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Schooling at Gale Woods Farm

Andi Anderson, the program coordinator at Gale Woods Farm, shows off the new calf that will grow up to take her mother’s place as the milking demonstration.

A visit to Gale Woods Farm near Mounds reaps a whole litany of rewards. An adult can shop in the small store for humanely raised meat, eggs right out from under the hen, fresh produce and fiber—the woolly kind from a sheep. A child can get off a school bus and step into a working farm with hands-on education. A neighbor can weigh and pick up his or her CSA allotment. A fisherman can fish from their dock; and a hiker or biker can cover 2.2 miles of crushed limestone trails surrounded by lakefront and pastoral views. And a bride and groom can get married there.

The stats for Gale Woods Farm are equally impressive: Last year staff donated 2,360 pounds of produce to local food shelves, in addition to providing 40 Community Supported Agriculture shares with 10 to 20 pounds of produce each from mid-June to mid-October, along with a Saturday farmers market and a store; and supplying two high school cafeterias with produce for lunches and a busy restaurant with the right to say they serve local produce. 

Andi Anderson says that the types of subjects they cover in the teaching garden are much more culturally aware than in years past. For instance, they need to respect Ramadan when holding cooking classes and picking fruits and vegetables. 

All from two acres. 

But even more impressive is that their working farm also serves as curriculum for numerous schools that send busloads of kids daily for a hands-on experience of where our food comes from—from planting, harvest and cooking fruits and vegetables to learning to milk a cow and feed a pig. In May alone, the farm accommodated 3,000 school children.

And it’s all done with five full-time employees, six part-time and seasonal youth workers and volunteers. 

And in their spare time, staff runs summer camps, teaches cooking (such as making lard and preserving foods) and fiber classes highlighting the wool they shear off their flock of sheep.

The farm is part of the Three Rivers Park District in Hennepin County. The 410-acre property was donated to the district in 2001 with the strict caveat that it remain a working farm. About 100 acres are actually farmed, said Andi Anderson, program coordinator for the farm. The Gale family owned the land for decades, and while the last members of the family to live there weren’t active farmers, they did want to honor their family’s heritage. The structure of the original barn is still there, along with the house, which has been converted into offices. 

Melissa Hochstetler, the CSA coordinator, explained that they had to limit the number of agriculture shares they sold in order to have enough produce for a Saturday market and the store. CSA participants pack the food themselves, weighing out the proper amount of lettuces, etc., which not only frees up staff time but allows them to connect with their customers. 

On her drive home from work, Hochstetler also will bring leftover produce to a food shelf in St. Louis Park. 

Next to a cage of baby chicks is an incubators with ready-to-hatch eggs. 

The store sells the meat butchered off-site, from bacon and brats to leaf lard to bone marrow and ground suet. 

Every species has a job. The chickens lay eggs and follow the cows around eating bugs out of the “pies” they leave behind before they turn into flies. “The chickens are part of our pest management plan,” Anderson says. 

Two cats are the other layer of the farm’s pest control program. Their job is keeping the mice population down. 

Pigs are meat, but they also fertilize dormant fields and their natural rutting turns over the soil, preparing it for the next planting. They’re also a kid magnet. On the day we toured the farm, six or so baby pigs were playing chase with each other. Anderson gave lots of piggy belly rubs, which early in their lives they’ve learned to expect from humans—except for the ones who preferred to use their food dishes to scratch themselves. To keep the pigs entertained, they often will give them a bowling ball. “It’s the only thing they won’t destroy,” she says. 

The two guard dogs, Great Pyrenees, patrol the grounds to keep minks from attacking the turkeys and the coyotes from going after the sheep. “It’s their presence that scares off predators,” Anderson says, about their 140 pounds of woolly whiteness. “When they shed their undercoat we kid that it looks like we blew up a sheep,” Anderson says, petting the huge affable dog  that one child mistook for a polar bear. 

“They’re a ‘gateway animal,’” Anderson explains because young children are familiar with dogs, but not with farm animals. They’re also team players.
One dog’s mother, Delia, was once called into duty to play the part of a unicorn in a story the instructors were telling the kids. Delia is still embarrassed about having to wear the hat with a horn, Anderson says, laughing.

The sheep, for their part, provide both meat and wool for yarn.  

The milk cow used for demonstrations just had a baby and some surgery so she’s been replaced temporarily with a wooden cutout equipped with milkable udders. The beef cows are, well, future beef.

One of the most difficult parts of the job, Anderson says, is not getting kids to eat vegetables, but conveying the hard message that animals are food. That’s why staff doesn’t name the animals, except for the milk cow and the dogs. When kids ask what an animal’s name is, Anderson says, she tries not to answer. If forced, she’ll reply with something along the lines of “G4.”

Melissa Hochstetler, CSA coordinator, says their seasonal produce is prepared in two high schools in the area, which puts up signs to let students know where their food is coming from.

The visits don’t make kids vegetarians,  but does make them want to only eat meat from animals raised well, she says. And while it’s hard for parents to get their kids to eat vegetables, Hochstetler says they sometimes have to tell kids not to eat too many purple kohlrabi. 

The farm itself has one of the prettiest settings known to nature. Behind the classic red barn are rolling green hills dotted with grazing black cows. A teaching garden has a mud kitchen, which is a dirtier sandbox equipped with kitchenware for young imaginations to cook in. A Girl Scout troop left behind a clever windchime made from spoons and three large colorful frames for the garden. 

Unlike other institutions, the farm doesn’t have to make money. As part of the Three Rivers Park District, tax dollars help fund it. The mission of the district is to “promote environmental stewardship through recreation and education in a natural resources-based park system. Gale Woods Farm is just a small portion of its 27,000 acres of parks and trails.

Unlike restaurants and other foodservice venues, Gale Woods doesn’t have a lot of turnover, or trouble finding season help. Although the challenges of its summer workforce is different from most places. Since their farm hands are 14 to 16, many of them need a ride to work, so the farm has a bus that picks them up from predetermined stops. 

While Anderson runs the programing portion of the farm, Tim Reese runs the farm program. But they’re all crossed trained and jump in and out of each other’s roles to keep the programs running. 

It’s a lot of work, but in an age when people are losing sight of where their food comes from, it’s nice to introduce the old ways to new little people. 

Gale Woods Farm was donated by the Gale Family to the Three Rivers Park District with the stipulation that it would always be a working farm.

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