Summer is nearly upon us! We had the chance to talk shop with Josh and Sally Reinitz of East Henderson Farm, located on the bluffs of the Minnesota River near scenic Henderson, Minnesota. Read on to learn more about their famous Brussels Sprouts, why soil health is important, and how the pandemic is impacting life on the farm.
Tell us about East Henderson Farm.
East Henderson Farm was started by Josh and Sally Reinitz (us!) in 2009, after taking the Farm Beginnings course through the Land Stewardship Project. We started the farm as a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), and also selling wholesale produce to the St. Peter Food Co-op and restaurants. We have also incorporated maple syrup, grains, hay, beef, pork, fruits, and nuts into our farming operations and have dabbled in chickens, eggs, goats, and other enterprises through the years.
Our farm is named for the former village of East Henderson, where our farm is located. When the railroad was built through the Minnesota River Valley in the late 1860s, the tracks were built on the opposite (east) side of the river from Henderson. A village grew around the train depot and it was once a hub for local commerce, shipping, and transit. Our farm site is on the parcel where the village school building was located.
Today, East Henderson Farm is a 40 acre plot with vegetable gardens, pastures, fruit and nut orchards, native woods, and meadows overlooking the Minnesota River. We have three high tunnel structures for season extension, a large heated greenhouse, and various restored outbuildings, including our 1860 log cabin house. Our kids are the primary reason we do this—we have 3 boys Henry, Miles, and Sam. My (Josh’s) dad and stepmom also live on the farm and help us out, and we usually have a few folks living and working with us on the farm during the growing season. This is our farm community!
What is special or unique about the items you produce?
We have been certified organic since 2010 and have recently embraced a regenerative farming model where we aim to promote soil health and natural ecosystems while still producing food for our community. Organic is non-GMO by default, and we promote the use of heirloom seeds whenever possible. We follow the five soil health principles to ensure long-term viability of our farming enterprises and the land we steward. These principles are:
- Minimize soil disturbance
- Keep living roots in the soil
- Increase plant diversity
- Keep soil covered
- Incorporate livestock.
We believe a focus on soil health will produce nutritious food for all life, allow us some extra to sell for profit, grow natural and human communities, and leave the land in a better condition for the next steward.
Much of our land has been transitioned away from annual production and into a food-forest type landscape that is perennial. We do raise a small number of animals (cattle, pigs, chickens) that eat grain and hay sourced from our own land. They give us manure we can compost and use as fertilizer for our crops, which means that we don’t have to purchase as many inputs like fertilizer. The more of our own fertilizer and other inputs we can produce on our own farm, the more environmentally and financially sustainable we are. Our land includes some erodible and sensitive river bluff areas with rare plants, and the conservation of those areas is our primary focus.
What’s the deal with Brussels Sprouts?
Brussels Sprouts have emerged as our main wholesale crop. We love them, although I don’t recall eating very many growing up! Our soil is well suited to growing sprouts and other members of the cabbage family due to its nutrient make-up and clay loam texture. We are the Brussels Sprouts grower (bulk and on the stalk) in the fall for the St. Peter Food Co-op, and many of our sprouts end up in school lunches at Minneapolis Public Schools.
Our favorite way to prepare sprouts are to halve them, toss in a mixture of olive oil, salt, pepper, and our own maple syrup, and roast. The maple syrup leaves an almost candy-like coating on the outside. If our kids eat them, they must be good!
Why are locally owned farms important?
We believe a local food system should be the norm for every human community. Industrial agriculture and globalization has concentrated the food supply, resulting in most of our produce coming from thousands of miles away and most of the farms in southern Minnesota are growing grains and meat for export to other countries. This is not sustainable long term as it assumes fossil fuel energy to grow, fertilize, and ship the food.
Much of our former wild landscapes that were full of native food have been cleared to grow commodities for shipping, leaving the farmers and community citizens dependent on the system. No matter where someone lives on this planet, they are utterly connected to the land somehow. Even in large cities, everyone is dependent on nature and good soil to produce the food they find in the stores.
We are seeing this system challenged in recent years, and I fear it won’t be able to feed the world as had been promised. Re-building local food systems around each community, no matter how large or small, is the only sustainable way forward. We need to go forward with a model where way more people are involved in food production, growing gardens and scratch cooking is the norm, there is a local produce and meat market in every small town, and cooperative business models are the majority. We must respect and honor nature’s principles and re-connect humanity with the land.
What does the future hold for East Henderson Farm?
In addition to our new model of permaculture and regenerative agriculture, we have a mission to grow community and educate. We stopped operating our CSA after 2019 so we could start work on building our land into a place where people can gather, make music and art, grow and cook food, and learn skills.
We have been working hard during the pandemic to build infrastructure to make this happen. Our future includes folks living on the farm and working with us, public classes for nature education and homesteading skills, and art/music festivals where we camp out and co-create. We believe this is one model for a sustainable future, and we would like to demonstrate this to a culture that is currently indoors, on screens, and eating unhealthy food.
The pandemic has not changed life for us too much as we didn’t leave home much anyway. Our kids have been distance learning since March but that has allowed them to engage with us further in our work, learn more about nature, and learn new skills. Instead of a 2020 calendar full of classes and events, we are taking this time to build our dream slowly and sustainably, doing lots of business planning and infrastructure work. Please stay tuned as regulations allow for classes, public gatherings, and on-farm live music events!
This interview has been edited. All photos courtesy of East Henderson Farm.