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The Redfern grows

Kathy and Steve Connell grow rows of verdant vegetables at Redfern Gardens east of Sebeka. 1 / 3
This cucumber plant represents just one of the approximately 75 varieties of fruits and vegetables that Kathy and Steve Connell grow at Redfern Gardens.2 / 3
Kathy Connell inspects an eggplant at Redfern Gardens east of Sebeka Friday. The University of Minnesota Extension Service recently named Steve and Kathy Connell the 2014 Wadena County Farm Family of the Year.3 / 3

Beside the Redeye River east of Sebeka, Kathy and Steve Connell make the most of the sandy soil.

The couple grows about 75 varieties of fruits and vegetables for local markets on two acres of land.

The University of Minnesota Extension Service recently named the Connells the 2014 Wadena County Farm Family of the year. The service selects families in participating counties that represent "agricultural achievement in diverse farming operations." The 74 farm families of the year from throughout the state will be recognized Aug. 7, at the annual Minnesota Farmfest near Redwood Falls.

After giving the Pioneer Journal a tour of their farm, Redfern Gardens, Kathy Connell answered a few questions about the operation and shared her thoughts on the future of the locally grown food movement.

PJ: How did you end up having such an interest in gardening?

KC: When I was eight someone gave me some corn seed to plant. I was amazed at the magic of the small seed becoming an eight-foot tall plant. It hooked me and I have been hooked ever since. When I realized that dirt could become food I became hooked on growing food.

PJ: When did you start Redfern Gardens and how has it transformed since?

KC: The first year we started in 2009 we had 10 CSA customers and we sold at the Wadena Farmer's Market. We have continued to expand every year. We have almost two acres in production now. We don't want to get big enough that we need to hire employees so we are beginning to limit our growth. We now have 29 CSA customers and we sell to two small grocery stores, A Clean Plate in Menahga and the Green Scene in Walker. Depending on product availability we also may go to the Wadena Farmers Market, or the New York Mills Farmers Market. We have also supplied produce to the Wadena-Deer Creek School, Sebeka School, and Tri-County Hospital.

PJ: What are your thoughts on being named the Wadena County farm family of

the year?

KC: It's an honor to have our efforts acknowledged. I hope that it may encourage others to try growing vegetables, and encourage the community to support local growers.

PJ: What is the division of labor at the garden?

KC: Steve does any building, use of equipment, soil preparation. I do seeding, transplant raising, transplanting. We both do weeding and harvesting. We both do whatever needs to be done.

PJ: About how many varieties of fruits and vegetables do you grow each year?

KC: We grow about 16 varieties of tomatoes, ten of peppers, four of snap beans, five cabbage, five cantaloupe, one watermelon, three cucumbers, four summer squash, five winter squash, two kohlrabi, two eggplant, three kinds of kale, 10 or so kinds of lettuce, two kinds of peas, two kinds of potatoes.

PJ: What is the importance of variety?

Diversity is like an insurance policy. If one variety fails because of weather, disease, or other conditions, another may thrive in the same conditions.

PJ: What's your favorite thing you grow?

KC: Tomatoes

PJ: What's special about your produce?

KC: We fertilize carefully with additional minerals and use techniques like green manuring to keep the soil vital. We pick and immediately chill or deliver the produce. We use varieties known for their flavor and/or nutritional content.

PJ: Running a CSA is such hard work, what keeps you going?

KC: I've been feeding people for 50 years, can't stop now. The outside work and quality of the food we eat keeps us strong and healthy. At some point we will have to make adjustments to cut back or simplify because of our ages. The rewards of seeing beautiful healthy plants, of tasting really good food, of getting feedback from others about the quality of our products makes the work worthwhile. But we also need to recognize that our efforts provide us with a modest income.

PJ: Explain the challenges of farming in the sandy soil and the ways you try to improve the soil.

KC: Sandy soil does not retain fertility or moisture well. We try to get as much organic matter as possible into the soil. We inoculate the soil with beneficial organisms. We irrigate when necessary.

PJ: What are your plans for the future?

KC: I know that our age will not allow us to keep this pace forever. What we do now is very intense. But I can't imagine not growing food. So one of the things we are looking into is becoming a small local seed producer. I am fascinated by the idea that we could breed seed selected to do well in our particular climate and growing conditions. Every year I test new varieties and am slowing beginning to accumulate stock of some varieties that do well here. For instance, I am selecting out a butternut squash from some stock I got. I am selecting for earliness as well as good eating quality. At this point it is challenging to produce the quantities of vegetables we need and also do the seed trial thing but again, one step at a time.

PJ: What is your outlook for the "locavore" movement, particularly in our area?

KC: I have a little fantasy about every community having enough small farms in their area to provide much or most of the vegetables that community uses. I hope to see small processing kitchens created that allow producers to freeze or can or dry their products to provide us during the winter. We can grow wonderful broccoli here, why should we buy frozen broccoli grown in California? I think these small moves would help create economic stability in our small rural communities.