Exploring the Roots of the Relationship Between Open Hands Farm and Bon Appétit
- by Peter Todaro
Past the city limits of Northfield, MN, the sky stretches out and the roads begin to yawn this way and that over slight hills.
It’s here, just over three miles from the colleges of Carleton and St. Olaf, that Erin Johnson and Ben Doherty own and operate Open Hands Farm, a long-time Farm to Fork vendor and a cornerstone of Northfield’s farming community.
Erin and Ben welcomed a group of Bon Appétit team members and Carleton College students to the farm and shared their story, one that is deeply entwined with Bon Appétit’s.
Like many young farmers, Erin and Ben didn’t grow up on the land, instead getting interested in agriculture through their work in restaurants. They met while apprenticing at the same farm, and together had 12 years of farming experience between them before starting Open Hands. That accrued wisdom lent itself to a farm that expanded judiciously, row by row and little by little over time from four acres in 2005 to 14 acres now. Their connection with Bon Appétit through the Farm to Fork program has been one of the things that has remained constant since the early days. The relationship is symbiotic. With Bon Appétit chefs at Carleton and St. Olaf so close by, Ben or Erin can easily hop in the truck and deliver a smattering of the 270 varieties of certified organic produce they grow every year to our chefs, who in turn whip up small-batch, from-scratch meals for students.
In 2014, to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the Farm to Fork program, Bon Appétit held a grant contest that resulted in 10 Farm to Fork vendors around the country receiving $5,000 to grow their business. Open Hands was one of the Midwest recipients; they even made Bravo’s front cover! Their goal was to build a root cellar, something that may sound old fashioned, but is hard to do without in Minnesota, where winters are long and the growing season short.
That cellar is now a reality, and it looks more like the inside of a modern warehouse than a rustic cave-like room, with a high ceiling and concrete floor. It’s technically impressive, storing close to 100,000 pounds of root vegetables between 33º and 34ºF at 98 percent humidity all winter long — the perfect environment for keeping carrots, beets, parsnips, and watermelon radishes crisp.
While the grant was a small portion of the amount needed to get the root cellar up and running, Ben considers it an important symbol of his farm’s tie to Bon Appétit. Open Hands needed the root cellar to fill the consistent wholesale orders that Bon Appétit chefs place every week. As important as these orders are, to Ben the relationships he’s formed over the years with the local teams are even more important: They’ve shaped the farm’s growth and increased its efficiency.
“Bon Appétit taught us how to do wholesale,” Ben says, and he isn’t kidding. Last winter, Bon Appétit chefs — with help from the Minneapolis and St. Paul Public School systems — together bought 60,000 pounds of Open Hands carrots.
This wholesale model complements the farm’s other focus, its community supported agriculture (CSA) program. The CSA has 180 members who buy shares at the beginning of the season in exchange for weekly boxes of produce. The members are encouraged to get out into the fields to pick their own fruits and vegetables and explore Open Hands’s harmonious farming system that promotes habitat and ecological health.
For some members of the Open Hands community, the lifestyle and labor of farming is a tie to a home that’s a continent away. Two women, part of the Somali refugee population in Minnesota, now work alongside Erin, Ben, and their crew, adding to a farm that only seems to know how to add, and never subtract — a community of which Bon Appétit is an integral part.