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Minnesota produce growers to offer community shares in garden crops

LAKEFIELD -- For area vegetable farmers like Bill Brandt and Jill and Jake Cuperus, the area's farmers markets have been a great tool for selling their bushels of green beans, plethora of potatoes and tons of tomatoes, but the customer base varie...

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Bill Brandt, owner of Brandt Gardens & Greenhouse, sits among the scallion and onion plants he started in January inside the greenhouse on his rural Lakefield farm. Brandt is expanding this year to offer Community Supported Agriculture shares to consumers. (Julie Buntjer/Daily Globe)

LAKEFIELD - For area vegetable farmers like Bill Brandt and Jill and Jake Cuperus, the area’s farmers markets have been a great tool for selling their bushels of green beans, plethora of potatoes and tons of tomatoes, but the customer base varies from week to week and can be hampered by the weather or busy family schedules.

This year, the local farmers are hoping to find a little more stability in their sales by offering “shares” to consumers interested in ultra-fresh garden veggies direct from the producer.

Brandt, who owns Brandt Gardens & Greenhouse south of Lakefield, and the Cuperus family, owners of Bushel+Peck south of Wilmont, are giving consumers the choice to buy whole- or half-shares, and in Brandt’s case, there’s even a mini share available.

The two are just the latest to join a nationwide movement known as Community Supported Agriculture. CSAs give consumers a chance to invest in a farm in exchange for a weekly supply of farm-fresh produce - whatever happens to be in season at the time.

According to the website localharvest.org, which has more than 4,000 CSAs listed in its grassroots database, the advantages to farmers offering CSAs range from being able to market their food before the long days in the field begin, they receive payment early in the season to aid with their cash flow, and they get to know the people who will consume the crops they grow.

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Meanwhile, consumers get ultra-fresh food with all of its flavor and vitamin benefits, they are exposed to new vegetables, their children are excited to try vegetables that come from “their garden share” and they also can develop a relationship with a farmer and understand more about where their food comes from.

Brandt established greenhouses - one is a commercial greenhouse and the other two are high tunnels - in 2000 and has about eight or nine outside acres dedicated to growing produce. He has marketed his produce at farmers markets in Spirit Lake, Jackson and Windom for several years. He also sets up produce stands in parking lots of businesses to give employees access to healthy fruits and vegetables, is part of a food hub in Mankato and sells direct to some grocery stores.

He will continue to do all of those things, and offering CSAs is just another marketing tool he hopes will be successful.

“I think the consumer is looking for a place where they can feel trust and come and buy locally fresh (food),” Brandt said.

“One thing everybody does is eat, and it’s becoming more important to have healthy food.”

By offering CSAs, Brandt is hoping to narrow the gap between producer and consumer.

“Three or four generations ago, most people knew where their food was coming from or grew it themselves,” he said. “Now, our society is so far away from where their food comes from and I think they want to know.”

At Bushel+Peck, Jake and Jill Cuperus are relative newcomers to produce marketing. Last year was their first year growing multiple acres of vegetables, which were sold at farmers markets and marketed to a local grocery store. They also offered farm-fresh eggs and fresh-frozen chickens, which are grown on their farm.

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“We’re really excited to be able to offer (CSAs) down here,” said Jill Cuperus. “They’re so popular in metro areas, and we hope it takes off.

“We really want to reconnect people with ag and where their food comes from,” she added. “We just love this local movement.”

Jill said her family - the couple has three kids that like to help: Josie, 7, Lane, 5, and Lawson, 2 - will pack up a box of whatever is fresh each week of the growing season (approximately 17 to 20 weeks) and make it “super-convenient” for customers.

“All people have to do, once they’re signed up … is swing by and pick up their box,” Cuperus said, adding that there will be a designated pick-up location for the produce boxes.

“We have a lot of people who work odd hours or their kids have activities, but they love fresh produce,” she added. “This is a way for them to access the freshness that we have to offer in a convenient way.”

Options available

Brandt offers consumers the option of a weekly half-share or whole share. The whole share will feed three to four adults, while a half-share is for one or two adults. A mini-share is also available and will include a once-per-month box of produce for one person.

In addition to getting assorted vegetables, Brandt has teamed up with a few other farmers to also offer locally grown apples, raspberries and garlic.

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“In time we hope to add eggs and honey, and I have one producer that makes goat soap and goat lotion, and we’ll probably do something special with that,” he said.

Brandt said he will deliver CSA boxes to his customers specific days of the week. On Tuesdays, he will be in Windom, on Wednesdays in Spirit Lake, Iowa, on Thursdays in Jackson and on Fridays in Worthington. There’s also an option for consumers to pick up their CSA box at Brandt Gardens & Greenhouse.

Through Bushel+Peck, Cuperus said a full share will be about a bushel of fresh produce per week, with a half share equal to about a half-bushel of produce.

“We’re going to have all kinds of deliciousness in there - tomatoes, carrots, onions, peppers, potatoes, green beans, sweet corn…” Cuperus said. “We’re also going to offer with each of our boxes, with the unusual vegetables, recipes in with each box. We just want to push people out of their comfort zone and try new veggies.”

Among the new veggies they are adding to their garden this year are eggplant and beets.

While they plan to add new items to their 3-acre garden, Cuperus said she’ll also be planting less kale (it wouldn’t stop growing last year).

“Our CSA boxes will be the best of the best,” Cuperus said. “We’ll pack them up first, and everything else will go to the market, which is still great quality.

“We’re not organic, but we try to just let Mother Nature take care of everything,” she said. “Things are going to be picked when it’s freshest. It’s going to be vine-ripened.”

In addition to the produce boxes, Bushel+Peck will offer a meat and egg bundle, which will include one fresh-frozen chicken and two dozen eggs per month.

Both Brandt and Cuperus are selling CSA shares now. Brandt has set a deadline of May 1 to get signed up, while the Cuperus’ have a deadline of mid-May.

“The earlier the better,” said Cuperus. “It gives us a better handle on how much to plant.”

For more information or to purchase a CSA share from Brandt, visit brandtgardens.com or to purchase a share from Bushel+Peck, visit bushelpeckproduce.com or call 360-1465.

Related Topics: CROPS
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