In the far northwestern corner of Minnesota an unexpected partnership exists between a convent, an organic farmer and some university researchers.
Two years ago the Mount St. Benedict’s Monastery in Crookston joined forces with Mike Klawitter, a 58 year old local organic farmer, to establish a CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture) on its land that had once flourished but had sat fallow in recent years. In the process, local researchers approached the farmer and the nuns about housing a high tunnel research project near the gardens on the grounds of the monastery built in 1919.
This partnership has been a clever use of resources, land and people. The Sisters have access to fresh, organic foods at no cost to them, except for the use of their formerly vacant land. The CSA provides local, organic vegetables not only for the area residents who purchase a share of the garden at the beginning of the summer, but also for area food shelves, a food co-op in nearby Grand Forks, North Dakota and customers at the local farmer’s market. The work in the high tunnel is generating a great deal of information about risk management and season extension practices in this far northern climate located in agricultural zone 3 less than 100 miles from the Canadian border. The high tunnel also supplements the food grown in the garden for the Sisters, the CSA members and the others. And the staff of the CSA is able to care for the plants in the high tunnel and conduct the research.
Organic food is one of the fasting growing segments of agriculture in the United States. According to the Organic Consumers Association a recent Roper Survey found that 63% of American consumers purchase organic foods at least sometimes and that 71% find the idea of organic food appealing. Farmers are struggling to meet this growing demand.
In addition to the increasing popularity of organic food is a mounting interest in local foods. In July the New York Times claimed that eating local is now an official trend. Books by Michael Pollan (“In Defense of Food” and the “Omnivore’s Dilemma”) and “Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: A Year of Food Life” by Barbara Kingsolver have fueled this new interest in local foods. In 2007 the New Oxford American Dictionary announced that the word of the year was locavore, someone who prefers to eat food grown locally. The reasons for the support of local foods are many but include the belief that it is fresher, healthier and tastier, as well as a better environmental choice. Local foods are also beneficial for the local economy. A study by the New Economics Foundation in London found that a dollar spent locally generates twice as much income for the local economy.
Klawitter, a passionate advocate of organic and locally grown foods, had his own CSA when he was approached by a University of Minnesota professor and asked if he’d be interested in starting a CSA on the grounds of St. Benedict’s as a part of a larger project. The rest of the project never transpired but after finalizing the details with the Sisters and finding some grant monies the Mount Saint Benedict Community Supported Agriculture Garden was established with the mission to “Honor all creation by respecting the land through a Community Supported Agriculture Garden in a contemplative environment.”
The Sisters at Mount Saint Benedict’s have a long history of producing food for themselves and others. The monastery gardens, which have always been organic, were established in 1924 five years after the monastery was built. The Sisters cared for the gardens themselves until sometime in the 1990s. Sister Rosaila, who is the contact at the monastery for the garden and its bookkeeper, arrived at the monastery in the early 1940s. She described how she and all the Sisters would actively participate in garden work. “I handled the old Ford tractor and cultivated, planted and weeded the garden.” The land provided all the food the Sisters and the high school academy that was housed at the monastery at the time, needed.
Most of the nuns would leave the convent every fall to work in a variety of professions, teaching in the parish schools being the most common, and return at Christmas and then at the end of May for the summer. When the nuns left in the fall to perform their mission work they brought with them the spoils from the garden. “We were the workforce and that included the freezing and canning of the garden produce” Sister Rosaila recalled. The number of Sisters who live at the monastery has decreased from an all-time high of over 180 to 60 at the present time. The average age of those who live there now is 75 and most aren’t capable of doing much garden work. The garden has always been one of the ministries of the Sisters. Sister Rosaila said “we believe in providing food for ourselves and others. Many don’t have soil more than a flower pot. We have this area with rich, black soil.”
At the time that Klawitter was working out the details for the CSA he was approached by a University professor who was interested in setting up a high tunnel on the grounds of the monastery. Unfortunately, shortly after the project began the professor lost interest in the project and eventually left the University to pursue other interests. Klawitter took over the care of the vegetables in the high tunnel so the project would not fail and has continued to work with the University on the project.
High tunnels, temporary structures similar to greenhouses but use no electricity or artificial heat, are being studied to determine if they can extend growing seasons, which would be especially helpful in northern Minnesota. Klawitter maintains that the high tunnels are a whole new way to produce food. “They quadruple the output of blemish-free organic vegetables that are normally not grown here due to the limited growing season” he explained while giving the example that “raspberries can be grown two months earlier and two months later which could have a huge impact filling the demand for raspberries locally rather than importing them from foreign counties.” He believes that eventually Minnesota might not need food from California or the rest of the world, which would significantly reduce the cost of food transportation. He cited research that has shown that on average food travels 1,500 miles or more to reach people’s dinner tables.
Comprehensive research conducted in the high tunnel includes weighing and measuring the vegetables once they are picked. The soil data is analyzed, along with watering data, plant heights, temperatures, fertilizer and the number of inedible and edible pounds produced. All the data is recorded on the computer and shared with the University and other interested parties.
The future of this project looks very promising. Besides feeding the Sisters and supplying produce for the local farmer’s market, a nearby food co-op and a local food shelf 80 families were members of the CSA last summer. Demand is greater than the supply. Sister Rosaila feels that this project has gone very well and when asked what she envisions for its future she confided “I can only dream and hope it will continue.” Klawitter expects that the future will bring more organic high tunnels and most likely, a network of them. He is also planning to pay other area organic farmers to grow produce for the garden to add to his selection and keep up with the demand that he is struggling to fill. This would create a co-op of sorts and be a one-stop shop for consumers. Klawitter is also very pleased with what has happened and the even greater potential for the future. “I love it here. You just can’t ask to work in a better place.”
Kristin Eggerling is a board member for Conservation Minnesota Voter Center, the mother of two, and a freelance writer in northwestern Minnesota.