These Farmers Connect South Dakotans with Garden-Fresh Vegetables

Sep 24, 2020

Vine-fresh tomatoes. Freshly dug potatoes. You don’t have to have a green thumb to enjoy garden-fresh vegetables. In South Dakota communities large and small, there are gardeners willing to sell their produce. SDPBs Lura Roti has this story.

“It’s just a shift in mindset from being a state that’s raising a lot of commodity crops and livestock, to a state that’s thought about producing the food that we eat here,” says Kari O’Neill.

Kari O’Neill is the SDSU Extension Community Vitality Program Manager. For a little more than a decade, she has watched the local foods movement grow and gain momentum in the state. And she has provided programming to support many growers as they work to produce food products that can turn a profit.  

“People are finding if they truly want to earn a living from raising local foods, there are ways to do that,” says O’Neill.

It all started for Stephanie Cavenee when a friend wanted to start a farmer’s market in Miller. Along with cattle, corn and soybeans, Cavenee also raises vegetables. She was gardening anyway, so she decided to raise a little extra to help her friend out. That was eight years ago. Although it’s not a big money maker, her garden does pay for itself. And Stephanie says its rewarding. 

“I got hooked on it. I enjoy going out and visiting with people and bringing them a premium product. … It’s fun to visit with the other vendors and the customers. You get helpful information from other vendors as far as gardening tips and recipe tips from your customers,” says Cavenee.

Much more social than conventional farming, Cavenee says raising vegetables to sell at the Miller Area Farmers Market is also more work.

“Your crops and your cattle kind of have seasons where your’re doing more stuff with them. With the garden, once you put it in, you’re doing a lot more tending to it constantly,” says Cavenee.

And like the plants they are tending, growing food for profit is always evolving, explains Nancy Kirstein.

“As entrepreneurs, and as farmers in particular, we always have to be adapting to the environment. Not only the weather and the growing conditions, but also just kind of customer demand,” says Kirstein. 

Together with her husband, Jeff, Nancy owns and operates Good Earth a community supported agriculture farm near Lennox. 

“The way that a CSA works,” explains Kirstein, “is you as a shareholder buy into the farm before the season starts. And generally, we’re done selling shares before we start planting. And the idea behind that is that we know exactly how much to plant and who to plant for. And then we have that literal seed money.”

In exchange, the Kirsteins provide their shareholders with a variety box full of fresh vegetables throughout the growing season.

“Over the years we’ve kind of honed in on what we think people will like and what they don’t,” Kirstein says. “There were some years where we were growing things like rutabaga, which grew really well, but wasn’t really popular with the CSA – plus it’s just a really weird vegetable.”

Like Stephanie Cavenee and Nancy Kirstein allude to, raising vegetables to market direct to consumers or through a farmer’s market takes planning, a lot of work and people skills, says SDSU Extension’s Kari O’Neill.

“It’s not something you can plant and forget about. I mean, you need to think about a garden, or really, any kind of food demands your attention, often,” O’Neill says.  “You also need to like people. You need to want to talk to people and maybe want to answer the same questions over and over. Because people want to hear how you raise your food, what variety is this.”

Seeing where their food is grown is also in demand, Nancy Kirstein explains. For years Good Earth has encouraged their members to visit the farm on Highway 17 near Lennox. This season they put in a pumpkin patch.

“We do enjoy that community aspect of it. And we kind of know too that people are kind of far removed from farm life, …we just really want to be able to share with people whether it’s that nostalgia that they are looking for or the experience of seeing a small farm in action,” says Kirstein.

In addition to picking pumpkins, visitors to Good Earth farm can also gather eggs from the hen house and maybe even help harvest a few squash. 

For gardeners interested in marketing their produce, visit the SDSU Extension website extension.sdstate.edu and click on the Foods tab.