Featherstone Farm’s Jenni McHugh
Nurturing Life on the Farm and Elsewhere
by Allie Mentzer, Marketing Manager
As we embark on another Eat Local Challenge, you might notice that eating locally has become trendy and mighty marketable. Frito-Lay, even Walmart, will claim to sell you “local food” from “family farms.” Fact is large corporations simply can’t develop the long term commitments to local farmers that co-ops have nurtured for decades. I recently learned more about the family behind one of our local farms while chatting with Jenni McHugh, wife of Jack Hedin, Featherstone Farm, Rushford, MN.
Chances are you’ve tasted Featherstone Farm produce. Since 1995, Featherstone has delivered organic produce to co-ops, farmers markets and CSA subscribers, but the Featherstone story begins long before. Jack and Jenni met as neighbors while studying at Yale. Jenni came home to find Jack in the yard. Having taken all the doors off the cabinets of his rented apartment, he was meticulously repainting them. She was intrigued by this young man who was “so thorough” in everything he did and, unlike most college boys, prepared stuffed eggplant for dinner instead of ordering pizza.
Eventually, they settled in California so Jack could pursue sustainable farming and Jenni could follow her interest: nurturing life of different sort through midwifery. It was on that California farm that their first son, Emmet, was born, outdoors, under the stars. Although Jenni hadn’t imagined herself as a farm wife, she says laboring through Emmet’s birth on that farm, warmed by the fire Jack built, has tied her intimately to the farm life.
Since then, Jenni’s done her fair share of farm work. She’s weeded, picked and packed produce, published the CSA newsletter and sold flowers at market. She’s harvested snap peas in weeds taller than the pea plants, arduous, miserable work. Gradually, though, experience and labor-saving systems replaced youthful idealistic masochism. Still, Jenni says being married to a farmer is “being married to someone who’s always on call.” There’s a wistful smile in her voice when she confesses, “Every spring, I realize—all over again—that, oh yeah, Jack will be up at 4:30 and when he comes home, he’ll be really, really tired.”
Slowly, Jenni’s been able to shed daily farm chores to follow her passion as a doula, and more recently, as a childbirth educator. She explains, “There’s so much excitement, vulnerability, at that point in a person’s life, I’m honored to be able to offer support.” Even so, Jenni enjoys reminiscing and finds beauty, too, in farm labor. She recalls waking early on harvest days, looking upon acres full of heavy crops, thinking, “How on earth will we ever get this done?” and the ensuing gratification of completing the task. Jenni misses most the camaraderie of her fellow field hands, discussing probing questions that beg for meandering, soulful answers contemplated for hours while picking squash: “What was your closest experience with death?”
Jenni and Jack’s lives changed drastically in 2007, when floods bore relentlessly through southeast Minnesota, washing away the very land that made Featherstone Farm—a life together—possible. Crops ruined, warehouses wrecked, Jack faced a tsunami of paperwork. Jenni remembers, “Jack could have collapsed.”
Instead, like harvested squash tossed skillfully from one field hand to the next, Featherstone’s fate settled deftly into the hands of community that, for so long, had depended upon the farm’s steady yield. Co-op shoppers donated cash through the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy’s Sow the Seeds program, and CSA shareholders invested in multi-year subscriptions, all a show of faith in rebirth. Jack’s visionary plans for a new, more sustainable, farm soon took shape. In Featherstone’s time of excitement, vulnerability, the community was honored to offer support.
We are all bound to this land, but it’s so easy to forget. Even in the midst of lush bounty on the farm, Jenni jokes she’ll likely need to join the CSA to get fresh produce into her fridge. Just like the rest of us, Jenni, a working mom of three, has reached for store-bought spaghetti at dinnertime. But she doesn’t underestimate the importance of eating locally, which ultimately means learning to eat seasonally. Not surprisingly, given her doula’s appreciation for lengthy anticipation, Jenni especially relishes winter squash, explaining “maybe it’s because you have to wait so long.”
This season, when the Eat Local Challenge fades to fall and the first bins of Featherstone squash arrive, I hope you’ll make eating locally more than a trend. As you pick up your Featherstone squash in lieu of asparagus, take a moment to consider the lives it’s touched. After all, it’s been a labor of love.