MANKATO — As a crew of workers pounded posts and laid out rolls of fencing at the new Blue Earth Community Farm, Elizabeth Peterson had the easy job of watering rows of thirsty plants Thursday.
If the fence had gone up a week earlier, however, Peterson might have worked out a job trade. The farm, which grows fresh produce for local food assistance programs while providing an outdoor classroom for future gardeners, didn’t have it’s new water pump last week.
“Before we had the water pump, we were hauling buckets,” Peterson said as she held a hose connected to a huge plastic water container. “So this is very nice.”
Peterson, an intern from Minnesota State University studying community health education, and Joe Domeier, a program manager for the Three Rivers Resource Conservation and Development Council, have been working regularly at the new garden since planting started in May. It’s at Blue Earth County’s Weagel Park at the intersection of Highway 66 and Indian Lake Road.
There were several volunteers and workers from a Blue Earth County Sentence to Serve crew spending time at the scenic site Thursday. They could enjoy views of Mount Kato and surrounding bluffs while joggers and bikers on the nearby Red Jacket Trail watched them work.
The fence, donated in part by Lowe’s Home Improvement, will keep deer and rabbits from making the farm a regular stop. Animals could put a big dent in the vegetables, herbs, melons and squash being raised, harvested and distributed to the ECHO Food Shelf, Salvation Army and Campus Kitchen, all local organizations that provide food to those in need.
“We’ve seen a lot of deer running through the farm already,” Domeier said. “Once they get into it and realize there’s good stuff in there, they can wipe out the crops pretty quickly. We’re hoping to feed people, not deer.”
A recent $38,000 grant from the Bremer Foundation will fund two years of management expenses for the pilot program, which was brought to Mankato by County Commissioners Will Purvis and Vance Stuehrenberg after they attended a conference in Oregon where they toured a similar farm. Stuehrenberg was one of the volunteers working on the fence Thursday.
“We took the tour and, when we came out of it, we looked at each other and said, ‘We can do this,’” Stuehrenberg said.
A benefit Stuehrenberg and Purvis didn’t expect has been the education young people have been receiving while they volunteer at the garden. One of Peterson’s tasks will be to create an education component that will teach young volunteers how they can produce their own food and eat healthy.
A group of middle school students was at the garden Tuesday doing some work and tasting some vegetables, Peterson said. At first, not everyone thought working in the dirt was a good way to start the day. But there are ways to make working in the garden enjoyable and educational for kids, she added.
“Even some of the little girls with flip-flops on, who didn’t want to water the plants, eventually started helping because they saw how fun it can be,” Peterson said.
Spinach, Swiss chard, turnip greens and radishes already have been harvested and donated this year.
Domeier estimated that the garden, which is about an acre in size, can annually produce food worth between $25,000 and $32,000.