On a warm autumn day, Kim Rockman is busy getting her hands dirty. Dragging a shovel into the planted circles of the Prairie Ally Food Forest, she sets off to dig up some sunchokes.
They’re too small. But once she gets to the potato plants, she finds treasure.
“These are Yukon Gold potatoes, great potatoes this time of year,” Rockman said. “You can eat them right away, or you can actually let them sit out for a while and then store them in your basement for the winter. They’ll last a while.”
The Prairie Ally Food Forest was established in Luverne in 2018. It’s a 5-acre plot of land on the edge of a neighborhood in the southwest Minnesota city, where organizers are cultivating native plants, mostly edible, for residents to harvest for free. Visitors, who are encouraged to take only what they need, might find apples, pears, elderberries and gooseberries. If they bring a shovel, they could find potatoes and turnips — or sunchokes — beneath the soil.
The project was funded in part by the University of Minnesota Extension and Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships.
In addition to running the Prairie Ally Food Forest, Rockman is the executive director of Project Food Forest, a nonprofit organization based in Sioux Falls, S.D., that aims to support the local environment and eliminate food deserts by creating “edible forests” teeming with produce from native plants.
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Creating an established food forest takes time — Rockman said it will take years before Luverne’s residents can fully reap the benefits of what’s planted on the plot.
“One thing about a food forest is, it’s not like a building that you put up in six months and it’s done and that’s it,” Rockman said. “This is a project that you really have to believe in for five, 10, 20 years down the line.”
But she said there are already promising signs that the community is benefiting. One of the pear trees on the property bore hundreds of pounds of fruit this year, she said — most of which was harvested by neighbors.
“We had more folks than ever out picking that,” Rockman said. “It’s such a neat way to share the harvest, to build community (and) to share stories.”
Rock County has a population of about 10,000 people, and Luverne is the only town in the county that has a food shelf, grocery store and farmers market. The U.S. Department of Agriculture classifies Rock County as a food desert, meaning that a significant number of its residents have low levels of access to places that sell healthy and affordable foods. Residents in smaller towns have to travel to Luverne to buy groceries.
It was the overabundance of pears that brought Casey McKenzie and his 13-year-old son, Xavier, to the food forest in August. It’s only a 10-minute walk from their house. He said it’s been a wonderful resource for the community.
“To be able to pick some fresh fruits and vegetables that are maybe some of the more expensive things that you could [buy], instead of having to buy them at the grocery store,” he said, “you could just go down to the food forest and pick some.”
McKenzie said he’s not an avid gardener, but he found himself inspired after his food forest visit to create recipes from fruits he encountered there that he’d never heard of — like pawpaws.
“Maybe it has sort of a ripple effect that goes far beyond directly what the food forest provides, but also the education that it provides to people, as well,” he said.
Especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, with its early demands for canned goods and its ongoing social distancing rules, volunteers are seeing more people visiting the food forest for a little bit of fresh air — while learning about ways to become more flexible in preparing for whatever this year might throw at them.
Erin Hamann, one of the nonprofit’s board members, said she’s seeing the food forest help people in her community become more resilient in the face of all the uncertainty the coronavirus has thrown at people.
“We’ve all been introduced to this feeling, with the pandemic, that this could all come crashing down,” Hamann said. “So, to be able to have a reliable food source is a really comforting thing for a lot of people, knowing that as a community, we can support each other and we can strive and grow and just get through all of this together.”
Once the forest is established, Project Food Forest envisions partnerships with the local food shelf or farmers market to donate produce to further cement sustainable and consistent streams of food access. They also believe that with the free produce, that a young student interested in entrepreneurship might be able to build their own business ideas.
Rockman said she hopes Prairie Ally will eventually become a place where community members can gather, learn how to produce their own foods and become more self-sufficient while nurturing the local ecosystem. Its long-term goal is to provide accessible food — and to inspire the community to think more about things like soil health and its impacts on water resources.
One way it’s doing that, Rockman said, is by planting native plants along the creek that flows into the nearby Rock River. Toward the back of the property is a rolling prairie, with some prairie sunflowers, goldenrod and even stinging nettle, all native to the region.
“We have significant water quality issues in our lakes and streams in this region,” Rockman said. “That riparian buffer helps mitigate some of the issues with runoff. And [for] some of the chemicals that get into the waterway when you have that buffer, it literally acts as a sponge.”
The food forest’s organizers are hoping their work will help local families learn more about what’s in their backyards — and protect the environment by planting native species that are also tasty for supper.
This year, Prairie Ally is offering 25 free edible landscape consultations throughout Rock County, supported by an outside grant. The consultations include physically distanced site visits by Prairie Ally staff; customized plant lists and instructions on care and cooking, so that more residents can learn how to grow their own food.
“They’re learning about this way of gardening and landscaping and they’re rethinking what they’re doing at their own home,” Hamann said. “Instead of putting in traditional landscaping plants, they are coming and looking at examples of what kind of native plants that they can put in that’s not only drought-tolerant ... but it’s also providing an additional benefit of like a food source.”
For her part, Rockman said she would like to see the food forest grow into a hub of food education. But she thinks it can do even more than that.
“If you are working with nature, it will humble you — or, it should humble you,” she said. “There's always something working really well and something not working really well. ... A food forest can draw people from anywhere, but the core of it really is what it can do for the neighborhood. Right around it.”
She said she hopes the project will empower residents, as they learn lessons of resilience and adaptation from nature — whether right outside their door or just down the street.
Hannah Yang is MPR News’ newest regional news reporter. She covers the communities south of the Minnesota River in southwestern Minnesota, from the South Dakota border all the way to Mankato and south to Iowa. She’s new to the region, and would love to hear your stories. Share news tips, ideas or just say hello at @HannahMYang on Twitter, or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.