What a twist of events The Farm on St. Mathias has become.
Bob and Arlene Jones of Nisswa weren’t looking to get into the farm business. But when 80 acres of land south of Brainerd landed in their laps seven years ago they transformed a dilapidated barn and an older tin shed into a piece of property where they could grow, educate and get serious about “seriously local food.”
Aside from potatoes, carrots, melons and corn, a cooperative also grew out of The Farm on St. Mathias. A cooperative of about 10 area farmers, who have combined their efforts to provide the lakes area with fresh, local and quality produce that can be found at the Brainerd School District and such restaurants as Prairie Bay in Baxter, Grand View Lodge in Nisswa and Sunshine Kitchen and Moonshine Lounge in Brainerd.
But it didn’t happen over night.
“I got myself connected to groups that are farming minded, like the Sustainable Farming Association,” said Arlene Jones. “The next thing I know, I’m elected to the board. Then the next thing I know, I’m the chair. So just those types of things as well as staying connected to the food movement. I was reading anything I could to figure out how I fit into this and how do I mold a model for this farm that fits into this local food movement. Then being absolutely resilient in my chase for the value of the relationship with the executive chefs and the food service directors.
“I say what I mean and mean what I say. I’m accountable. I’m reliable. I’m on time and I don’t promise something I can’t provide. Because of that, they have given me incredible trust and flexibility with helping them learn how to do local foods in our limited growing season.”
Jones said if Minnesota growers are lucky they have 100 days of growing. The introduction of high tunnels to The Farm as well as other area farmers using hydroponics has increased the growing season. Much to the delight of area chefs like Matt Annand, executive chef at Prairie Bay.
“As a chef, local food tastes better and that’s the bottom line,” said Annand. “It’s better for you and it’s more nutritious and it looks better on the plate. It’s brighter and fresher. We get salad greens that are out of the ground two hours ago and they are on someone’s plate. It’s totally different than what you get in the store.
“We have had a really strong belief from the beginning of our inception that we like to help our neighbors out. We like to help our community. That’s a big part of who we are and it gives us a sense of pride and belonging in our community that goes a little bit beyond flipping steaks.”
And as a cooperative, the area farmers want to sell their products and have a guaranteed source of income. But in order to get to that point, it took time and it took someone to organize it with the goal of building and nurturing that relationship.
“What I tried to do is work with the executive chefs and Colette Pohlkamp (food service manager at the Brainerd School District) in getting a new mindset for not creating meals based on a gourmet pallet, but creating our menus and meals based on a seasonal pallet,” said Jones. “What’s available right now is what we’re cooking. The same thing with the school. In order for that program to be successful, we needed to craft our menus based on the availability of the product with our limited Minnesota growing season. Way back in March, Colette was crafting menus for September that include sweet corn, tomatoes, cucumbers and squash. Then I took that menu and brought it to the farmers and said here is a guaranteed revenue source.”
The farm to school program started four years ago with just The Farm on St. Mathias as a model. It has grown to include four other area farms, which provided the school district with 5,300 pounds of food last year. This year the cooperative provided food for summer school and Fun and Friends.
For restaurants it took a strong commitment to sign on to the product. They were getting fresh produce, which they liked, but at a higher cost. That’s why the development and nurturing of the relationship between grower and chefs was so important.
“Those two (Bob and Arlene Jones) are really great people,” said Paul Fitzpatrick, executive chef at Cru at Grand View Lodge. “I see them all the time. What I like about working with them is when they bring stuff in or when you go into their cooler you see all these really nice basil and nice romaine lettuce from them. It’s nice. They are so eager to work with us as chefs. What ever we want they will work to provide. Plus, they run over the produce personally. It’s really great to know where you food is coming from and to be able to hang out with the people that provided it.”
A reliable source of income for the farmers for fresh, healthy produce for the chefs seems to be a win-win situation. But in the end, the real winners would appear to be the people who get to eat the fruits of this relationship.