“It tastes like sunshine,” Farm Program Director of Grow and Gather Farm Anna Zimmer said as she put a yellow cherry tomato in her mouth, straight off the vine.
The sweet fruit that pops open as you bite into it is one of the many plants grown on the 450 acres of Camp St. Croix land.
The farm takes up a part of those acres and every angle of it is geared toward education.
On the north side of the property sits the farm.
A bright red barn hosts a kitchen that recently has been the learning landscape for classes about farm-to-table meals, where children partake in creating meals from start to finish. They’ll harvest food from the gardens, bring it into the kitchen to wash and chop, and finally cook it up to share as a meal.
The barn is accompanied by pasture land, a new chicken coop, a discovery garden, pizza ovens and the high tunnel greenhouse.
“The land is your connection to food,” Zimmer said. “It’s such a powerful thing to teach.”
In addition to education, access to fresh, clean and nutritious food for all drives the expansion and programming at Grow and Gather.
Last year, the farm produced 6,000 pounds of food and donated a significant percentage of it to area food pantries and backpack programs. This year, Grow and Gather is hoping to harvest 8,000 pounds and continue to donate a large portion of it to serve those facing food insecurity in the St. Croix Valley.
The partnerships and volunteers that work with Camp St. Croix and the Grow and Gather Farm are what make it run, Zimmer said: the Hudson Rotary, individual families, River Valley Charities, the University of Wisconsin-River Falls and the St. Croix Valley Master Gardeners, just to name a few.
It is through grants and volunteer hours from groups and organizations such as these that a recent addition to the farm was made: hydroponic gardens.
Though in the past, the high tunnel greenhouse has allowed Grown and Gather Farm to plant, grow and harvest nine months out of the year, the recent purchase of five hydroponic gardens will now allow them to harvest heads of lettuce year-round.
In the middle of December, the high tunnel greenhouse can reach temperatures of 80 degrees, making growing accessible despite frigid Midwest winters.
The hydroponic gardens, purchased with the generosity of River Valley Charities, are not impacted by weather at all, as they are stationed indoors. Right now, they are being housed in the basement of the Camp St. Croix dining hall.
Each of the five machines can grow 144 heads of lettuce in just under two months.
The machines look like they came straight from a science fiction movie.
The glowing white orbs sit on the ground, humming with trickling water. When they open, the inside of each little pod is lined with individual plants.
All it takes is water and nutrients.
Zimmer, with gracious guidance from one of St. Croix Valley’s master gardeners, John Ramstad, keeps the machines on a rotation. While some are being harvested, another may be getting cleaned and another may be receiving seed transplants.
After a month and a half to two months, the heads of lettuce will be fully grown, ready for harvesting and consumption.
According to Fork Farms, the company that Grow and Gather received its hydroponic systems from, hydroponic gardens use 98% less water and 98% less land than traditional agriculture.
Though it has been a challenge and a learning curve to figure out the new growing system, Zimmer is excited to reach the point of a “well oiled machine.”
When the farm gets the process down and masters the art of growing lettuce in these white capsules, Zimmer looks forward to bringing children and campers in to help in the processes.
The incorporation of hydroponic gardening in the curriculum at Camp St. Croix teaches the alternative and accessible options of sustainable farming and food, Zimmer said.
For the time being, staff are still navigating which types of lettuce will be most successful, timing for harvesting and organizing the operations.
As with the other produce grown at Grow and Gather, the primary recipients of the lettuce will be organizations that serve people experiencing food insecurity in the St. Croix Valley, like the Hudson Area Backpack and Food Program.
Now, instead of only being able to provide produce during nine months of the year, fresh, locally grown lettuce will be available year-round to local consumers who may not otherwise have access.