How choosing to 'buy local' in Rochester supports a farm in nearby Rushford
According to Jack Hedin, co-founder of Featherstone Farm in Rushford, most of the produce on grocery shelves comes from a place where nothing naturally grows.
“Go into a grocery store anywhere in this country,” says Hedin. “There’s a 90 percent chance that all the produce in there was grown in a desert.”
The process, which involves pumping in water to naturally arid areas to create a year-round growing season, is more artificially manufactured than it’s made out to be.
“Those crops are bred for market appeal and taste. They’re not bred for disease resistance. Crops around here, they’ve got environmental hardiness,” Hedin says.
Hedin, who has been at the helm of the Featherstone operation for over 20 years, grows over 70 different varieties of organic fruits and vegetables on 250 acres of land just west of Rushford. Featherstone gained organic certification in 1997, and the following organic craze of the 21st century helped Hedin and Jenni McHugh, his wife and fellow Featherstone co-founder, establish themselves as a trusted part of the local ecosystem.
“At the time [that we got organic certification],” Hedin recalls, “there was very little organic material on the market. We were really in the right place at the right time.”
Since then, the “organic” label has become a common sight across American produce shelves, especially in big box chain stores (“industrial organic,” Hedin calls it).
“If the idea of buying local is important, it’s about taking that extra step beyond buying ‘organic,’” Hedin says. “Ask the produce stocker, ‘what’s local? What’s from Minnesota?’ For example, if it’s tomato season, ask the stocker if the tomatoes are from the area. If the answer is no, then why not?”
Hedin sends his crops across the tri-state area, including to the People’s Food Co-op in Rochester and La Crosse. Their multi-faceted commitment to local farmers is what impresses Hedin most.
“They play such a huge role in supporting [local farmers],” says Hedin. "They go out of their way to support us even when the price is higher — there’s no way to overemphasize their impact. It’s a major commitment. They also go out of their way to label things that come from the area, things that come from Minnesota, from the Midwest, from international sources. It’s important to put that information out there for consumers to really let them think about what it means.”
The changing market for organic produce, according to Hedin, makes supporting local farmers an important issue — one that he said is flying under the radar.
“There’s no way that a Minnesota producer, on a 10-year average, can compare to California [produce] prices,” explains Hedin. “It’s because of the Minnesota weather. The cost of fuel pales in comparison to crop losses here. You have to be prepared to pay more for local stuff, but there’s lots of benefits. We’re employing 50 people here. We’re growing things that aren’t corn or beans — that’s good for the soil and the groundwater.”
With their desire to support local producers, places like the Co-op are making sure farms like Featherstone succeed.
“They go out of their way to advertise local farmers,” Hedin says. “They put that information out there for shoppers. That’s not a commitment many other retailers will make.”
Photography courtesy People's Food Co-op