Bill and Julie Ross sit on the herb bed in their yard just north of Brookings. The bed, a waterbed frame, provides just part of the space they’ll need for growing herbs for their Community Supported Agriculture venture. Charis Prunty/Register
• Local Foods Directory growing, helping accomplish goals of Dakota Rural Action
BROOKINGS – While more people strive to “buy local” – and have the opportunity to do so, here in South Dakota – Brookings farmers Bill and Julie Ross say that many of the vegetables we buy at the grocery store are shipped from as far as 1,500 miles away.
“That seems a little silly, doesn’t it?” Julie said.
But that’s not to say those vegetables aren’t available locally. In fact, recent innovations are allowing veggies to grow here during as many as nine or 10 months per year, using methods like high tunnels.
A high tunnel, which the Ross family plans to construct later this year, is like a plastic-covered greenhouse, similar to a giant, floorless tent. It is cheaper to make than a traditional greenhouse but provides the same growing environment, Julie and Bill said.
“In other words, it’s a season-extender. You extend the season on the front end and the back end of your local season,” Bill said.
Cold-season crops can be planted during late winter inside the tunnel, and warm-season crops in spring, so they are ripe earlier than if growers waited until the traditional planting season. Julie said she just bought some produce from a grower in the Sioux Falls area.
“There’s local tomatoes ripe right now, from local farmers, who are selling homegrown veggies, tomatoes, right now,” Bill said.
Meanwhile, the Brookings Farmer’s Market is already open for business this season, and local producers are preparing to get their fruits, veggies, herbs, honey and other produce and home-made products into the hands of consumers there. Brookings also has several Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) options, including Hillside Prairie Gardens (run by Andrew and Jacob Helling just outside Brookings) and the Ross’ business, called Good Roots Farm and Gardens.
When they join a CSA, consumers buy a share or half share in the gardens and receive a portion, once a week, of whatever is growing. Generally, CSA items are grown without pesticides.
“What that means is they share the risk that the growing season will go well and then, every week, they get a box of vegetables,” Julie said.
“It’s basically a community supporting the farming, so it’s a symbiotic relationship with the consumers and the farmers,” Bill added. “The farmer has buyers ahead of time so that he can get paid ahead of time, so he can invest in the seeds in late winter. He knows what to plant, what to grow, and therefore it’s community-based agriculture.”
Depending on DRA
As they spend time developing methods of sustainable agriculture and working in the fields, growers like the Ross family depend on Brookings-based Dakota Rural Action (DRA) as a networking organization, a marketing tool and a way of staying informed about legislation that is important to their business.
DRA is a grassroots family agriculture and conservation group that organizes South Dakotans to protect family farmers and ranchers, natural resources and a unique way of life.
“It’s a network, really, of like-minded people who want to live sustainably and are not afraid to grow together, experiment, learn from each other,” Julie said.
“Think outside the box of conventional agriculture and see what other paradigms are out there,” Bill added. “When we came back here (to Julie’s parents’ farm) and realized, ultimately, we’re going to have 30-some acres to live off of, how can you make a living off of that? We connected with them, and they helped us think outside the box.”
Joan Wollschlager, who, with Brad Hauck owns The Shepard & The Carpenter farm near Lake Preston, has been a member of DRA since the early 1980s. She liked what the group was doing by organizing farmers to get questions answered, help with safety issues and offering educational workshops.
Eat more locally grown
Five years ago, DRA began to print the South Dakota Local Foods Directory. The Shepard & The Carpenter is one of 124 producers listed there, organized by regions of the state. The goal of the directory is to get more South Dakotans eating more food grown by South Dakota farmers.
So, if you’re looking for a pumpkin this fall, you’ll see in the directory that Wollschlager grows them. Because she sells plenty to her neighbors and people driving by on Highway 14, Wollschlager doesn’t bring her pumpkins and other produce to farmers markets or otherwise advertise what she has for sale.
“If they have that directory, they have access to anybody who’s supplying different needs. And sometimes, those needs just expand from one thing to the next,” she said. “We’ve got a lot of people in that directory that supply fresh beef or pork, and that’s not something that a lot of farmers do.”
The directory is also helpful to other producers, who may want to begin using a certain gardening method and can learn from a neighbor who is already doing it, Wollschlager added. And, the directory is growing: She estimated it is twice the size now that it was when DRA began to print it.
Bill and Julie said the directory is one way to let the community know what is being grown and made here, so they can support their local economy.
Meanwhile, the growers continue to research new methods to grow the best produce they can on the land they have. Most are looking for methods that will keep their land in good condition for generations to come.
“’Sustainable community development’ is the key word for what we want to do here,” Bill said.
For more information on Dakota Rural Action and its local foods directory, log onto www.dakotarural.org.
Contact Charis Prunty at email@example.com.