Open Arms of Minnesota

A Different Kind of Farm

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By Ben Penner, Farm Director

Almost every day I get to explain to longtime Open Arms volunteers and donors, as well as new friends and community members, how Open Farms is a different kind of farm. It’s a lot of fun to tell people how it’s a bit like a CSA, but we don’t sell shares, and it’s kind of like a traditional farm, but we don’t use chemicals to grow our vegetables, herbs and flowers. And since it’s an Open Arms program, it is also a part of a nonprofit nutrition organization serving people who are ill — probably the only farm of its kind in America. So there is always plenty to talk about.

I enjoy this conversation because it gets to the heart of the current national conversation about our food system, the Farm Bill and healthy eating. I love farming, and I love to talk about farming with, well, almost anyone who will listen, but I have noticed over the past few years that the conversation has become, shall we say, strained. We seem to have folks talking past one another, yelling: “Conventional! Traditional! Agriculture!” And others yelling: “Organic! Small! CSA!” When did all this shouting start?

We all — and I include myself in this — need to take a step back and listen to the needs of our neighborhoods, our communities, our nation and the world and then discern the best way — or ways — forward. The complexity and scope of our food system is pressing us to rise to the challenge in creative ways. The question arises: how can we discern the best system or combination of systems for healthy living? This is no Utopian scheme, whether technological, neo-agrarian, individualistic or communitarian. This is first and foremost knowing something about the communities and cultures we inhabit, and then setting about providing the right food on the most appropriate scale. For Open Arms, this means our clients and our local community. Unlike much of the conversation around food and especially farming techniques, this isn’t limited to political action but rather social action on a scale that fosters health. To accomplish this task even on this relatively limited scale will take more than mud-slinging.

That is what I like about the conversation at Open Arms. As a nutrition organization dedicated to providing healthy food for people living with life-threatening illnesses, we are a microcosm of the conversation that can happen all over the country. In our day-to-day work, our focus as an organization must be on providing the right food, in the right amount for the health of our clients.

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