By Jennie Zeitler
Minnesota’s Farm to School program kicked off in 2006, with many farms across the state supplying produce to their local school districts. Dick Geers in Paynesville joined the program in 2011.
Farm to School programs connect farms with school cafeterias and classrooms. A comprehensive program includes farm-fresh, locally-grown produce on the school menu and students learning about local food and agriculture.
“The Sartell School District called and asked about buying potatoes for one meal,” he said. “My potatoes combined with another farmer’s were enough to feed students at four schools.”
Geers grew up in Richmond and married a St. Martin gal, Theresa Thomes. They raised a daughter and a son in the Twin Cities.
“About 25 years ago, we bought this farmstead from an old friend,” Geers said. “We cleaned it up and when we retired we built a new house and moved out here.”
Geers had already been gardening on the land when he set up Dick’s Garden Variety about eight years ago.
He has three different garden plots set up, totalling about an acre. He has taken produce to both the Paynesville and Cold Spring farmers markets for a number of years.
“We used to do the Litchfield market too, but stopped that because of a conflict with the Cold Spring market,” he said. “When you do one more market, you have to do twice as much stuff.”
He grows potatoes, onions, tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers in large volume. There are several unique things he works at producing.
“One of my pet projects is raising Romaine and Butterhead head lettuce,” said Geers. “The hot weather makes it a challenge.”
Geers does not shy away from a challenge, however. He also tries to raise cantaloupe and honeydew melons.
“I try to raise cauliflower by starting seeds in May,” he said. “I transplant it to the ground in July, trying to work around the hottest weather, which turns the heads brown.”
He maintains about 150 asparagus plants.
Geers uses a large tiller and a walk-behind tiller. But there is still a lot of hand-weeding, he said.
After Geers’ one-time partnership with Sartell schools, he started working with Paynesville schools.
“First I went into a fifth-grade class and talked for an hour about raising tomatoes,” he said. “The kids asked many interesting questions.”
Geers went back a second time to assist the students in planting tomato seeds.
“They nurtured the plants for about three to four weeks, then brought them out to the farm and planted them,” he said.
While at the farm, Geers offered the students a taste of fresh asparagus.
“The majority of them liked it and came back for more,” Geers said.
The following fall, the same students — then in sixth grade — came back to harvest the tomatoes. They were delivered to the school cafeteria to be processed for the school lunch program.
“They were very impressed with the tomatoes they’d planted,” Geers said. “The person who orders food for the district said they were really proud to bring in those tomatoes.”
For the past two years, Geers has been supplying the district with tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers.
“People tell me, ‘It’s nice to see the schools interested in teaching about healthy food,’” he said. “Little yellow grape tomatoes are sweet and are starting to catch on. The kids really like them.”
The number of Minnesota public school districts engaged in Farm to School rose from fewer than 20 districts in 2006, to 145 districts in 2011. A variety of private, parochial, charter and tribal schools also have Farm to School programs in place. The nearly 900 public schools that are currently engaged in Farm to School serve 558,000 students, or 68 percent of Minnesota’s K-12 population.
Geers is not a certified organic producer but tries to use natural pesticides sanctioned by Organic Gardening magazine.
“I use composted manure for an in-ground fertilizer,” he said.
In spring, he sprays a mix that includes seaweed “to get the microorganisms working in the soil,” said Geers.
He hopes to continue for many years to come.