Organic Optimism

How one local farmer is nurturing a growing vegetable business.
Organic farmer Eduardo Rivera, with his daughter.

Making things grow is the easy part of being a farmer, says Eduardo Rivera, who grows organic fruits and vegetables on a 31/2 -acre farm in Grant Township, just west of Stillwater—but of course any farmer will tell you the word “easy” is said tongue in cheek.

“Planning, making sure you sell everything and doing the accounting—those are the difficult parts,” says Rivera, who is starting his fourth season on land he leases from a local farmer. The site is behind Axdahl’s Garden Farm and Greenhouse off of Manning Avenue. He found the land through a local nonprofit, the Farmers Legal Action Group.

Considering the labor-intensive nature of organic farming—done without the aid of chemical fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides—that “easy” term becomes even more relative, but the 34-year-old, who lived in Mexico until age 10, is accustomed to hard work. Rivera’s grandfather taught him how to farm in Zacatecas, Mexico, a state in the north-central part of the country. Rivera and his wife, Sammie, moved from Arizona to the Twin Cities about seven years ago; they have a 7-year-old daughter.

Rivera has built a sustainable venture by “doing this from an entrepreneurial mindset,” he says. He began the business with a five-year plan. After this year, he hopes to have raised enough capital to buy his own land and would eventually like to open a farm-to-table restaurant.

Given the dominance of chemical-based agriculture, organic-certified land isn’t easy to come by. Before opening Sin Fronteras (“without borders” in English), Rivera farmed in North Branch and Hugo, Minn. The best thing about his Grant Township location: “It’s definitely a plus being close to the cleanest river in Minnesota,” he says.

The mix of crops, which changes every season, has included purple and Thai basil, pepper varieties, peas, oats, garlic, buckwheat, rainbow chard, carrots in five colors, several types of cherry tomatoes, parsley, lemon verbena, indigenous herbs, spinach and various lettuces. The choice of peppers was easy. When Rivera began farming on his own, he “wanted to grow things I was comfortable with. I grew up eating them, and I knew how to market them,” he says.

In place of chemicals, Rivera uses a number of eco-friendly techniques to conserve and replenish the soil, and control weeds and pests. To fertilize, Rivera uses pelletized turkey manure and a fish emulsion. To help control weeds, he plants strips of flowers around the crops. To control pests, he breeds predatory wasps, which feed on insect eggs and larvae, and also applies neem oil, which is made from an evergreen tree that grows on the Indian subcontinent.

In the fall, he plants cover crops such as buckwheat, winter rye, sorghum, Sudan grass, peas and oats. Following a four-year crop rotation is also important to ensure that he doesn’t plant the same crops in the same locations in consecutive years.

Rivera uses a tractor for planting, and, when necessary, a Rototiller and a heavy-duty mower to collect the cover crops. But most of the harvesting is done by hand, with the help of four part-time employees. Rivera irrigates plants when the area goes at least a week without any rainfall—but that hasn’t been a problem lately, with abundant rainfall the past three seasons.

About 60 percent of Sin Fronteras’ business is wholesale; Rivera delivers to restaurants and food co-ops twice a week, including Surly Brewing and Bar La Grassa. He sells the rest through a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program. In 2016, he had 20 CSA subscribers, most of whom are minority families.  

After all of the painstaking planning, the weather is still the great unknown.

“A lot of it depends on your belief,” he says. “You’re got to trust you are going to have a good year, and be ready.”

Farmers Legal Action Group

FLAG is a nonprofit law center dedicated to providing legal services and support to family farmers and their communities, in order to help keep family farmers on the land.