Think you have spring fever? Sandy Dietz walks into a tsunami of vernal anticipation every time she enters her Minnesota greenhouse, bonding with the thousands of seedlings that will eventually find a home outside in the fields. Raising over a hundred varieties of vegetables, Dietz and her family run Whitewater Gardens in northeast Minnesota, growing for area farmers’ markets and a sixty member CSA (community supported agriculture).
“Our first farmers’ market of the season is like an anticipated family reunion for me,” Dietz says with a smile. “To reconnect with the folks who regularly buy our produce every week and watch them act like kids in a candy store when they see our fresh kale for the first time this year confirms that farming is where my heart and passion lie. To contribute to the local food system by taking things from seed to community, that’s priceless to me.”
Dietz’s path to farming represents current trends in small-scale agriculture. While she grew up in a small town setting, she and her husband, Lonny, had no growing experience. After years in traditional office settings, the Dietz duo started their five-acre market garden in 1996. Like many new farmers in training, they met seasoned Obi Wan Kenobi mentors to help them get established. “The strong network of organic farmers helped us get started and keeps us connected today,” Dietz adds. Dietz also represents the changing face of women in agriculture, as increasing numbers of women (particularly those under 55) are purchasing new farms and operating organic and sustainably-managed farms.
As the farmers’ market season opens across the country, here are some shopping tips from Dietz’s perspective from the other side of the vendor booth:
• Ask farmers questions
Growers selling at farmers’ markets are not like the Wizard of Oz hiding behind the curtain (or if they are, move on to another booth). Not sure about what to do with a tomatillo? Thrown off by the purple potato? Ask for some guidance, hand-holding and even recipes direct from the grower.
“We like to grow unique varieties of heirloom vegetables that produce vibrantly colored produce, such as purple, yellow or even white carrots,” explains Dietz. These heirlooms can add an artistic splash of color to your table, but ask the grower about recommended cooking methods to keep the color.
• Develop relationships based on trust, beyond government-sanctioned standards
Don’t pass by a farmers’ stand just because you don’t see an official “certified organic” sign. Many small-scale farms, like Whitewater Gardens, never needed to invest the time and money in the certification process because they already had relationships with regular customers who knew and trusted their farming practices. “Our customers know we grow sustainably and without pesticides and we’re happy to talk specifically about our farming practices with anyone who asks,” Dietz adds. “By not going through the certification expense, we don’t need to pass this cost along to our regular customers.”
• Experiment with greens
“In my opinion, fresh cooking greens are the diamonds in the rough at farmers’ markets,” Dietz says with a grin. “You can’t beat the nutrient value for the price and there are so many different varietals, from kale to Asian greens to turnip greens, and various ways to use them in anything from soup to frittatas or simply sauteed with a dash of balsamic vinegar.”
To kick off spring greens experiments, here’s a recipe for Kale Chowder, a Dietz family and Whitewater Gardens CSA member favorite:
1 bunch kale (approximately 1 & 1/2 pounds)
2 garlic cloves
4 medium carrots, cut into coins
1 medium onion, chopped
1 pound potatoes, peeled & cubed
1 pound old fashioned farmer or Italian sausage, sliced into 1/4-inch-thick diagonals
1 quart cream (or milk)
1 cup chicken broth
1 tablespoon butter
salt and pepper
Stem kale, chop stem into 1/2 inch pieces, cut leaves into large pieces. Heat olive oil and butter in soup kettle or Dutch oven. Add garlic, onions, carrots, kale stems and potatoes. Saute for 1 minute, cover and turn down heat. Cook until almost tender. Add chicken broth, kale leaves and sausage. Cook for approximately 10 more minutes, stirring occasionally. Add cream and salt and pepper to taste. Warm through.