“Farm-to-table” isn’t just a trend at high-end restaurants: it’s also happening at a childcare center in Eden Prairie.
Serving healthy food has always been important to Lisa and Ben Adams, owners of Primrose School of Eden Prairie and Primrose School of Chanhassen. They hire trained chefs to prepare breakfast, lunch, and morning and afternoon snacks at the schools, and a “Primrose Patch” garden at each location is part of the curriculum.
Lisa is also the fourth generation with ties to a family farm near between Watertown and Montrose, Minn. She had always dreamed of using that connection to grow food on the farm to feed the kids at the schools, “but there was no doing it until it became kind of a ‘Covid puppy,’” Ben said.
“It was really that first day of the pandemic, when we got that announcement from the governor, that I was like, ‘Now’s the time,’” Lisa said. Ben added, “It was in May of 2020 that we put a shovel into that piece of dirt with the stated intention of ‘let’s plant a farm’s worth of food to bring to the schools, and the schools can turn it into food.’”
“I still remember that first day, standing out there looking at how big an acre is,” Ben said. “I was like, ‘Oh boy, what have we signed ourselves up for?’”
Lisa explained that they do everything – planting, watering, weeding – by hand. “Literally, in the first year, I carried a five-gallon bucket and a can to water all the plants,” Ben said.
On the rest of the 100-acre Kirchenwitz Farms, Lisa’s dad, Richard Kirchenwitz, and a renter plant corn and soybeans. On Lisa and Ben’s acre, they plant vegetables. “We grow everything, from lettuce and carrots to green beans, tomatoes, peppers, melons, squash,” she said. They also take advantage of rhubarb and apple trees that have been growing on the farm for generations.
Some of the farm’s plants are duplicated in the schools’ gardens, which helps the students connect the plants and the food. “They’re in the garden, and they get so excited, like ‘Yay, we’re harvesting rhubarb, and that means the chef is gonna make me pie!’” Lisa said. Ben added, “Of course, for them, they’re thinking, ‘I harvested that rhubarb. That’s in my pie.’”
The kids enrolled in the Primrose schools range from birth to kindergarten age, and all ages get farm-to-table food. “As soon as you can start eating table food, you get the food,” Lisa said. Favorites include roasted vegetables like squash or green beans; brightly colored soups, like orange butternut squash; and multicolored food, like variegated red and green bell peppers.
“The first day we brought in green beans, everybody lost their minds because nobody’d ever eaten a four-hour-old green bean before,” Ben said.
“Or, we’d go in the morning, and harvest melons and then the kids would have these melons for snack, still warm from the sun, which is fun,” Lisa added.
Ben also mentioned that when a parent had inquired why his child liked the tomato soup at Primrose so much, he had the chef take a picture of its main ingredient: “When you start with 50 pounds of heirloom tomatoes and don’t mess ’em up, your tomato soup is really good,” he said.
Unfortunately, Ben said, most young children are fed with an overreliance on processed food, training their taste buds to like and expect grease and salt. “The farm allows us to start as close to the dirt with the food as we can,” he said. “It’s a great big garden.”
That also means that the entire harvest of a specific vegetable can ripen at the same time. “We’ll have 400 pounds of tomatoes one week, and then we’ll have 1,000 pounds of butternut squash the next,” Ben said.
They don’t try to store up farm bounty to feed the two schools’ current combined enrollment of approximately 250 students over the winter, instead continuing in partnerships with other local farmers to build out the breadth of the menus.
They do spend a lot of time during the off-season trying to think of improvements. Lisa has a lot of experience with gardening and was able to incorporate that knowledge into things like companion plantings, in which vegetables that benefit each other are planted next to each other, and planting specific flowers to attract pollinators. Still, “turning it into a farm was new,” she said.
For example, they laid out the acre the first year in garden plots. “And my father-in-law said, ‘On a farm, you don’t do plots, you do rows,’” Ben said. “And then we watched why, because it makes weeding much easier if you’re walking down the row.”
Other changes for 2021 included growing more things on trellises to make them easier to harvest and increase the yield, and using cattle fencing panels as sturdier support for the tomatoes.
The schools’ chefs were still making tomato soup from those fresh tomatoes in late October of this year. “I’m always surprised at how long you can harvest,” Lisa said.
For as long as they can serve that fresh produce, she and Ben celebrate the seasonality of the farm-to-table food. Ben explained, “We’re not using greenhouses; we’re not using high tunnels; we’re not using irrigation. We’re very much just following the seasons.”