Over 25 years ago Jack and his wife Jenni McHugh began farming in SE Minnesota. From the start, their mission was to feed people in an environmentally sustainable way. Featherstone was an early adopter of organic farming, a choice that is at the cornerstone of its daily operation. “I believe in organics. It’s a better way to go,” reflected Jack. “I went organic because of the soil. It’s the foundational principle of trying to return agriculture to some kind of natural system, to mimic something closer to the natural order with respect to diversity and microbiology.” For Jack, organic farming promotes health and balance through improved soil quality. This results in a richer product both in terms of taste and nutrition for the consumer while preserving natural resources for future generations.
Jack wanted to grow food that people will use for themselves and their families,“It’s a sacred service to feed people.” The majority of the produce grown on the 140 acres of Featherstone is destined for consumers’ home use. Individual families to benefit from their sustainable agricultural practices. Their produce is enjoyed by more than 1000 summer CSA and 550 winter CSA subscribers. Featherstone now offers a four week spring subscription, which will allow subscribers to enjoy their organically-grown produce nearly year round. Subscribers collect their boxes on a weekly (spring and summer) or bi-weekly basis (winter) at drop sites throughout the Twin Cities, Rochester, Winona, and LaCrosse.
In addition to their CSA and wholesale accounts, Featherstone also stocks co-ops in the same communities that enjoy their CSA deliveries. Their produces is also available at Whole Foods Stores throughout the Midwest. Featherstone grows dozens of different vegetables in their fields and high tunnels. Everyone has their own favorite, but their carrots and heirloom tomatoes have particularly strong fan bases.
When Jack first started farming he and his wife spent the spring and summer in Minnesota at their initial farm in Winona County. They spent the winters working at farms in Sacramento, California, “We were just getting started and had to pay the bills.” While Jack was able to follow this annual migration with his wife and young son, this experience gives him a sense of empathy for the familial strain that many of Featherstone’s international seasonal workers face.
In recent years, Featherstone has focused on crops that are less susceptible to disease and to Minnesota’s sometimes unpredictable weather cycles. Root crops and winter squashes help them to be more financially stable. “If the general public understood the challenge of farming in a climate with rain, they would understand why local foods cost more than foods grown in California,” explained Jack. “Most of what you see in a conventional grocery store is grown in the arid west where these crops have never seen one drop of rain. When you only irrigate, the climate conditions are much more predictable and less risky to grow things.”
Jack credits the robust rich soil of the current Featherstone site with much of their success. The Waukegan loam soil native to river floodplains of Minnesota’s Driftless region allows them to grow a tremendous variety of organic produce. A University of Minnesota Soil Agronomist, Nic Jelenski, confirmed that the Featherstone Farm combination of Waukegan silt loam in a well-drained floodplain is extraordinarily unique in the State.
Being an active steward of this unique soil is a personal mission for Jack. “We need to take a richer view of soil resources. It would be good to have more of a plan to identify and protect the best land to give local foods a better chance. There ought to be specialty protections for rich farmland just like there are for wetlands.”
From the early 1990s when Featherstone began with 20 CSA subscribers until now with the establishment of high tunnels to extend the growing season and climate-controlled warehouses to store their winter crops, Featherstone has been a joyfully hard journey for Jack. “Farming is a hard life. I love it. I love how there is always something new. We’ve almost lost our farm a couple of time and our customers and community rallied because they were determined not to let our farm fail.”
He’s optimistic about the future of Minnesota farming, “There are so many great young CSA farms and farmers out there. I have nothing but admiration for them.”
His personal favorite produce? Their carrots. There’s something special about them—in large part due to being grown in the rich Waukegan soil rather than sand as you’d find at many large producers. One possibility is to pair their carrots with some local honey for a delightfully glazed result like in this recipe from Delish.
Jack also favors their buttercup squash, roasting it for several hours at 250 degrees. Think of it as a sous vide squash. It’s wonderfully tender. When he’s not enjoying his own produce, you’ll find Jack snacking on fresh ground almond butter from the People’s Food Co-op in Lacrosse, “There’s no better snack in the world than a rice cake with almond butter and a couple of satsumas.”
Recognizing that not all of their customers have the same enthusiasm for squash and carrots, Featherstone subscribers can rank their preferred produce and even make swaps of the contents of their boxes. Partnering with other local growers and producers like Hoch Orchard and Dupetes Honey celebrates the rich farmland of southeast Minnesota and makes subscribers aware of additional local businesses.
Looking forward, Jack wishes for more on site events for both CSA subscribers and the greater community. He’d love to have a field day to compare notes with neighboring farmers about their practices. In closing Jack stressed that while he is the farm’s founder, “No one should ever get the impression that Featherstone is really me or mostly me. We owe all of our success to a great team of experienced managers and immigrant farmworkers, who do most of the work around here day to day.”