The Fernholz farm has been off drugs for three years now.
All sunshine and sweat, the Fernholz farm uses no pesticides, herbicides or genetic engineering. And that’s precisely how School Sisters of Notre Dame Kay and Annette Fernholz like it.
“It’s a wonderful feeling that there are no chemicals on our 240 acres,” Kay Fernholz said.
While three Fernholz brothers take care of most of the all-organic farming on the family’s 240 acres situated near Madison, Minn., Kay and Annette have their own 11-acre plot called Earthrise Farm.
Through Earthrise, the Fernholz sisters and an ever-changing assemblage of volunteers plant, tend and harvest enough fresh produce to supply families across southwest Minnesota with a weekly supply of food.
Every week, the sisters deliver 40 to 50 boxes — all containing in-season vegetables — to cities such as Madison, Appleton and Montivideo. Some families are low income and can use the help, others are just too busy to grow their own. But all of them can be assured there’s more than dinner inside their food packages.
“We really want to re-establish the hospitality that was once part of rural America,” Annette Fernholz said. “Because of large farm sizes and the movement of people, that hospitality has been taken away.”
Located in sparsely populated Lac Qui Parle County on the westernmost edge of Minnesota, the Fernholz farm is situated in the heart of one of Minnesota’s most agricultural districts.
According to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, the acreage of land certified for organic farming statewide doubled in the five years from 1997 to 2001. Minnesota also continues to lead the nation in the production of organic corn and soybeans.
But, according to Bob Gronski, policy coordinator for the National Catholic Rural Life Conference, organic farming is about more than not using pesticides.
“Organic farming is about caring for the land and creating a sense of community,” Gronski said. “It’s a care for creation and the chance for the community to come together.”
With farmers’ markets and food co-ops becoming more prevalent, so are the opportunities to buy food that is made and produced locally. Mankato and St. Peter both have farmers’ markets and St. Peter also has its own food co-op.
Organic farmers also make up a significant portion of those who donate to food shelves. The Mankato School Sisters of Notre Dame were among the pioneers in opening the ECHO Food Shelf in the early 1980s and they have donated heavily ever since. Ted Evans, marketing coordinator for the Emergency Food Shelf Network, said that organic farmers are responsible for 25 percent of all donated produce.
“Plus, with smaller organic farmers, you get the produce when it’s ripe,” Evans said. “It’s quite a treat when organic produce makes it to the food shelf.”
Earthrise is more, however, than the vegetables its soils sprout forth.
Earthrise is also something of a spiritual oasis, a place where stewardship and community grow right alongside squash, peppers, onions and tomatoes.
Kay and Annette adhere to a philosophy that views the earth as a living thing, as a conduit through which all beings are connected. The sisters try to instill that appreciation for the natural world into the vegetables they grow and the community relationships they foster.
“We wanted to establish our own space,” Annette Fernholz said, “a place to surround ourselves with the idea of the earth not as a collection of objects, but as a communion of subjects.”
The Fernholz sisters are using part of their 11-acre plot to restore a turn-of-the-century schoolhouse. People who visit the farm — Earthrise also sells produce on a walk-in basis — already have offered to help paint and furnish. The sisters want to use the building as an environmental learning center where community members can come to learn about floral arrangements or how to make homemade soups and students can come and enjoy the outdoors.
“With the School Sisters of Notre Dame, there was a real concern for the environment and creation,” Kay Fernholz said. “This farm is an opportunity to do something hands-on.”
Nuns foster community, appreciation for the land
The Fernholz farm has been off drugs for three years now.
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