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A branch off the area CSA farming tree

In 2005, Rick Dalen and his wife Karola had the opportunity to start their own Community Supported Agriculture business under the tutelage of John Fisher-Merritt, founder of the Food Farm in Wrenshall. Dalen describes Fisher-Merritt as a "pioneer" of CSA farming and credits him with providing the means to test the waters of operating one himself. The deal was that Dalen could use a couple acres of land, equipment, greenhouses and hoop houses at the Food Farm in exchange for working at the farm. "We had our first 30 CSA members," Dalen said. If it didn't work out, they could opt out of the arrangement.

Dalen retells Fisher-Merritt's reaction when Dalen proposed to assume the CSA option vacated by another employee.

"So, you want to be a CSA farmer, huh? It's pretty much constant work," Dalen remembers hearing. "Is that what I really want to do?" Dalen thought. In 16 years, he's found his answer.

Other than working at the Whole Foods Co-op and the Food Farm and completing an internship at a CSA in Wisconsin, Dalen said "I never really had a real job." He continues to meet the demands of "constant work" and savor the fact that he is providing healthy, organic, environmentally sustainable food for the community members he serves.

With the success of his first year CSA, Rick and Karola went all in and bought their farm near Wrenshall in 2006. Karola is the Resource and Recycling coordinator for Carlton County and Dalen manages the farm. The food shares have grown to 175, and Northern Harvest Farm continues to expand both its offerings and land. Dalen is renting 20 acres nearby.

"We have 34 acres here, six in vegetables and two in apples." He said they would have had their first crop of apples this year, but a late frost ruined the blossoms.

"We do the same model as the Food Farm and look to them for advice," Dalen said. "We get to have this nice community where we can help each other, we can commiserate, learn from each other. It's an awesome community to be a part of."

Dalen said the CSA farmers have formed a guild to do collective marketing and support each other. He notes that there is not competition among the farmers but a desire for all of them to succeed.

There are 18 weekly boxes of vegetables, but he has added half-shares for those who want every-other-week boxes. There will be an opportunity for winter shares of vegetables such as potatoes and other root vegetables. Box contents vary as the growing season progresses.

"We grow pretty much everything here," he said as he listed all the produce.

Buying CSA shares requires a shift in cooking strategies. People are accustomed to planning meals and then shopping for needed ingredients, Dalen said. "The people who really succeed at this are the ones who see and are inspired by what they see in the box and think (how they) can plan a meal around this."

Dalen, like many owners, sends out a weekly newsletter with updates on crop growth, box contents that week, and even recipes. One recent newsletter noted that "fruiting crops" such as tomatoes and cucumbers "are all a little slow to start producing." He included photos of the fields and precipitation reports. By sharing the information, members truly can feel connected to the farm, he said. There is also a Facebook group of members who share recipes and ideas.

Adam Kemp and Clara Salveson assist as managers and help Dalen oversee the workings of the farm. Five other employees share the work part-time from April to December.

Dalen describes the solid working relationship he has with Kemp, who has worked at the farm for 10 years. "We bring different qualities to the table, but they're complementary."

"I need to mention that with Clara and Adam ... we're just way better together than we'd just otherwise be. If it was just me making all the decisions, doing all the problem solving without being able to bounce ideas off each other and come from a different angle, it just becomes more difficult to solve problems. It's also less enjoyable."

With goals and plans for the future, Dalen maintains an optimistic outlook for Northern Harvest Farm. A quote from a member helps him as well: "When I open the box it's like Christmas every time."

Writer Francy Chammings is a retired educator who lives in Carlton County. She is writing a series of articles this summer about area agriculture enterprises. You can reach her via the Pine Knot News at [email protected].