Subscription farms boom in Minnesota

Jerry Untiedt, of Untiedt’s Vegetable Farm in Waverly, already has tomato plants in the ground under giant “high tunnel” metal and plastic field houses. The houses, which look like makeshift Quonset huts, trap the sun’s heat and extend the growing season. The upside for the farm’s customers is that tomatoes will be part of its first CSA boxes, scheduled to go out in mid June.

“Due to the tunnels, we can jump that up,” Untiedt said.

The Untiedt farm has been around since 1971, but this is only its third year of offering shares from what is known as community supported agriculture, boxes of fruits and vegetables delivered once a week to customers mainly in the Twin Cities area. There was just one reason for supplementing the usual farmer’s markets and roadside gazebos: demand.

“I hate to put it this way, but we were forced into it,” Untiedt said. “A couple of large health insurance companies who happen to be customers of ours through retail outlets approached us and said, ‘We need you to do this (for our employees). We equate healthy eating with healthy bodies and we want a CSA but we want somebody we know about and are comfortable with.'”

Thus, the Untiedt farm joined the rapidly expanding roster of CSAs in the state.

This year, there are more here than ever before, at least 100 compared to just eight in 2004 and 42 in 2009, according to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, which publishes an annual directory called Minnesota Grown. The Seward Co-op in Minneapolis will hold a CSA fair on April 13 that will include more than 30 farms, including Untiedt’s. The co-op has been hosting the fair for 12 years and has seen a growing number of farms interested in participating.

“They have exploded,” said the state’s Paul Hugunin, who supervises the local foods directory. “We have seen dramatic growth sustained over a decade. It’s an appealing model and something consumers want. It’s a way to have the closest relationship with a farm.”

Untiedt agrees. “We want to stay connected to the people who consume our product,” he said. “This world is full of cold, high-tech pieces of infrastructure and edifices we all have to deal with. We all go to work and face a computer screen every day. What we are trying to deliver is high touch. It’s warm. It generates not only great health and good consumption habits but it makes you feel good psychologically, also.”

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Jerry Untiedt/photo courtesy of www.untiedtswegrowforyou.com

The CSA model offers practical benefits for the farms themselves, too, Hugunin said, since it adds a little predictability to an inherently unpredictable endeavor. The benefit is in “knowing how many customers you have, and knowing they’ve paid up front,” he said.

This can be especially advantageous to farmers when there is a weather problem, a drought, flood or early frost, the sort of dramatic weather events that seem to be more common as the climate changes. Generally speaking, customers who sign up for a CSA subscription are predisposed to cheerfully ride the ups and downs of farming.

“Last year, the weather affected every farmer at some level, depending on what they grew and where they grew it,” said Hugunin, referring to the drought that enveloped much of the state. “If you have a CSA, you are structured to handle that better. Customers are in with you.”

Unteidt isn’t so worried about dramatic weather. His high tunnels protect his plants from hail, heavy rains and high winds. And whether the CSA bolsters his farm’s bottom line remains to be seen. “Since we had a lot of experience in retail, selling directly to the public, we thought this would be a good fit,” said Untiedt. “But it’s very labor intensive. The jury is still out.”