The Farm on St. Mathias

May 2011

For the past six years, the Farm on St. Mathias has been an integral part of the community in North-Central Minnesota.

The 80 acre farm, located three miles south of Brainerd, has sold produce to local restaurants, been a presence at the farmers market, provided farm tours and donated land for community gardens to local nonprofits. They also operate a fall corn maze and pumpkin patch that is popular with area school children.  

Part of the farm’s tie to the community is Arlene Jones’ philosophy about farming. Jones owns and manages St. Mathias with her husband Bob, a practicing clinical psychiatrist and hospital administrator.  They are passionate about the aesthetic beauty of their farm, the therapeutic benefits of gardening and farming, their roles in the community and the pursuit of good food and healthy lifestyles.  

That approach has made bringing fresh, locally and organically grown food to the community and educating others about sustainable farming and farming practices the cornerstone of St. Mathias’ operation.  

Not surprisingly, that philosophy led Jones to Farm to School. “Farm to School has been on my radar for a long time,” she said.  A year ago, St. Mathias connected with Independent School District 181, the largest school district in Crow Wing County.  Fifteen district staff then toured the farm to see first-hand how St. Mathias food is grown and handled. 

The farm currently has 17 acres dedicated to fruits and vegetables including ten acres for vegetable, herb and apple production, and seven acres planted in rotations of melon, squash, corn, pumpkins and fingerling potatoes.

 

Combining good food with education  

Jones’ first foray into Farm to School started with a salad bar taste-testing this past fall at the high school’s south campus. The salad bar included melons, radishes, tomatoes and cucumbers. 

Later on, more locally grown favorites from St. Mathias were featured, including unique vegetables like black radishes and multi-colored carrots. Elementary and other students were also served St. Mathias potatoes in the form of potato soup and parslied potatoes. 

Jones also visited classrooms to talk about the farm and how food is produced. Because many students have visited St. Mathias with their parents or through school tours, Arlene’s face was already a familiar one. She said the interaction is an important part of Farm to School as many of the students “thought their food came from the grocery store because they are so disconnected from the farm.”

 

Overcoming challenges 

Jones is working now with ISD 181 to develop fall menus that will include produce from St. Mathias and other local producers. A key challenge is coordinating distribution of foods from various farms so that the school district can more easily receive, prepare and pay for the product.  Another challenge will be to preserve food during the summer when school is not in session to have it available when school begins – so called “preserve to serve.” 

Nonetheless, Jones describes Farm to School opportunities as potentially “endless” and thinks that season extension techniques will allow the effort to further expand. 

For her part, Jones is working to learn as much as possible about the school district’s food system. She has toured schools, kitchens and the food warehouse. “It’s important to understand the entire process from the warehouse to the school kitchen. You really need to understand the process to do the job right,” said Jones. 

“What I would ultimately like to see happen is for our [food] dollars to stay in our community and support the sustainability of our family farms and our local communities.” 

Jones recently had a student’s parent tell her that her daughter “won’t eat carrots unless they are from Arlene’s farm.” With that type of reaction to locally farmed foods, that goal increasingly seems within reach. 

The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy would like to thank Arlene and Bob Jones and Steve Kinsella for their help in preparing this article.  More information about The Farm on St. Mathias is available at www.thefarmonstmathias.com. 

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