Building a strong local food system

I’ve been an organic gardener for about 3o years now, and have grown lots of my family’s veggies, herbs and berries over those years (more in some years, less in others). 15x2ft_EatLocalBannerI love digging in the dirt, and the satisfaction of savoring the literal fruits of my labor.

In addition, I have long believed that there are multiple social, economic and environmental benefits to a robust local food system. Northfield’s local food system has been getting stronger in recent years, with the establishment of Just Food and several community-supported agriculture (CSA) farms, and the continuing success of the Northfield Farmers’ Market. Anne and I buy a lot of local food (grains, beans, flours, cheese, other dairy products, winter produce, etc.) from Just Food Co-op (of which we are proudly member-owners #4!), and purchase pretty much all of our meat from local farmers (most recently, chickens from the Rural Enterprise Center’s Pollo de Campo and buffalo from Johnson’s Buffalo Ranch.

When the snow lies deep and the thermometer plunges, it becomes harder, but not impossible, to eat lots of local food. One traditional way to eat lots of local foods through long northern winters was to store root crops in a root cellar. Anne and I lived in an old farmhouse near Fox and Circle Lakes for a couple of years about 20 years ago, where I had a roughly one-half acre garden. The farmhouse basement included an enclosed root cellar, where I stored hundreds of pounds of potatoes, onions, other root crops and winter squash. It was tremendously satisfying to head down to the root cellar on a frigid January evening to select veggies for the day’s dinner.

john-fisher-merritt-in-winter-squash-room-of-root-cellar-webI’ve recently been thinking a lot, in conjunction with planning for Buffalo Commons Cohousing, about what it would take to build and maintain a sizeable root cellar for storage of both my own and other locally-produced winter crops. My research led me to a pioneer of the Minnesota CSA movement, John Fisher-Merritt of Food Farm (near Wrenshall, Minnesota, about 15 miles south of Duluth). John and his wife Jane built a 24-foot by 32-foot modern variation on the traditional root cellar with the assistance of a sustainable agriculture grant from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture in 2000. A computer-controlled ventilation system allows three different storage rooms to provide ideal storage conditions for different root crops with minimal energy input.

I took a road trip to pick John’s brain and tour his root cellar yesterday. (I also came home with about 30 pounds of excellent organic potatoes, carrots, turnips and parsnips.) Click here for a slideshow. I’m contemplating developing a business plan to build and operate a similar root cellar here in Northfield. Stay tuned or give me a shout if you’re interested in learning more, partnering, whatever??….


  1. Posted January 9, 2009 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

    Wonderful idea! We had a root cellar, or close-enough, at our old house, which was built in the teens, but I had such a small garden I never made use of it.
    A related question: I’ve heard people store their carrots in the basement in buckets of sand. Frankly, I have no idea where one would get a modest amount of sand. I assume it’s available by the cubic yard or some other large scale from a landscaping company, and I don’t think I should take home buckets of sand from a local lake. Can you advise me? (I’ve never grown more than a handful of carrots, but I might someday…)

  2. Posted January 11, 2009 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    Storing carrots in sand is a time-honored method, Penny. You can get sand from a landscaping company, (or by the 50-pound bag at Menards). You’d want to do it in the coldest corner of the basement, as the optimum conditions for storing carrots are 32 degrees F and 90% humidity, which you’re not going to get in your basement. The colder, the better, anyway.

    There’s a good table showing optimum conditions for a variety of crops in a root cellaring document from the University of Alaska: see page four of

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