St. Olaf Students Meet Open Hands Farmer

Open Hands farmer Ben Doherty and St. Olaf students

Open Hands farmer Ben Doherty (far left) and St. Olaf students from the Environmental Coalition group

When St. Olaf College students from the Environmental Coalition group joined Bon Appétit Fellow Shannon Tivona on a visit to Farm to Fork partner Open Hands Farm in Northfield, MN, they learned a lot about the farm — and a fair amount about the power of Bon Appétit’s Farm to Fork relationships.

Sign welcoming visitors to Open Hands Farm

Sign welcoming visitors to Open Hands Farm

Owner Ben Doherty told them how he and his wife, Erin Johnson, started Open Hands in 2006. In its earliest days, they hosted a CSA with just nine members, all friends. But then Peter Abrahamson, Bon Appétit’s then-executive chef at St. Olaf and forager, offered guidance and advice. He even said, “I’ll buy whatever you can’t sell anywhere else.” This generous offer meant security.

As the group walked around the farm, Ben pointed out the 17 acres on which they grow produce, as well as the remaining five acres intentionally left fallow to build the soil’s health and grow native flowers, which attract beneficial insects. They have never sprayed any insecticides. Instead, they rely on natural methods to keep the crops healthy and pest free.

Open Hands Farm has become more successful than Ben and Erin ever imagined. The CSA now boasts nearly 200 families. The wholesale side of the business is still very important, too, as it enables the couple to pay their employees more and offer them more stable, nearly year-round work. A root cellar, built with the help of a Bon Appétit grant (which Open Hands won by popular vote on the 15th anniversary of the company’s Farm to Fork program), helps them extend their season into the winter.

The students asked many questions about the ins and outs of farming, such as how Open Hands manages without pesticides. They also asked if it would be possible to come volunteer on the farm — a sure sign that the bonds between Open Hands, St. Olaf, and Bon Appétit will continue to be strong ones.