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Jonathan Knutson, Forum News Service, Published September 20 2013

Bluebird Gardens on the grow

FERGUS FALLS, Minn. - As a boy, Mark Boen built bluebird houses and placed them across his family’s dairy farm. The number of bluebirds on the farm soared.

Today, decades later, Boen and his wife, Diane, operate Bluebird Gardens on the site of that dairy farm. Bluebird Gardens raises and sells more than 30 kinds of “nutritionally dense, sustainably raised” produce.

“There are challenges, especially this year,” he says. “But there’s a lot of satisfaction, too.”

Bluebird Gardens is a community-supported agriculture business. In a CSA, individuals or families buy a “share” of a garden and receive a regular shipment of produce from it.

This year, Bluebird Gardens has 2,139 members, a number that has risen from 452 in just four years. Members this year pay an annual fee of $225 for biweekly shipments or $595 for weekly shipments over 20 weeks from June to the middle of October.

Bluebird Gardens has invested the additional income from growing membership in automated machinery, including a bean harvester. That’s allowed the CSA, which has 10 employees, to harvest more produce and accommodate greater demand.

“There’s just so much time and labor involved (in harvesting produce by hand). It’s not very efficient,” Boen says.

Expanding the business by investing in automated machinery – with the hope that doing so will allow the customer base to continue to grow – has required “a leap of faith,” he says.

Retention rates

The Boens began their business in 1978 after buying 10 acres. Only six of the 10 were tillable, and three of the six were under water.

Four years later, the Boens bought the 100-acre dairy farm operated by Mark Boen’s parents. The dairy farm, like other small Minnesota dairies, was under economic pressure from big dairy operations.

Bluebird Gardens grew more rapidly after Mark Boen, now 59, retired from teaching in 2009. A third-grade teacher in Fergus Falls, he was named Wal-Mart’s national teacher of the year in 2001.

Today, the business raises about 150 acres of vegetables.

The majority of Bluebird Gardens’ customers are in the Fargo-Moorhead area about 60 miles northwest of Fergus Falls.

The remaining customers live in Fergus Falls and other western Minnesota communities.

Cerise Peterson, who lives in Fergus Falls, is a regular customer.

“The quality of the food is just so high,” she says.

Nationally, CSAs have an average retention rate of 40 percent. In other words, 40 percent of members renew their membership the following year.

Bluebird Gardens, in contrast, has a retention rate of 60 percent.

Though pleased that Bluebird Gardens’ retention rate is above the national average, Boen wants to understand why more members don’t renew.

“We’re always asking what aspects of our farm can be improved,” he says.

Tough year for planting

Bluebird Gardens, like many other farms in the Upper Midwest, struggled with a late, wet spring. Most of its fields were planted weeks later than usual and consequently weren’t producing when Bluebird Gardens began sending boxes of produce to customers in June.

Bluebird Gardens has high tunnels – low-cost, plastic-covered buildings – that allow it to get an early start in the spring. Produce raised in the high tunnels went into the June boxes, but there wasn’t enough of it to completely offset the early lack of field-raised produce.

“The boxes were a little light in those few weeks,” says Boen. “It was really a challenge.”

But growing conditions have improved, allowing 2013 to “become our best box season ever,” he says. “Our boxes have really been full lately.”

The boxes sent to customers contain produce ranging from bok choy to sweet potatoes. Some items, such as cucumbers and radishes, are available throughout the 20 weeks. Other items, such as gourds, are available for only some of the 20 weeks.

Forecasts so far indicate no frost through the end of September. If that’s indeed the case, Bluebird Gardens can provide customers with a relatively large variety of produce during the rest of its 20-week season, Boen says.

“Twenty weeks. Five months. That’s a long time. But things are looking good for the rest of this year, knock on wood,” Boen says.

Bluebird Gardens plans to buy a four-wheel planter that will allow the CSA to plant much faster next year. That should alleviate planting difficulties if the spring of 2014 is wet, too, Boen says.

“We learned from what happened this year,” he says. “Sometimes there’s no gain without pain first.”

Juggling act

Boen, like most farmers, balances many duties. During the growing season, his work day often begins before dawn and ends at dusk.

On a recent day, his juggling act included harvesting sweet corn, visiting with customers and directing employees.

He’s busy during the rest of the year, too, sometimes speaking to people interested in starting their own CSA.

“It’s a lot of work,” he says. “But it can be a lot of fun, too.”

One of the satisfactions is providing customers with nutritious, good-tasting food, he says.

Bluebird Gardens practices what its calls “biological farming,” which involves adding missing elements and organic matter to the soil.

A decade ago, for instance, Bluebird Gardens began adding calcium to the soil, enhancing the flavor of its produce, Boen says.

He especially enjoys dealing with customers.

“So much of what we do here is building relationships. We work with people and we get to know them. That helps make this enjoyable,” he says.