A dusty flatbed pickup rolls along the gravel driveway of Open Hands Farm and out past the fields of lush vegetable plants. The bright patchwork of bee boxes strapped securely to its bed will soon house the growing swarm of pollinators that work alongside Erin Johnson and Ben Doherty on their organic vegetable farm. Since 2006, this couple has been cultivating produce in the rolling hills of Northfield, MN. The first year they tended just a few acres of land they rented from a local landowner. Each year their fields have slowing expanded and now they own and manage over 30 acres.
“We have been really fortunate to have land owners that were willing to work with us and take a chance on us at first,” says Ben Doherty. “I think that is definitely one of the difficult things for people who didn’t grow up in farming – just having access to land, even finding appropriate land to rent for what you want to do, can be really difficult.”
The growing farm now includes a large compost pile, green houses, and tractors – this year’s addition is a winter roots storage facility to “..store and sell carrots, beets, parsnips, and cabbage from November to April. It should hold over 150,000 pounds of vegetables,” say Ben, smiling broadly.
While we talk, Ben and Erin pull weeds from around their young lettuce plants. The sun in high and hot, but their hands never stop moving. As they share their passion for farming, their fingers flit quickly between the tender leaves to grasp weeds, pulling them up by the roots. “Sometimes [finding] labor is an issue. There is a fair amount of handwork for what we do,” admits Ben. “Sometimes we can find enough people who are skilled and want to do the work and can take our level of pay. I think farm workers should get paid more then they do, far and away. It is one of the big problems with cheap food.”
Ben brushes the dirt from his fingers and continues weeding, “The people who do the hardest work really take the hardest hit and it is not unskilled labor. It gets called that, but I think that is really demeaning and disrespectful. You get people who write about it as unskilled labor from an office. I would like to get them out here to do it as good and as fast as we do it…”
The continued growth of their farm is a testament to their and their workers commitment and skill in growing outstanding produce. This passion stems from a lifelong interest in good food, the wonder of farming, and a desire to have a positive impact on the world around them.
“Growing up I figured out I really liked working outside with dirt and plants and I really liked good food…. Sometime in college I figured out that growing organic veggies means you get to be with plants and dirt and great food,” reminisced Ben. “We both really wanted to do something that would help people live better lives.”
“Instead of tackling the larger issues in the world, just focusing on one little piece, doing our little part,” explains Erin, “being a part of a larger movement – it fit with my lifestyle a lot better. I felt like I was able to do more good this way.”
Farming organically has been a crucial part of their business since the beginning. “We noticed as young adults that we felt better eating organic and that a lot of organic food tasted better,” says Ben. “We have a strong belief that food is medicine too. We believe that our food is especially good, healthy medicine for people. We want that to be part of their lives.”
Open Hands goes beyond the basic requirements of organic farming to meet the vision of its farmers. “We don’t use pesticides, even the organic allowed ones. It’s just our personal choice. We might have to some day, but we’ve avoided it so far, both to reduce any unintentional damage to [beneficial] insects and we really just like to support life on the farm,” mentions Ben.
“We would never consider farming any other way,” says Erin. “We wouldn’t want to be around chemicals either, or our daughter or any of our farm workers.”
To avoid the need for pesticides they focus on premium soil quality, beneficial insects, and strong plants. Each year they add organic matter and trace minerals to the soil, therein raising its carbon content and building healthier, more biologically diverse dirt. This soil helps grow strong plants that can better stand up to inclement weather, damaging insects, and disease.
“As organic growers, we have different strategies. We have to focus much more on prevention,” explains Ben. “When it comes to insects, we go for diversity. We try to make the farm a real haven, full of habitat for beneficial insects. There are a lot of flies and small wasps that are responsible for keeping most insects in check.”
This year they plan on adding another half acre of native plants throughout the farm to encourage these insects to live amongst their vegetable rows. By keeping these beneficial insects close, Ben notes, they “do the dirty work of insect control for us.”
The sustainability of Open Hands Farm’s methods has resonated with many consumers in the state. The farm started as a purely CSA (community supported agriculture) operation, but they have begun to expand into the wholesale markets, providing nutritious vegetables to places like Ferndale Market and the Minneapolis school system.
“We have done a lot more wholesale then we ever expected,” acknowledges Erin. “We fell into some really wonderful wholesale accounts and it seems to be a good fit with the CSA model for us because we can grow more then we need for the CSA.”
The additional customers have allowed them to expand the kinds of produce they grow and created a cushion for the unpredictability of farming like weather, disease, and demand.
“It’s important for everyone to know that when they buy local or organic food they are supporting habitat for wildlife and insects, and they are supporting clean water and healthy soil, in addition to their own personal health. It has a lot of broader environmental health benefits, but any of those by themselves is a good enough reason to do it,” says Ben.
“And also the more of our community there is the more it is attractive to other farmers coming in,” agrees Erin. “Everyone works together and it creates this wonderful community that’s revolving around local foods. It’s a snowball thing.”
Ferndale Market carries Open Hands tender spring mix throughout the summer months and will have their carrots available starting in late summer.