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Couple helps promote local foods

Mike and Jody Lenz are pictured with their kids (left to right) Claudia, Jonas and Malcom.

Ag physics question of the day: What happens when an object in motion meets an immovable force?

First, meet the object in motion:

"I just felt I needed to farm. I had this undying need to farm," recalled Jody Lenz recently while sitting in the kitchen of her farm near Star Prairie.

Now, the supposed immovable force:

"I wanted nothing to do with farming," said her husband Mike with an equal amount of certainty.

Today the Lenzes are in their third year of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farming -- a system where eaters buy a "share" in a farm and in return get a weekly delivery of naturally raised produce throughout the growing season.

They've purchased part of a former dairy farm near Star Prairie, established a walk-in cooler in the garage for vegetables and are planning on using the ruins of a dairy barn as the basis for a new greenhouse.

"I'm ready to be a full-time farmer," said Mike, 40, as their three children -- Jonas, 2; Malcolm 5; and Claudia, 7 -- played around the couple.

What happened?

Twice-a-month during the winter of 2006-07, the Lenzes made the six-hour round trip from western Wisconsin to Winona in southeast Minnesota to attend classes offered by the Land Stewardship Project's Farm Beginnings program.

During the course, established farmers and other ag professionals shared insights on low-cost, sustainable methods of farming. The course also provided workshops on goal-setting, financial planning, business plan creation, alternative marketing and innovative production techniques. In addition, class participants had an opportunity to network with established farmers and utilize them as mentors.

"The networking through Farm Beginnings is phenomenal," said Mike. "Once you say, 'Farm Beginnings,' it opens up all sorts of doors."

Beginning this fall, a new set of classes will be held in River Falls, marking the first time the course has been offered in the region. Classes will also be held in the central Minnesota community of Spicer.

For more than a dozen years, Farm Beginnings has been helping launch the farm careers of people like the Lenzes. Some 380 people have graduated from the Minnesota and western Wisconsin region Farm Beginnings program, and 60 percent of them are actively farming, according to class data.

Class participants range from those who have some farming experience but are looking for a change, to those who are new to agriculture.

Jody Lenz, 35, grew up on a dairy farm in northeast Wisconsin but, like many farm kids, the yearn to get back to the land didn't strike her until she had started another career. She eventually met Margaret Pennings and Dan Guenthner, who operate Common Harvest, a pioneering CSA farm in Osceola. Common Harvest has hosted Farm Beginnings field days, and Guenthner recommended the Lenzes take the class.

"I just had to do something to deal with this desire to farm, even if it was just take the Farm Beginnings class. I filled out the paperwork and I don't think Mike talked to me for two weeks," Jody conceded with a laugh. "He said, 'I don't want to be broke all my life.'"

That first class, plus follow-up sessions on established, successful farms, laid to rest Mike's fear that to farm is to take a vow of poverty. Jody said she also needed a dose of practicality to balance her passion for farming.

"I needed that business knowledge," she said.

Before taking the class, the Lenzes didn't know what farming enterprise they wanted to pursue. But they had always had a big garden and the class helped the couple decide that CSA farming was a good fit for them.

Since graduating from Farm Beginnings, they've dipped their toes into the CSA farming system gradually. While still living in the Town of Dresser during the summer of 2007, they plowed up their own yard as well as a neighbor's, and sold 10 shares in their trial CSA.

That went well so they bought the former dairy farm (it was originally 160 acres, but the Lenzes bought 10 acres along with the house and outbuildings).

During the summer of 2008 they doubled their CSA share offering and expanded their plantings.

As they get their operation started, having a close relationship with Common Harvest has been invaluable, they said.

"No matter how many times I visit Dan and Margaret's, I learn something new," said Mike.

In their third season of CSA farming, the Lenzes are holding their membership at a little less than 40 for now, but plan on expanding to 100 eventually. They do deliveries to Dresser and Somerset, as well as on-farm pick-up for members.

Their operation, Threshing Table Farm (www.thresh, is also a partner in Buy Fresh Buy Local Saint Croix River Valley, an initiative that is helping promote production and consumption of local foods.

"We really want our market to be in this area," said Mike. "People out here need to eat good food, too."

To register for the 2009-10 Farm Beginnings class in River Falls, call the Land Stewardship Project at 507-523-3366 or visit