Open Hearts at Open Hands Farm: Learning from a Longtime Farm to Fork Partner

Students tour Open Hands Farm

Ben Doherty (left) leads Carleton students and Bon Appétit at Carleton Executive Chef Charlie Schwandt on a tour of Open Hands Farm.

In 1999, Bon Appétit was the first food service company to formalize a commitment to local food systems: mandating that our culinary teams purchase at least 20% of their ingredients from owner-operated small local farms. For many Bon Appétit chefs, the relationships formed with these local farmers and makers have morphed into friendships that have spanned decades.  To celebrate these fruitful partnerships, we’ve created an almost-quarterly series featuring longtime Farm to Fork and Locally Crafted vendors. This quarter, we’re telling the story of Open Hands Farm, a valuable partner and longstanding fixture for a number of Minnesota-based Bon Appétit teams. 

Those not familiar with the vibrant farming community in Northfield, Minnesota, might be surprised to learn about Open Hands Farm, a longstanding Farm to Fork partner of Carleton College and St. Olaf College and pillar of the community’s agricultural scene. Open Hands supplies carrots and other root vegetables from August through April to Bon Appétit chefs, defying what many might imagine possible throughout long Minnesota winters.  

The story of Open Hands is one of hard-earned community support, propelled in part by the initial wholesale partnership with the Bon Appétit team at St. Olaf College. Ben Doherty and Erin Johnson, who own the farm, explained that when a former Bon Appétit at St. Olaf chef approached them in 2006, he committed to purchasing anything that they wouldn’t be able to sell through their Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. Both Erin and Ben described this arrangement as “game changing,” as it gave them the confidence to take risks and eventually expand.  

At the time, they were only farming on a few acres of land and supporting less than a dozen families with CSA shares. Fast forward to today, as they have significantly expanded and diversified the operation, growing over 40 different vegetables on 16 acres of land, supporting 300 CSA shares and numerous wholesale and retail accounts in the Northfield and Twin Cities area.  

Executive Chef Charlie Schwandt and Ben Doherty of Open Hands Farm

While much has changed, the ongoing and supportive relationship with Bon Appétit has remained a constant. Ben explained that while other retail accounts and co-ops have much higher cosmetic standards, they know that Bon Appétit chefs will always reliably accept the carrots that aren’t quite perfectly straight but are just as delicious. Carleton Executive Chef Charlie Schwandt explained that once the carrots and other root vegetables have been diced, shredded, or sliced, the original shape doesn’t have any impact on the taste or look of the final dish, allowing the unmistakable difference in locally grown flavor to shine through.  

The use of technology on the farm, ranging from rudimentary to high-tech, has defined the growth and improved efficiency of Open Hands over the years. A root cellar they installed in 2015, partially funded by Bon Appétit’s Fork to Farm grant program, allows them to store and continually sell thousands of pounds of orange carrots, red beets, and watermelon radishes in peak condition throughout the winter. The utilization of forklifts to mechanize lifting many pounds of produce has reduced the physical strain on the farming crew. And on the day of the tour, solar panels were being installed that will soon cover all electricity needs for the farm.   

It hasn’t always been easy for the Open Hands team, however. While small farms around the country were grappling with the immediate financial impacts of COVID in spring of 2020, they were also hit with a monumental hailstorm that wiped out the entire season’s crop, totaling over $60,000 in lost income from fruits and vegetables for their wholesale business. The outlook was bleak.  

In response to a GoFundMe page that was created to cover their losses and help them stay afloat, they experienced an upwelling of local support. Community members came together to raise the funds (and then some) in a matter of weeks, reaffirming their status as a true cornerstone of the Northfield community one that Bon Appétit has been lucky to be a part of for the last sixteen years.