Seed Starting

— Jamie Stang, Wright County Master Gardener and Master Food Preservation Specialist, Crow River Food Council Member

Starting seeds indoors can be a great “pick me up” during the short, cold days of February and March. Growing your own seedlings is a great way to try out new or unusual varieties of vegetables that you may see in seed catalogs but are not available at your local nursery. It can be more economical than purchasing seedlings, especially if you have a large garden or if you share seedlings with family and friends.

plants-macro-growth-soil-113335Growing plants from seeds is easier than most people think. The trick to successful seed starting is planning ahead so that your seeds have adequate time and optimal conditions for growth. Most seeds need 4-8 weeks of indoor growing time before they are ready to plant out, so March is the ideal seed starting time for Minnesota gardeners.

Seeds should be starting in a space that has good air circulation but doesn’t have large temperature fluctuations or cold drafts. While many people are tempted to start plants on a sunny windowsill, the radiant cold and heat fluctuations are not good conditions for seedling growth, and many windows provide inadequate light. A basement or interior corner of the house that is lit with artificial lights can be an ideal location for seed starting.

Both florescent and LED bulbs can be used in place of commercial “grow lights”, which tend to be more expensive. The use of either two “cool” spectrum or a “cool and natural” spectrum combination of lights will provide adequate light for seedlings. Plants that emerge should be 2-4 inches from the light, so it’s important that either the lights can be raised and lowered by hanging them from adjustable chains, or that shelves can be adjusted as plants grow taller. Seedlings need at least 8 – 12 hours of darkness each day to mimic outdoor conditions. An automatic timer can be useful in assuring adequate but not too much light exposure.

tomato-lot-1327838The use of heat mats is beneficial for starting seeds, especially for seeds such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, basil and other plants that prefer warm soil conditions. Electric heat mats are available online and where seed starting supplies are sold. Heating pads sold for human use are not safe around moisture and do not provide the same level of temperature control, so they should not be used.

The best soil to use is a seed starting mixture, which is lighter than typical potting soil and is easier for tiny roots to establish themselves in. A mixture of seeding start mixture and a light texture potting soil can also be used. Because these mixes are light, they dry out quickly. But it’s also important not to overwater, as tiny roots will decay quickly in wet soil. Water lightly every day or two and check the soil about ½ inch below the top to see if moisture is needed. Spraying the seedlings with a misting bottle can be helpful in dry, indoor conditions.

Seeds should be started in small individual containers. Several seeds can be planted in each space, then thinned out as needed. Domed covers that have openings to allow for air circulation can be very useful as they help keep moisture from escaping while also allowing light in. They also help to retain heat. If used, you will want to check to make sure that excessive moisture doesn’t build up and harm seedlings.

Seedlings should be hardened off about 2 weeks before you plan to plant them into your garden beds. Start by putting them outside in a sheltered location for a few hours, then bringing them in overnight. Gradually increase the exposure to direct sun and the time outside until the temperatures are right for planting.

You can find more information and resources for starting seeds at home at the University of Minnesota extension website.

— Katie Henson, Crow River Food Council Farmers Market Coalition Manager

ProduceTree‘Tis the Season! Yes, I know (and am thankful) that it is not December – but I am positively joyful about fresh, great-tasting, affordable AND locally grown produce! The raspberries, the asparagus, the tomatoes…my mouth is watering already. I absolutely love going to my farmers market. It gives me a sense of community to connect with the person growing my food and it brings together the neighborhood. Now that I have children, I enjoy the fact that they are aware of where their food comes from and get excited to pick out our produce for the week.

To get ready for the 2019 farmers markets, we had an extra meeting this year for our managers. We get together every spring to talk about our upcoming markets, what the plans are and share information. But this year, we also had some exciting guests come from the University of Minnesota Extension Program come and teach us how to get the most out of our social media pages. Here are two not-so-fun facts:

  • Unless you are strategic about your social media posts, there is only a 6% chance that someone will see what you posted.
  • Out of those who do not attend farmers markets, many do so only because they do not know when and where their market is.

Group2We clearly have our work cut out for us. Thankfully, we learned how to increase the number of followers by proactively engaging with the community more. We also learned how to increase the chances that people will see your post using analytics and scheduling posts. Last, but certainly not least, we also received some tips and tricks to beautify pictures and posts to make them more ‘clickable’ or ‘shareable’. While we focused on Facebook, we also touched briefly on Instagram – mainly how to use hashtags to your advantage (and thankfully for me, we learned exactly what a hashtag is).

producePlease be prepared for a social media frenzy about your local markets! If you are not following them already, please do (see links below). They have some exciting plans this year – from local music to kid’s activities and many markets will be participating again in the Power of Produce Club. This program provides $2 tokens to children to go shopping at the market and is loved by many, I am so happy to see this program continue! The Rockford Market will also begin partnering with Second Harvest Heartland and their local food shelf to start a food donation program with leftover produce at the end of the market each week. I hope to see you all at the markets soon!

Happy Farmers Market Season!

#IstilldontknowwhatImdoing #mngrown #wrightcofarmersmarket #farmersmarkets #lovemymarket

Follow our local Farmers Markets using the links below:

Why I sponsored Farm to Fork

— Anonymous

I sponsored the Farm to Fork event anonymously because I wanted to share my story, and I wanted to share it anonymously because leaving this story without a name means that it can be OUR story, one that you will run across over and over.

When I heard about the work the Crow River Food Council was doing I was awestruck! The Montrose Cooks! program was one program that would have helped my family in a time of tragedy and struggle. Growing up in rural Minnesota, I had a very stable family life; my parents decided to always have one parent at home and one parent working. They decided that my mother would be able to bring home more money, with her education level, so she worked while my father stayed home.

We were going strong as a family unit, until the unthinkable happened; my mother got sick. I hear this time and time again. Medical bills pile up and families have a hard time keeping their heads above water. My parents burned through their considerable savings in no time, insurance covered some but not all. Things happen, people get sick, and die. My mother died, leaving behind a grieving husband and three small confused children.

Shortly thereafter our stove broke. We were struggling. At this time, we did not have the resources that there are now. My father found a local job that took him away from us most days and nights, and he also enrolled in school. He was our hero. When my mother was alive, she did more of the cooking, with my father as her sous chef. They worked together to make home cooked meals that we could thrive on and enjoy as a family. However, with my mother gone and no stove, my father didn’t have the knowledge or resources beyond the microwave, which mostly meant cheap, processed boxed options.

When I heard that the Montrose Cooks! program was about teaching families how to cook (with a free-take home-crockpot, hands on experience, sample meal, and grocery bag with the new learned recipe items to take home), I just had to sponsor this group of individuals who are making a huge difference in the lives of families like mine, like ours, and our neighbors who are struggling to get back on their feet. This is indeed an example of teaching a man how to fish, so he can eat for a lifetime!

Editor’s note: you can find more information on the Montrose Cooks! program we support at Grace Place in an upcoming Food Council post. In the meantime, like Grace Place on Facebook or contact them directly by calling (612) 532-3654.

Learn more about our Farm to Fork event.

— Stacy Besonen, Crow River Food Council Member

Since school is well underway and we have had over two month’s worth of packing lunches or filling school lunch accounts with money, how is it going? We want our kiddos to get the best nutrition as possible, and let’s face it, most of the time, school lunches aren’t always the healthiest option, unless your school has an on-site garden, partners with local farmers (like the Minneapolis School District Farm to School program, see the story here), or makes everything from scratch based on the ethnicity of the student body majority, like the Menahga School District used to do.

Lunch example -- sandwich, broccoli, apples and oatmeal.What does a healthy school lunch look like? For my kids, I want them to have the energy to make it through their afternoon classes without being hungry, but more importantly, without the after meal sugar crash. How do I make sure this happens? By making sure their lunch box is full of a variety of nutrients, including great sources of protein, complex carbohydrates and healthy fats! That’s it! An occasional homemade treat will help mix things up, too!

There are several blogs dedicated to just this, making a school lunch! I googled ‘packing school lunches blog’ and quite a few fresh ideas popped up! It seems like the bento box style lunch box is all the rage right now, and why not? Little compartment to showcase all types of nutrient packed morsels for your child to choose from, yum!

Here are few tips to help you get started:

  • Involve your children in planning, shopping for and preparing lunches. A child who helps is more likely to actually eat his or her lunch.
  • Pre-portioned vegetablesDuring each shopping trip, encourage each child to pick out a new fruit or vegetable he or she is curious about or hasn’t yet tried. Kids are more likely to try a new food if they picked it.
  • Plan your meals for the week on Sundays. Eventually, you may become so good at it you’ll be able to plan lunches for two weeks at a time.
  • Prepare and keep pre-portioned healthy snacks on hand. This makes it easier for your child to choose more healthy options plus it’s a great time-saver for busy parents.

For more tips and to print off a Healthy Lunch Builder for Kids visit Allina Health.

— Gina Coburn, Crow River Food Council Member

What is the 10 Day Eat Local Food Challenge and how does one even begin? Gina details her introduction to the challenge in part one of this post.

90% of our food comes from the industrial food supply and surely none of us is starving to death. So what is the point of eating local food? Well, here are a few reasons Vicki cited in her introduction audio on the Local Food Challenge website and they are borne out in my experience:

Sarah Lindblom of Solar Fresh Produce. Photo by Mary Sue Stevens.

Sarah Lindblom of Solar Fresh Produce, Buffalo. Photo by Mary Sue Stevens.

  1. Health and personal vitality: Knowing the source of our food, knowing the farmers that raised it, the land that produced it, contributes to our mind and body’s health.
  2. Sustainability: As in our responsibility to leave the earth in at least as good a shape as we found it for the people (our children and grandchildren) that come after us.
  3. Community: Sharing food has always been a social activity, it connects us. And in a larger sense, eating local food contributes to our local economy by supporting the farmers and land where we live.
  4. Sovereignty: As citizens, it is wise to have control over the land, water, soil and seeds that we depend on for our lives.

And maybe one of the best reasons of all is:

  1. Potency vs. resignation: Engaging in an activity that in some way tackles one of our BIG issues, connects us to our world in a tangible way. It might be a small step but it’s a step that if taken by many, would have a large effect on our planet.

So what are the road blocks? Why don’t we get more than 10% of our food from local sources?

Photo by Mary Sue Stevens.

Photo by Mary Sue Stevens.

  1. Time: Much of the food we consider locally sourced is whole food and needs some time to prepare or preserve.
  2. Talent: Not everyone knows what to do when faced with a whole chicken or a beet to make it taste good.
  3. Treasure: True or not, it is perceived that eating locally sourced food costs more.
  4. Pariah factor: It is getting easier but it’s more difficult to eat local food…going out to restaurants and invitations from friends might be tricky if you’re challenging yourself to eat only local.
  5. Food is more than just food: We have food habits, emotional attachments and definite likes and dislikes when it comes to food.

By the way, Vicki’s audio is 45 minutes long and inspiring if you want to hear more about the above.

So is the 10 Day Local Food Challenge worth it? I found it was … find Gina’s final thoughts on her experience as she finished the challenge, with additional sources of local food she discovered, in part three

— Jeff Aldrich, Crow River Food Council Member

Did you know that local farmers have been growing vegetables in the Wright Technical Center greenhouse in Buffalo for the past eight months? And that much of what they have grown has made its way to the plates and gardens of local community members? Sarah Lindblom of Solar Fresh Produce CSA, Dana Bahr, a veteran watermelon grower, and Jeff Aldrich and Mary Sue Stevens of Mana Gardens moved into the greenhouse early last December and have collectively grown several hundred pounds of produce and several thousand plant starts since that time.

Sarah planting

Sarah Lindblom with Solar Fresh Produce CSA prepares the soil for seeds. Photo by Mary Sue Stevens.

Long-time Wright Technical Center horticulture and landscaping instructor Greg Dickerman retired two years ago, and the WTC had been facing some challenges finding someone to replace him. Consequently, the greenhouse had been sitting empty and was falling into disrepair. Local Roots Food Co-op President Connie Carlson and Jeff Aldrich met with the WTC Director last November and proposed using the greenhouse for winter food production. WTC welcomed the opportunity to have the greenhouse used and maintained, an agreement was reached, and seeding began December 3, 2015.

Sarah Lindblom used the opportunity to experiment with growing cucumbers and a variety of greens during the winter months, and in the early spring she was able to get a head start on the transplants for her CSA.

Jeff watering

Jeff Aldrich waters trays of microgreens. Photo by Mary Sue Stevens.

Dana Bahr, a Buffalo resident whose watermelon farm is in Otter Tail County, experimented successfully with starting an abundance of sweet potato slips, germinated avocados and was picking summer squash in February. In late March he began starting the several hundred watermelon, cantaloupe and squash that have now been transplanted at his farm.

Mana Gardens experimented with growing ginger, turmeric and microgreens, and conducted a 10-week “winter greens” CSA with ten local families. They also sold fresh greens and root crops through Local Roots Food Co-op and Twin Cities Local Food during the winter months, and have been selling locally-grown cucumbers, tomatoes and plant starts through those channels and at the Buffalo Farmers’ Market since early May. A portion of their produce was also donated to the Buffalo Food Shelf. During the last month of the school year, Jeff and Mary Sue welcomed the students from the Cornerstone Program into the greenhouse. The students tasted vegetables, learned about organic growing, helped with transplanting, and took home their own pots filled with vegetable plants on the last day of school.

Part of the role of the Crow River Food Council is to help identify resources that might be used to help strengthen our local food system, whether they be commercial kitchens, land that might be used to grow food, surplus food, or unused greenhouse space. Connecting people and resources is a key part of improving the quality of and accessibility to fresh, healthy food. The WTC greenhouse story is a good example of how both local farmers and local eaters can benefit when these connections are made. If you are aware of any under-utilized resources of any kind that may have the potential to help members of our region eat better, please reach out and let us know.

National Nutrition Month

— Andrew Doherty, RDN, Crow River Food Council Member

March marks the 30 day, yearly recognition of National Nutrition Month, sponsored by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association). The goal of the month long awareness program is to encourage Americans to understand the value of making informed decisions when selecting foods, and to communicate the importance of nutrition’s impact on overall health.

“There is not one specific eating pattern that a person needs to follow, but instead it can be achieved by including a variety of healthy foods from all of the 5 MyPlate food groups.” The simple act of choosing healthier options with the foods we are already buying and preparing at home can make a huge impact. When planning and shopping for food just following these simple guidelines can easily put you on the path to eating healthy in no time, and at no additional cost!

  • Make half your plate vegetables and fruit: Choose fresh whole fruits when able, frozen, dried and canned in 100% juice and/or no salt added will do just fine as well.
  • Choose sides of vegetables in a variety of colors, prepared in a healthful way: steamed, sautéed, roasted or raw.
  • Make half your grains whole grains: Looks for whole grains listed as the first or second ingredient on the ingredients list.
  • Vary your protein foods: mixing in options like seafood, beans, unsalted nuts, eggs, and lean meats and poultry.
  • Move to low-fat or fat-free dairy products: When choosing dairy foods selecting low-fat or fat-free options will still have the same amount of calcium and protein!
  • Eat and drink less sodium, saturated fats, and added sugars: Look at the Nutrition Facts label and ingredients list to limit items high in sodium, saturated fat and added sugar.
  • Drink water instead of sugary drinks.

March 2016 imageThink of each of these healthful changes as your own personal “win” on your path to a healthier, nutritious lifestyle. Taking on one win at a time that fits into your lifestyle will lead you to healthy behavior changes overtime.

For more information on how you can plan, shop, and eat your way to a healthy lifestyle visit