The Evolution of Minnesota's Own Gardens of Eagan

Linda Halley and I stand in the middle of a seemingly empty, sunny field under an impossibly clear sky. She bends over and touches her fingertips to the soil, raking them gently over the top, exposing slightly blacker, wetter soil underneath the grayish first layer. "I don't see any – Oh! There's one. Do you see that?" she asks. "That's the beginning of a weed," Halley explains. Now I see it. She's turned up a tiny matchstick of white, barely noticeable, and easily dismissed as a piece of dried grass. It's the sliver of the root or maybe a stem. Weeds: competition for nutrients, water, and sunlight. Weeds: enemy of the crop and therefore enemy of the farmer. As the manager of the Minnesotan organic farm, Gardens of Eagan, Halley can't use herbicides to rid herself of these pesky plants. "We'll use a machine on this field that will do this," she explains, again drawing her four fingers a few more times over the dirt, creating shallow trails. "It will expose the weeds to the sun and dry them up. That's one of the ways we deal with weeds on an organic farm. We get them before they become a problem."

We climb back into Halley's white Subaru station wagon and drive between more fields. I have come to Farmington, Minnesota, for the morning to visit Gardens of Eagan and find out what is going on in these early weeks of the season. The farmers are growing the transplants that will soon be put in the field and are also growing starter plants for home gardeners. In addition to supplying many of the Twin Cities' co-ops with organic vegetables, it turns out that this is Gardens of Eagan's first summer at the Midtown Farmers' Market, which is in my neighborhood. I'm visiting the vegetables and soil that will, in a few short months, become my dinner.

For now, most of the ground is still covered in green cover crops. One patch is thick with the satisfyingly named "hairy vetch." "We're super focused on keeping the soil covered and building the soil through cover cropping," explains Halley. "This hairy vetch is fertilizing the soil by capturing nitrogen and storing it in little nodules in its roots. When we plow it back in, all that nitrogen will become available so we won't have to go out and find an outside nitrogen source. We grow it right here."

"Is hairy vetch edible?" I ask.

"It's edible to the microbes in the soil," answers Halley.

Seen through her eyes, the black dirt becomes a living part of the farm ecosystem. It is another critical tool in the farmer's box. Just as the tractors in the machine shop must be tweaked and maintained to tease out more years of use, so too the soil must be cared for. It's a delicate dance between farmer and eco-system. Halley hopes to pass her knowledge about these, and many other, dance steps to the other future farmers who pass through Gardens of Eagan. The farm is in year three of a five-year process of transferring ownership from Martin and Atina Diffley to The Wedge Community Coop. "There's no one farmer or farm couple or farm family," explains Halley. "Our owners are the 13,000 people we have to respond to." As a result, the farm is different from others in the area.

"My management system has really evolved," she explains. "I started out as a family farmer. I raised my family on a farm and we had a different focus. The managers were myself and my husband. Here, I'm the manager, but I have a kind of a farm team and they're here because they want to learn about farming. So I'm really able to turn a lot of things over to them in a way that when I was the farm owner, I didn't really do. [On our farm] I took responsibility for most of the management decisions and that kind of level of expertise stayed within myself and my husband. Now the expertise is really being transferred to a little team of young, aspiring farmers. Part of my goal is to create a transferrable system and bring new farmers into it." Gardens of Eagan attempts to pass on knowledge not only on the farm but also at the Organic Farm School, where farmers can learn organic techniques.

Halley stops her car again near the two large hoop houses, which were built last year. Out of the wind, the interiors of the plastic-covered houses are warm and slightly humid. One is full of rows of salad greens ranging in color from pale green to deep red. In the other hoop house, early strawberries plants are already blooming. Halley crouches next to a white, blue and yellow cardboard box at the end of one of the strawberry rows. The box contains 20 bumblebees, bought to pollinate the strawberry plants. Halley peers into the hole at the front of the box. Nothing buzzes to life. It is worrisome. She will have to ask some of the others on the staff about it when we are back up by the green houses.

Up at the machine shop, Halley shows me the trays of seeds stored, for maximum warmth, inside of a simple incubator. She pulls out a tray. Tiny green sprouts have started to push out of the black dirt, their buds bent over like small heads on top of a curved spine and neck. Before too long, they will spread their tendrils and leaves over the earth and blossom into ripe, juicy melons.

Back at the greenhouse, strawberry plants are being repotted to be sold to gardeners at the first farmer's market. The "farm team" is wandering back to work from their mid-day lunch break. Halley asks one of them about the bumblebees with the strawberries in the hoop house. "I've seen them. They're there," he responds. And so they buzz on, the little bees.

Rhena Tantisunthorn, a native of Washington, DC, grew up knocking back Shirley Temples and cultivating a love of food at the bar rail of her parents' restaurant. She's eaten her way through much of Southeast Asia when she lived in Thailand for three years. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing at Columbia University. She currently lives with her husband and daughter in South Minneapolis where she writes, edits and creates.