Sharing the Wisdom of the Community: The Evolution of a Network

Click here for "A New Dawn of Farming" (SFA history spanning 1990-1998)

By Kelsey Wulf

Being tasked with writing a brief history of the Sustainable Farming Association was both a joy and something of a burden. How can a person possibly capture the history of such a dynamic and important organization in just a few pages?

In my studies, I pored over SFA archives and dozens of back issues of CornerPost. I quickly learned to eat before reading, as chapter coordinators seem to enjoy waxing on about delicious potluck items over the years. It is quite a unique emotion to lust after a dish served some twenty-odd years ago in a kitchen I've never visited.


The early history of SFA in this article prior to 1998 comes primarily from "A New Dawn of Farming: The Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota's Formation & Growth," published in September of 1998 and written by Audrey Arner and Brian DeVore. For those of you interested in an in-depth and detailed look at the organization's early days I recommend reading through that document. I will not have enough space here to list the names of all those pioneering people who made SFA possible.

What follows is a timeline of highlights of SFA's history. The examples and stories are not meant to be events or experiences that have been judged more important than others; rather, to give readers an example of the breadth of SFA's reach and experience in the Minnesota farm community.

A New Dawn of Farming: The Early Days

The history of the Sustainable Farming Association starts with the Land Stewardship Project. In 1987, LSP launched a Stewardship Farming Program comprised of 25 farm families who were interested in sharing and learning sustainable farming techniques. The farmers in this group also met with researchers from across the state to develop research plans and data regarding sustainable farming practices. This group of family farmers became well-known, and the benefits they were reaping from this farmer-to-farmer network became apparent to other farmers. "A New Dawn" states that "It became clear there was a need for forming some sort of permanent venue that would bring people together in a farmer-to-farmer information sharing type situation." In the winter of 1988, Tammy Keith-Wellstone was hired to begin organizing a farmer-to-farmer network.

A steering committee for this new network had its first meeting on March 23, 1988. They settled on the name the Sustainable Farming Association of Southeast Minnesota. Their goals were to publish an area newsletter highlighting local sustainable farming, sponsor summer farm tours in individual counties, and hold an annual winter meeting and workshop, among other things. They began with 30 dues-paying members.

In 1988, the second SFA chapter, Western, was created with 41 dues-paying members. The following year, SFA's Articles of Incorporation were submitted to the Minnesota Secretary of State, and in March 1990 the bylaws were adopted - SFA was "officially" born as a distinct organization. By 1992 there were four chapters: Western, South Central, Central, and Cannon River.

By 1991, SFA began to move toward becoming a statewide organization. A teleconference with representatives from six chapters convened on Aug. 29, 1991. Shortly thereafter, a chapter handbook was developed to assist farmers in creating their own chapters of SFA, and chapter coordinators began meeting on a quarterly basis.

Individual chapter control was a key component, and "… that structure was no accident," Ralph Lentz, one of SFA's founders, said at the time. "The organization's ability to make inroads into university, government and local communities during the past decade is a significant achievement. And it's been done through an organizational structure that allows individual chapters to remain as independent as possible from the statewide umbrella." Right from the get-go, SFA was designed to give each chapter the freedom to make their own decisions and create their own identity.

March of 1992 saw the first SFA annual meeting with over 100 people in attendance. Each chapter elected two people to serve on the statewide board. This would not change until 2007 when the bylaws were amended to elect only one member from each chapter. In addition, the bylaws would allow for no more than four at-large members with the goal of recruiting people with expertise and knowledge in financial, legal, or marketing areas to increase organizational capacity and fundraising abilities.

By the early 90s, LSP continued to work with SFA chapters, though the relationship was more formalized through the use of contracts between the organizations. LSP staff worked on chapter boards, handled grant writing and administration, fostered planning processes, developed promotional materials, and handled many of the nitty-gritty details that come with community organizing.

A New Dawn states, "As LSP began to wrestle with the policies of government programs and private corporations, the organization inevitably became controversial, making some people uneasy." By 1995, LSP and SFA were struggling with indistinct roles and responsibilities and a general confusion by the public of the difference between the two organizations.

As Mary Ellen Frame wrote in the Spring 1995 CornerPost: "SFA has so far most definitely steered clear of taking a political position. What we are about is sharing of information, ideas and methods. We feel that taking a definite stand on political questions could interfere with our ability to attract a wide spectrum of farmers. My understanding is that LSP, having launched us like a good parent, has worked itself out of a job, as far as SFA is concerned."

According to A New Dawn, "The work of LSP was still ethics, stewardship talk, and policy work. But a sharing network was needed that transcended political boundaries."

1992: From the Network News to CornerPost

In August 1989, the first SFA newsletter, the Network News, was published. The publication known as the CornerPost was the newsletter distributed by the Southeast Chapter, and by August 1992 there were various editions of the CornerPost being published by individual chapters. On October 21, 1992 the first statewide CornerPost was mailed.

The first CornerPost editions included then, as they do now, a wealth of information about upcoming SFA events, community events, and educational opportunities. Issues dating to 2005 are available on the SFA website.

That first issue was dedicated to the late Gerold Redig. Throughout the issues of CornerPost, there are many articles in memory of those farmers who have been our mentors and friends that we have lost over the years. Going through the old editions while researching this article, I find myself above all thankful for the chance to get to know these folks, even if it is just through the pages of a newsletter. I was consistently touched by their dedication to the next generation of farmers by caring for their land and generously sharing their knowledge.

As Mary Jo Forbord said in a 2008 issue of CornerPost, "Let this be the season when educating and mentoring young people is the crop that you add to the diversity you already sow. It's a crop that just might reap rewards beyond what you could imagine." I smile to think of the conversations we would have with these people now, and how we could walk with them through their fields and ours to see how much has changed for the better.

1994: Harvest Festival

The Lake Superior Chapter (formerly known as the Northwest Chapter until 2006, when the name was changed to reflect the many producers and consumers from Wisconsin) launched its premiere event in 1994, the Harvest Festival. For over two decades, the Harvest Festival has served to connect Duluth producers and consumers. Each year at the Bayfront Festival Park in downtown Duluth, the festival features live music, education exhibits, family activities, and, of course, food. The festival and its vendors are all locally sourced and grown. In 2014, the festival partnered with the Twins Port Bridge Festival for an even grander event that drew in upwards of 5,000 people, a new record!

The Harvest Festival was just the start of great things for the LSSFA chapter as soon to follow was "Farmers Take the Stage," a family oriented evening of music, storytelling, contests, and overall entertainment showcasing the many hidden talents of farmers usually kept between themselves and their livestock. As a spin-off, "Farmers Take the Stove" started in 2004, a fundraising dinner grown and cooked by chapter members. "Farmers Take the Stove" provides an opportunity for community members to truly taste how darn good local, seasonal produce can taste, particularly when it is cooked by our neighbors. In 2005, LSSFA launched yet another successful program, the Urban Farm Tour, which demonstrates the opportunities for farmers at any scale to grow food whether they are backyard chicken coops, community gardens, or miniature orchards.

As if that weren't enough to keep LSSFA busy, they also work in partnership with LSP to facilitate the Lake Superior Farm Beginnings program. Long time organizer Cree Bradley explained in a 2008 issue of the CornerPost, "The LS Farm Beginnings program is a farmer-taught educational training and support program designed to help people evaluate and plan their farm enterprises. Students of farm beginnings are involved in hands-on learning focused on practical skills in sessions taught by successful farmers."

SFA has taken under its wing a similar program: the Sustainable Food Production (SFP) program. SFP was initially a one-year diploma program through M State Fergus Falls but was tragically discontinued after three short years. Thankfully, SFA took the program under its umbrella in 2013, and the program offers often sold-out short courses on topics like Deep Winter Greenhouses and small ruminant husbandry as well as an intensive Farm Skills 101 semesters.

1998: Minnesota Dairy Initiative

The Minnesota Dairy initiative was launched in 1998 under long-time SFAer Jeremy Lanctot, with the goal of assisting organic and grass-based dairy farmers in making well-informed decisions to enhance their farm's profit, quality of life, and benefit to the environment. SFA Livestock & Grazing Coordinator Kent Solberg continues to work with MDI as a regional coordinator, working with producers to answer specific operational questions and serve as a resource to other coordinators. SFA's role in MDI focuses on providing resources and information to start, transition to, or improve any aspect of grass-based and organic cow, goat, and sheep dairies.

2005: GrazeFest

The first official GrazeFest was held August 13, 2005, at Mary Jo and Luverne Forbord's Prairie Horizons Farm. It should be mentioned that while 2005 was the first official GrazeFest, workshops of the same ilk had been held since SFA's birth. GrazeFest was "… designed to help educate farmers and consumers about the benefits of grass-based production practices" (CornerPost 2008). Over the last ten years, SFA's GrazeFest has evolved into a series of events that bring together conservationists and consumers for learning and ideas exchange through workshops, field days, bus tours, and demonstrations, all with the goal of equipping graziers with the foundations they need to provide the nutritional and environmental benefits of pasture-raised foods.

GrazeFest began as a two-day workshop hosted by three families but has since expanded to be an on-going series that includes topics such as farm profitability, stockpiled forages, outwintering, and soil fertility.

A highlight each year is SFA's annual appearance at the Mill City Farmers Market in Minneapolis, where the urban community gets a chance to meet farmers raising pastured livestock. They are able to learn directly from the farmer what the benefits of these grass-raised products are. Visitors also enjoy delectable samples prepared by Mary Jane Miller and even had the chance to rub elbows with the likes of then- Minneapolis mayor R.T. Rybak, who stopped by for a visit in 2009.

In June of 2012, SFA received a grant from the Pasture Project at the Wallace Center to continue the development of GrazeFest. Ever striving to embrace the most up-and-coming practices in rotational and management intensive grazing, SFA continues to expand its related programs. In 2012, SFA co-hosted a workshop specifically for veterans in Minnesota that featured the use of draft animals in a profitable farm operation. 2014 saw the first-ever Midwest Soil Health Summit, a two-day cutting-edge soil health conference that featured renowned soil health experts Gabe Brown and Richard Bieber. Over the years, SFA events have brought some incredible cattle, grazing and soil health speakers to Minnesota including Greg Judy, Joel Salatin, Allan Nation, Jim Gerrish and Gearld Fry.

2005: Farmer Emeritus Award

In 2005 SFA began presenting the Farmer Emeritus Award, which "is not about what a farmer did last year, today, or what he says he'll do tomorrow. Instead it's about a lifetime of learning, patience, commitment, stewardship, and passion for the land and farming." (CornerPost) "Emeritus" in this case certainly doesn't mean retired or retiring, despite the fact that some award recipients have been well into their 90s. In fact, I was once told by an SFA member that, "Farmers don't retire. We just die out in the field and then they throw some dirt over us." The first award was presented in 2005 to SFA founding father Ralph Lentz and continues to help SFA recognize the incredible achievements of the farmers in our community.

2006: The Garlic Festival

The Minnesota Garlic Festival: it seems impossible to think that prior to August 12, 2006, Minnesota didn't have this funky-smelling celebration. Festival founding father Jerry Ford said in a New York Times article that garlic "… has funk value. An onion's an onion, but garlic is like the Grateful Dead of vegetables." The Garlic Festival does indeed have funk value, from the delicious smells of garlic cooked in various dishes at the Great 'Scape Cafe to the entertainment with musicians ranging from Mu Taiko Drummers to bagpipers. The Peculiar Pragmatic Promenade did not join the festival until 2009, but it is difficult to imagine the festival without it. The Garlic Festival is above all a family-oriented event that uses "stealth education" (as Jerry calls it) to teach folks about sustainable agriculture by connecting the people to their food and their farmers.

In its first year, the Garlic Festival drew 700 people to the Wright County Fairgrounds, the first home of the festival. The festival has since changed locations to its current happy home at the McLeod County Fairgrounds in Hutchinson and continues to grow in popularity, as last year 3,200 people attended. It is not unusual for vendors to sell out of garlic, which can happen early as I have personally witnessed festival-goers sneaking in before the official start time, only to scurry away moments later with huge grins and 30 pounds of garlic clutched to their chests.

My first year at Garlic Festival I found myself enjoying a bowl of garlic ice cream while having a very serious conversation about mycorrhizal fungi with a person dressed head-to-toe as a goat (as part of the Narren of New Ulm). If that isn't an accurate description of the Garlic Festival experience, then I don't know what is.

2010: Rebranding

In the summer of 2010, SFA began a rebranding journey, including a new logo. CornerPost also saw changes in 2010 as it dropped from quarterly publications to one issue annually. Not wanting to lessen our communication but still save on costs, a new and improved version of our e-newsletter, SFA Connect, was launched for biweekly delivery to keep members in the loop.


These past projects and milestones represent big moments in the history of SFA but they only tell a few pages of our story. The real milestones in SFA are not the things listed here, but things you all have witnessed on your own farms and in your own communities. Ruminants rotationally grazed in thoughtfully installed fencing, cover crops improving your soil tilth, Festival of Farms, community partnerships, friends new and old at the dinner table. "A New Dawn of Farming" tells us that SFA's original mission statement was written up by Mike Noble who, struck by inspiration in his milking parlor, scribbled it down on a scrap of paper in 1993. Today, that little milk-made gem of magnificence is no longer our official mission statement, but it still rings true: "The Sustainable Farming Association recognizes the wisdom within ourselves and our communities to find ways of farming that are economically viable and ecologically sound. In the spirit of cooperation we offer mutual support and fellowship to strengthen our families and communities. Our diversity enhances the sharing of resources, new ideas, and approaches to farming."