Farm in the Dell Growing Independence

Garden supervisor Samantha Hotten introduces director Sather’s children, Cliff and Bette, to planting seedlings.

Nancy Edmonds Hanson

The seedlings are sinking their roots at Farm in the Dell north of Moorhead – the kick-off for the tenth productive summer of the 25-acre vegetable and flower gardens planted in pursuit of productive experiences and growing a sense of community.
The seeds of Farm in the Dell were planted in 2012, when a group of parents whose special-needs children were graduating from Moorhead High School. The families were searching for what would come next – a way the young adults could grow in confidence and independence while earning a fair wage. Farm in the Dell was born, part of a national network of similar rural programs offering vocational opportunities. The nonprofit tilled its first gardens that year in Fargo. In 2015, thanks to a generous offer by a rural Moorhead couple, the Red River Valley organization moved to its present site at 7426 40th St. N., about five miles north of the edge of the city.
They’ve been growing ever since. “The farm started with eight or nine ‘garden engineers,’” executive director Anna Sather recounts. “By last year, that had grown to 25, and we’re expecting 30 by the time we’re going full speed ahead later this month.”
Most of the farm’s garden engineers are clients of Heartland Industries, CCRI, the Anne Carlsen School or Community Living Supports in Moorhead. Others may be living at home, brought to the farm by parents who believe that its mission is a good fit for their offspring.
Along with direct support aides from those programs and community volunteers, the engineers are engaged in every aspect of making Dell’s gardens grow. From tilling and planting to rooting out weeds and harvesting tons of nearly everything edible – from beets and broccoli to tomatoes, winter squash and zucchini. They also nurture long rows of annual flowers, along with herbs and everybody’s favorite – strawberries.
Anna notes that they share their rolling harvest with area residents in several ways. One of the most popular is the Farm in the Dell CSA. Payment of a one-time fee permits subscribers to pick up a share of the season’s bounty every week, beginning with the first produce in early summer and ending as frost threatens in October. A full share – a more-than-plentiful portion of whatever’s fresh that week – is $549 for the season, while a weekly half-portion is $399. Subscribers pick up their fresh veggies at the farm, at Scheels Home and Hardware or Salem Evangelical Free Church. Shares of flowers can also be arranged, delivering vividly colored bouquets over a five-week period.
“We’ll start selling produce at our market stand here at the farm on Aug. 1,” she continues. Customers can pull up and pick out exactly what suits their appetites. Or, if they’re the do-it-yourself type, they can also harvest their own produce as each of 25 or so varieties ripens. Independent picking generally takes place from 10 a.m. to noon and from 4 to 6 p.m. On Thursdays in August and the first Thursday in September. Farm in the Dell also provides naturally grown vegetables to area restaurants on a wholesale basis.
The very first U-pick, though, is a special treat for strawberry lovers. Starting when the first crop is ready sometime in June (depending on the weather), customers can fill their own baskets in the farm’s expansive strawberry patch. Demand is fast and furious, so it’s essential to arrive early. At last year’s first U-pick, 300 people showed up, and the berries were cleaned out in an hour.
(For dates and availability of all U-pick opportunities, check the website, or keep an eye on the farm’s Facebook page.)
Anna, who formerly was a member of the YMCA’s marketing team, often brings her children, Cliff, 5, and 3-year-old Bette, to the farm with her. “They pick flowers, eat cherry tomatoes, and chase frogs,” she says.
Though the farm has changed and adjusted over the past 12 years, she says, its mission has stood firm: “Changing disabilities into abilities.” The summer crew of garden engineers work schedules that suit their situations and interests, from several days a week to Monday through Friday. Each is paid more than the minimum wage Minnesota requires of organizations of its size, currently $9 per hour.
Volunteers are always welcome to join the engineers, individually or as church groups, organizations or corporate helpers. Days and times can be arranged on the website.
Fund-raising is an important part of Anna’s job. She points out, “We don’t get any kind of government support. We survive on the sale of our vegetables and flowers, along with contributions from groups and individual donors,” she says. Special events throughout the summer generate both visibility and donations. Among them are Berry Breakfasts on those U-pick occasions and Farm-to-Table dinners, featuring vegetables harvested from their own gardens prepared for diners by the Heart ‘n’ Soul Cafe. Dates have not been finalized for the coming months, but will be posted online and on Facebook as they’re added to the calendar.
Anna describes each working day at the farm: “When our engineers arrive in the morning, we gather for a huddle. We pray, then break out in teams to get our task assignments. Farm in the Dell is a joyful place. Friendship and acceptance!”
“Success here at the farm isn’t based on speed or ability,” she emphasizes. “We appreciate each person as a unique and special child of God. Everyone is equally loved.”

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