a beautiful backyard of grass,' " said Nielson, who goes by Pete. "I want a beautiful backyard of food—that is not only going to feed me, but is going to feed a bunch of other people, and I don't have to mow it."
This is Fargo-Moorhead's first urban farm, or at least, the first one to claim that title.
Right now, it's not much to look at, but come summer, there will be organic lettuce, squash, tomatoes, mustard greens, arugula, radishes, beets—all to be sold to local restaurants and at farmers markets.
"Farming doesn't have a great definition. The way I define it is, if you're growing food for sale, you're farming," Nielson said. "Whether it be on a micro level like this or you've got a thousand acres of commodity grains, you're farming."
Nielson is 38 years old, heavily tattooed, with silver-streaked hair, brushed back. He shares his south Fargo home with three roommates and a gray cat, Curtis, who keeps the rabbits away.
The farm became his full-time job just recently, though he's been growing microgreens, the tender shoots of salad vegetables, in his basement for two years.
Microgreens often come from common plants such as broccoli, radishes and peas, but they're picked at an early stage—specifically, the stage between seed and baby greens.
Their popularity has skyrocketed lately in the metro, as they've shown up on menus at the Hotel Donaldson, Blackbird Pizza and The Toasted Frog. A handful of local restaurants, including those three, buy microgreens from Nielson, who calls his business Dirthead Farms.
But Nielson is ready to make his business, well, macro.
He's currently working on a deal to sell microgreens to a five-state area. He's on the hunt for other backyards to till. And he wants to build a wind-powered greenhouse.
"It'll be fun," he said. "I like tilling stuff. I like working in the garden."
From chef to supplier
Nielson grew up in Fargo. After high school, he moved to Minneapolis, then Colorado, where he got his first taste for fine dining while working in a bed and breakfast.
He would end up working 17 years as a cook and chef in restaurants, including about eight in Fargo-Moorhead, such as the HoDo, Wasabi and Usher's House.
But over time, the industry began to wear on him.
"Restaurants are a hard business," he said thoughtfully, from a seat on his back porch. "I love food, I love the food community, I love being able to bring a good product to people, but it's a really hard business. It's really stressful."
When Nielson tired of working 12, 14, 16-hour shifts, "I left and decided to grow food," he said. "I like food, I like to eat, and I like being around the industry. By growing the food, I keep my foot in the door on what's going on."
That was two years ago. He commemorated the change by getting the phrase "well done" inked across his knuckles—a "little tribute to the food industry," he said. He also has a chef's knife on the underside of his right forearm, surrounded by Hawaiian flowers and a Tiki mask to represent his quarter-Hawaiian heritage. His tattoo artist is one of his roommates.
Today, restaurants represent Nielson's most loyal customers.
Each week, he sends out 15 to 20 CSA boxes of microgreens, mostly to local restaurants and health food stores. He's about to close a deal with Food Services of America that would put his microgreens in restaurants in North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa and Wyoming.
"It's the best market value for your food," he said. "Restaurants are willing to pay, if you've got good quality vegetables."
Nielson currently grows 10 types of microgreens, but can grow up to 15, from spicy red radish greens to tender pea shoots; the stacks upon stacks of black plastic trays in his basement can produce 50 pounds of itty bitty vegetables each week.
Microgreens on the rise
Nielson first encountered microgreens eight years ago, but in the past five, they've taken off—a popularity he attributes to their health benefits.
In general, leafy greens are "just nutrition powerhouses," said Sherri Nordstrom Stastny, a registered dietitian and associate professor at North Dakota State University.
And the miniature versions offer a tenderness and cuteness you can't get from full-grown kale.
"They are very popular right now, but they are still kind of a new thing," said Dana Swanson, 32, the morning kitchen lead at the Hotel Donaldson.
The HoDo, which has purchased Nielson's produce in the past, typically uses microgreens as a garnish, perhaps pairing beets with beet microgreens to give a dish circularity.
"It's kind of an awesome little complement to your guest to say, here's where it came from and here's where it ended," Swanson said.
It's that same attitude toward the life cycle that drives Nielson in his plans for expansion.
He hopes to eventually have a half acre of land in town—in other backyards, or any property that someone's willing to let him till.
Generally speaking, it's not illegal to grow crops in your backyard and sell them, said Fargo planning administrator Nicole Crutchfield, who had not heard of anyone else doing that in her eight years working for the city.
Nielson has also experimented with aquaponics and plans to do that again, because growing plants in water purified by fish is an eco-friendly approach that works year-round.
"Up here, we have this thing called winter, and it's horrible, so if we want to supply the F-M area with fresh vegetables, we have to look indoors," he said.
For the same reason, he's planning to construct low tunnels over his backyard plot and dreams of a wind-powered greenhouse—which could cost upwards of $35,000.
Right now, though, he's focused on his GoFundMe, which has a goal of $15,000 to be used for equipment such as a flame weeder and tiller. As of this week, he had raised about $400.
"I've come to a realization that it's probably not all going to get funded, and I'm going to have to do a lot more straight hand work," he said. "That's fine by me. I'll have to earn it. I won't have all the nice toys right away to do it. That's fine."
As he looks out proudly toward his torn-up backyard, you can tell: He's fine.