Home grown: Featherstone Farm

Featherstone Farm in Rushford has taken its commitment to the environment further than most

By Dan Emerson

Editor's note: This article is part of Home grown, a feature appearing in the July 2013 issue.

Organic farmers typically pride themselves on sustainability, but Featherstone Farm, in the scenic bluff country of Fillmore county, has taken its commitment to the environment further than most. The 250-acre certified-organic farm, founded in 1996 by Jack Hedin and Jenni McHugh, has invested in geothermal and solar energy infrastructure to provide about half the energy used on the farm, which is one of the largest organic farms in Minnesota.

After a flood in 2007 severely damaged the farm, Hedin pondered climate change and decided to investigate alternative energy and carbon reduction. In 2008, the farm added a super-insulated packing shed that is heated and cooled by geothermal energy drawn from underground. In 2009, the farm converted the first of its 10 tractors to electric power.

But the farm's largest alternative energy investment is a 2,200-square-foot, 38-kilowatt solar panel array installed on the roof of the farm's machine shop in the fall of 2011. Including the addition of the cooler to store winter vegetables, the project cost about $250,000.

To finance the undertaking, farm employees launched a month-long capital campaign in the summer of 2011 that raised more than $170,000 in loans from friends, customers, and CSA members, as well as from several food co-ops. Whole Foods Market added a $100,000 loan. With the goal of reducing the carbon footprint as quickly as it could practically be done, Hedin says the farm is in the running for a federal grant that could reduce the payback period on the solar system to seven years; without the grant, the energy savings will recoup the cost in about 15 years, he estimates.

In an area blessed with what Hedin characterizes as the "A+ soil" essential for organic growing, the farm produces about 40 varieties of fruits and vegetables for distribution to natural food retailers, major grocers, wholesalers, and more than a thousand CSA members located mostly in the Twin Cities but also throughout the Upper Midwest. When considering small-scale, sustainable farming, "many people have little concept of how productive an acre can be," says Hedin. Last July he planted just under 10 acres of "storage carrots," designed for winter storage. In October, he picked 100 tons of carrots - a 10-ton-per-acre harvest.

 Even with mechanized harvesting, though, raising vegetables is still a labor-intensive enterprise. "The carrots are picked by a machine, but it takes six people to run that machine," Hedin says. Still, Featherstone has enjoyed steady growth - from marketing $18,000 worth of produce in its first year (1996) to $1.4 million–plus in 2012.

For small-scale farmers, marketing savvy has become as important as growing expertise. "Brand identity and organic certification are like a skeleton key to many types of markets," Hedin says. "Over the years we have built our brand. It's not just a logo or concept, but the real value we bring to what we do," based on principles like sustainability, fair labor practices, and community-building. "Those are meaningful things we really value and are trying to create. Then, it's a matter of getting people to buy into it."

Featherstone Farm
Headquarters: Rushford
Inception: 1994
Leadership: Jack Hedin and Jenni McHugh, owners
Revenue: $1.5 million
Description: Grows and markets organic fruits and vegetables