An Interview with Greg Reynolds of Riverbend Farm
By Jeanne Lakso
Greg and Mary Reynolds started Riverbend Farm in Delano, Minnesota in 1994. They supply Linden Hills Co-op with certified organic lettuces and specialty greens, radishes, soybeans, arugula, and potatoes. This year, the Co-op will be a pick-up spot for folks who are supporting Riverbend Farm as Community Supported Agriculture shareholders in return for weekly deliveries of fresh produce (for more information about CSAs, check the Land Stewardship Project’s web site.
Tell us about how and why you and Mary started your farm.
My dream of having a farm grew out of the back-to-the-land and appropriate technology movements of the 1970s. Using petrochemical based fertilizer and poison to produce food didn’t make sense then or now. But a high school diploma was not the ticket to owning land so I pursued a degree and a job to be able to buy a farm. After working for 18 years I was ready to quit and farm full time. Mary was working as a psychotherapist, which made it possible to make ends meet while I was getting our farm established. Starting last year, we teamed up with David Van Eeckhout to get another perspective on farming and get more done around here.
Besides selling your produce to co-ops, you offer CSA shares, sell to restaurants, and have a farm stand in Minneapolis—sounds like a busy schedule. Can you describe what a typical week in June is like for you?
Monday is harvest day for Tuesday deliveries. We start with lettuce, greens and radishes—things that need to be harvested when it’s cool. As the day warms up we go on to crops that are not heat sensitive. Mary works on the CSA garden and flowers. Everything gets sorted, packed and stored in the cooler.
Tuesday is delivery day so it starts about 4:30 am. I try to get done by noon and get back to the farm. David cleans up the aftermath of Monday and starts on watering and taking care of greenhouse plants. We tend to knock off a little early when we can because Mondays are long.
Most of the planting gets done on Wednesday, and I make sales calls for our orders for Friday delivery. To see what we have to offer, we walk through all the fields looking at every row of every crop. There’s also weeding, cultivating, transplanting, and watering to do.
Thursday is another harvest day, and Friday is a delivery day. While I’m out making deliveries David is harvesting for our Saturday market. David’s mother Sue works on making bouquets for the market. When I get home, I help David finish getting ready for market.
Saturday is market day. I bring the produce to Auriga’s patio (on Hennepin Avenue, just north of Franklin) and help David set up. David runs the market while I go back to the farm and make calls for Monday’s deliveries. Watering, planting, cultivating, or equipment maintenance get done as needed.
We try to take Sundays off. Usually there’s something that needs to get done, but we keep it to a minimum. Unfortunately that tends to fall by the wayside when we really get busy in July and August.
Here’s a question we hear from customers: “How come local organic mustard greens cost as much as or more than organic greens from California?” How would you answer that?
That’s a good question. How long have you got?
California produce is so cheap for several reasons. One of the big ones is that they are selling below their cost to buy marketshare when we are in season. Lots of times large California growers lose money shipping their produce up here in the summer and make their money in the winter when the price for something like lettuce or broccoli goes way up.
A lot of California farms are actually in the desert. Their water comes from subsidized irrigation ditches. Where does that water come from and what is the real cost for that water? Who pays for it? We have to pay for the well that we put in for the vegetables.
There are a lot of other issues. California growers can farm all year long. We have from late May until early October to make our living. Our produce is fresher and better tasting and we don’t have to grow varieties that only ship well. Our labor cost are around $10 per person per hour. We are not a big corporation like Cal-Organic, our volume is a lot smaller, and we have gotten used to living indoors and eating regularly.
What do you think is the most effective thing co-op members and customers can do to help support local organic farmers?
Buy local and eat a seasonal, vegetable-based diet. The other thing they might do is look at how many hidden subsidies and externalized costs they are paying for when they purchase “imported” products. When local people buy from local organic vegetable growers they are paying most of the real cost of their food. Other than $200 per year from the Minnesota Organic Cost Share program, we do not get any government payments.
Here is a real example of government payments to farmers. In a survey that was done of farmers in western Minnesota, it was found that their average net income was $65,000 on sales of about $500,000. 85% of their net income was payments from the federal government. The feds don’t actually have any money. It came from somebody’s taxes.
Can our customers expect to see some new items from Riverbend Farms this summer?
Senposai and Yukina Savoy are two new Asian greens that are nutritious and tasty. We are growing more varieties of yellow and golden tomatoes to try to get a more consistent supply. There are some beautiful pink Japanese eggplant that promise to be less bitter, and Desiree potatoes have a buttery yellow flesh with a red skin. They look and taste great.