A Tale of Ten Acres Continues – UNFI’s Agrarian Path to Local Organic Food

It’s springtime in Racine, Wisconsin and the ten acres adjacent to our distribution facility lay ready for cultivation. The cover crop planted last fall had worked its subterranean magic, suppressing thistles and weeds, building topsoil, micronutrients and loam. The prolific rains had rendered the land moist and open, ready for planting. Steve Spinner’s vision for creating a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program near a UNFI facility was as close as placing a seed in the soil. The only hitch in this idyllic giddy-up was finding a suitable farmer willing to undertake the organic dream.

You may have read in my previous post, A Tale of Ten Acres – UNFI’s Agrarian Journey of Soil health, that UNFI’s CEO, Steven Spinner, has long held an agrarian dream of preserving farmland near our distribution facilities. The vision of conserving land and creating certified organic parcels near existing distribution centers serves many goals: to promote awareness of organic farming practices, preserve farmland for organic production and support the development of organic farmers. The ultimate intention is to create local community CSAs that nourish UNFI associates and neighbors.

The search was on to find a farmer who could seize the opportunity to transition these ten acres into a certified organic farm, a bountiful garden that would produce weekly boxes of fresh tomatoes, beans, spinach and sweet corn.

Nourishing associates and the community with a seasonal array of fresh produce from July through October encourages healthier eating habits. It also imparts an affinity for the connection between the soil and our food; know your farmer, know the land.

We may recognize a head of cauliflower under wraps in the produce aisle, but to cut its juicy flower and taste today’s harvest is an experience only local can provide.

A unique individual was needed to bring that taste home to Racine. Someone who lived close enough to easily drive a tractor and plow, seeds and implements to the property on a daily basis. There is no homestead, dwelling or storage space, so a certain amount of nearby farming infrastructure was critical to the project.

Ideally, our farmer would be a veteran organic vegetable grower well versed in the best local seed varieties, soils and Wisconsin weather patterns. Experience in the business of Community Supported Agriculture and local food production and sales was a plus. The project needed a motivated self-sustaining business person who could work with Mother Nature to produce a variety of fresh organic produce every week.

The recruiting process began in earnest. Publications from Chicago to Minneapolis advertised this unique opportunity for someone willing to cultivate the land in Racine, to build a working local food hub in our back yard.

Only one experienced CSA veteran responded, and he was too far away to make the endeavor feasible. The project was going adrift without this critical component—no amount of cover crop and loamy soil was worth anything without a farmer to work the magic.

As fate would have it a farmer was right in our neighborhood, we already knew him, and he was familiar with the land!

Last fall when organic guru Altfrid Krusenbaum prescribed his cover crop to remediate the soil, he enlisted a local farmer to cultivate the seedy mix. The man who planted the sorghum, sudangrass, buckwheat, alsike, berseem clover, cowpeas, deep till radish and Japanese millet came forward to take full ownership of our organic project.

Dan Bruan, a third generation local farmer, lives just down the road from our facility and is well experienced in vegetable production and sales. Dan doesn’t have experience in organic production—only sustainable—but is eager and willing to learn. His proficiency growing local tomatoes, peppers, sweet corn, asparagus, beans, beets, kohlrabi, edamame, melons and cauliflower was enough experience to get my existential mouth watering. He is eager to create a CSA for our associates and the surrounding community.

Today Dan is working with Midwest Organic Services Association (MOSA Organic) to gain organic certification on the ten acres adjacent to our facility. The process is complicated: filling out forms, developing an organic systems plan, submitting the application and undertaking an initial site review. The entire activity could take a full 12 weeks to complete which means the produce he grows won’t be able to be sold or marketed under the USDA seal this year.

It’s been well over three years since this land was once cultivated so organic certification should be achieved in time for next year’s plantings. That USDA seal is just one year away.

Thanks to Dan’s organic commitment and agricultural savvy, UNFI is well on its way to achieving the next step in our agrarian vision. Certified organic food will be grown and shared in the community, on the first and only certified organic acreage in Racine County.

Stay tuned for more on our CSA journey as it unfolds this summer

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