Minnesota Food Association + Big River Farms

Just driving to this unique teaching farm makes my mouth water. Admittedly, that doesn’t take much, but the foods grown here are second to none and the farmers have a lot of fun along the way. Food integrity is deeply rooted in every choice made at the Minnesota Food Association and Big River Farms; plus they give one mean tractor ride! Come along and fall in love with this vital and idyllic farm on the outskirts of Marine on the St. Croix.

They grow organic food in a way that honors the land and engages marginalized people. This is truly a one of a kind place. Being a land-based training program focusing on immigrant and minority populations you could meet farmers from many distinct cultures just walking through their fields. The diversity within the program is seen as another strength which drives their mission:

To build a more sustainable food system based on social, economic and environmental justice through education, training and partnerships. 

Women run Big River Farms. From L to R, Danielle Piraino, Laura May Hedeen, Emily Squyres, Lebo Moore, Molly Schaus.

The education piece of their mission is achieved through their Farmer Training Programs . The training is a 3-4 year program starting with the basics in organic production and post-harvest handling moving up to whole farm management where farmers hone their marketing and business development. Classes are held in the evenings and on weekends to accommodate working adults. “There are currently 17 farm teams in the program, 11 of which are land-based at Big River Farms – the others have other land or are taking classes only, without using the land. There are 7 cultures represented in this group,” according to Laura Hedin, MFA program manager.

Interested in taking the next step in growing your inner farmer? Contact Laura at laura@mnfoodassociation.org.

With a deep and solid list of teaching staff like Molly Schaus, Farm Director and May Lee, former student (see my blog post about her farm HERE) the 90 acres of certified organic land is well planted, well rested in between use and always well loved.

Farm Plot Allocation Map. Planning time up front ensures land health in the long run.

The training program has led to several success stories over the years. Farmers like Rodrigo and Juan Carlos of Cala Farms who have found a great market in wholesaling. Or Moses and Rhona of Dawn to Dusk Farm who focus on Farmer’s Market sales. These and other MFA graduate farmers’ stories can be found on their Meet the Farmers page.

CSA Box of Vegetable Heaven.


Eat Out Of The Box
With all the care and devotion new farmers give to their crops you know the veggies placed into a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) produce box are going to be top notch! Add in certified organic food and competitive rates with other CSA farms and buying a CSA from Big River Farms is a natural choice. Their CSA program also supports many different farmers simultaneously. They can supply up to 200 shares for the season’s 16 weeks. That will help you eat your veggies and support immigrant farmer education at the same time. They have 12 drop locations around the Twin Cities. You are in luck, because there are still CSA shares available through May 31. Get your Big River CSA here.

Growing into the Name(s)
Like so many great organizations this one was started by a group of concerned citizens who got up and did something about what they believed in. Back in the 1980’s freeway construction and development claimed the St. Paul Farmer’s Market’s 80-year site. The group believed moving the market back to an historical location in 1853 of 7th and Wabasha would keep both the public and the farmers well served.

May Lee (Mhonpaj’s Garden) in her greenhouse on Big River Farms

Once they accomplished their first goal the group realized there were more ways they could help local, small scale farmers and the people that loved their food. Lead by Ken Taylor, this original core group also helped start the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture, (MISA) still a thriving part of the U of MN Agricultural Department.

Established in 1983 the MFA has gone through an evolution to match the changing food needs and population of its community. The farmer training program began in 1998. By 2007 they were distributing food at markets under the farm name Big River Farms and 2008 saw them gain Organic Certification.

The land that the farm now encompasses was leased from the Wilder Foundation. The foundation had used it as an example of what a farm looked like and had built many of the buildings and dug the well and started irrigation to some of the fields, a pretty sweet deal for the farm to find!

The MFA is primarily funded by federal grants, along with a few valued family foundation grants and sales of produce via the CSA shares and farmer’s market sales. Competition for the limited funds has grown exponentially over the years which has lead to MFA to join forces with another long-time food advocate, The Food Group.

The Food Group offers free and wholesale foods to food shelves state wide, which fulfills part of its mission. They have long believed that emergency food access is necessary but not the only way to aid hunger; and have created gleaning groups, the ‘Fare for All’ and ‘Harvest for the Hungry’ programs.

Look for innovative programs as these two organizations put their heads together. On the horizon is managing 3 ½ acres within Harvest Park in Maplewood, starting with a cover crop this year and other crops TBD! What a beautiful use of land.

Stillwater Bee Club keepers after installing a hive on Big River Farms

When I was there two bee keepers from the Stillwater Bee Club happened to be installing a new hive  inside a newly set electric fence (to keep the black bears away from the honey). It was a living example of how fundamentally interested the staff is in building community around food. Also, the smoker for the bees smelled so good!

Down on the Farm

There are some great chances to meet some of the 17 farm teams and get one of those tractor rides in this summer! Tour the Big River Farm along with other local farms during the Coop Farm Tour  on Saturday July 15, 10am-4pm.  Big River Farms tours will be family-friendly and feature live music, wagon rides, farm-fresh snacks, games and prizes. Or join Big River Farms for the end of season Harvest Party on October 15th.

I do love my farmers!

Whether you join the CSA program, tour the farm, take some farm classes, buy their food at one of the many Farmer’s Markets they sell at, or buy a really cool T-shirt like I did-  I dare you to dig in and be a part of the mission of Growing Farmers Growing Food.  Like they say, Global Farmers, Local Food. For this wanna-be farm girl, knowing the people behind Minnesota Food Association and Big River Farms are working on food advocacy, nestled into the rolling farm land, does my heart (and my family’s health) a world of good. Let it do you some good too.

Dig In