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Tracy Frank, Published March 28 2014

Farmer uses specific techniques to increase productivity, quality of produce

FERGUS FALLS, Minn. - Mark Boen describes his method of farming as a “circle of magic” or “symbiotic dance.” Boen owns Bluebird Gardens, a 314-acre farm located a few miles northeast of Fergus Falls, with his wife, Diane.

They grow vegetables on a little less than half of the farm and sell the nutritionally-dense, sustainably-raised produce directly to consumers through community supported agriculture (CSA) shares.

Bluebird Gardens utilizes biological farming, strip farming, and high tunnels to increase productivity and the quality of its produce, Boen said.

There are 11 high-tunnel greenhouses to extend the growing season. High tunnels, or hoop houses, are non-permanent, unheated greenhouses made of greenhouse plastic covering a frame.

Biological farming is a process of adding nutrients that are missing from the soil by creating a healthy, non-eroding soil that produces nutrient-dense food, Boen said.

“The more conferences I go to the more I realize it’s all about the biology of the soil,” he said.

Strip farming, Boen said, provides a “feast for the biology” by farming in 78-foot strips that alternate between vegetables and cover crops, which Boen will till under in June and plant with Sudan grass, adding massive organic matter to the soil. The cover crops also improve tilth, eliminate compaction, improve fertility, enhance flavor and nutrition and reduce weeds.

“We’ve learned that the organic matter and cover cropping is a huge part of that, almost more important than adding nutrients that are missing,” he said.

But adding missing nutrients makes a big difference, too, Boen said.

There are 17 essential elements to plant health, and they need to be in balance, he said. Boen has his soil tested to find the ratios of elements in his soil.

Calcium, he said is the centerpiece of biological farming because it allows the minerals to go into the plant roots and is the basis for healthy soil.

“It’s really the miracle mineral and it’s the one that’s overlooked most of the time,” he said, adding that it also makes potatoes taste like candy.

Boen said on his website that biological farming “can be challenging, time-consuming, and expensive, but the benefits to the land and to our health are worth it.”

Boen, who was an elementary school teacher for 34 years before retiring five years ago, started farming in 1978 and said it was a natural complement to teaching because he could do it in the summers when school was out. He sold his produce at stands for more than 30 years but found no matter how much produce he sold, he would still bring a lot home.

When he retired from teaching, he turned his farm into a CSA, which he said offered people “a beautiful connection to the farm.”

Consuming food grown locally is also better for the environment because less fuel is used to transport it and it’s healthier, he said.

“Studies show how the nutrient value lessens the longer the vegetable has been off of the plant,” he said. “Nutrients are lost every day.”

But people can get locally grown produce when it’s still minutes fresh, he said.

“I’m learning more and more that vegetables and fruits are the key to wellness,” Boen said.

This will be the fourth summer Lindsay Peterson and her family of five has participated in the Bluebird Gardens CSA.

“I wanted some options for our family that our kids could see where our food was coming from,” the Fargo mom said.

Having that connection has not only increased the varieties of produce they’re willing to try, but Peterson said it has also improved their nutrition.

“If they pick their food, they are a lot more interested in eating it,” she said. “It creates that connection for them that food doesn’t come from a grocery store, it has to be grown somewhere.”

Whatever they don’t eat right away they freeze and Peterson said some of their produce lasts all winter.

“There’s nothing like corn on the cob in January,” she said.

Attending Harvest Events as a family is also creating some great memories, she said.

“I know as my kids grow older, this is one thing they will always look back on,” she said.

By signing up to become members of the farm, people pick up weekly boxes of produce from a drop site from June through mid-October. They can also attend Harvest Events where they can pick their own in-season vegetables.

Bluebird Gardens offers four CSA options

• The Family Share costs $595 for the year and includes a bushel-sized box of produce each week from June through mid-October and tickets to attend 10 Harvest Events.

• The Share costs $395 and includes a half-bushel-sized box of produce each week and tickets to attend five Harvest Events.

• The Double Family Share costs $1190 and includes two bushel-sized boxes of produce weekly and tickets to 20 Harvest Events.

• The Juicing Share costs $695 and includes a bushel-sized box with a dense load of greens and other produce great for juicing.

Business profile: Bluebird Gardens

Ownership: Mark and Diane Boen

Where: 26060 County Highway 18, Fergus Falls, Minn.

Contact: (218) 205-4739

Online: www.bluebirdgardens.net

Readers can reach Forum reporter Tracy Frank at (701) 241-5526