The Unsinkable Herb Farmer: Bonnie Dehn
On a rainy day in Andover, the Dehn family farm is so vivid it almost glows. In the fields, giant heads of oak leaf lettuce spread themselves out, gathering the fat drops of water in their leaves; in the pansy shed, red is the standout, lush and velvety; and everywhere, the volunteer dill weed looks splendid, each deep green thread popping in the gray light.
It’s hard to look at something so lovely, so peaceful, and so edible and not succumb to the romance of the farm — unless you happen to be standing next to the farmer. In this case, it’s herb maven and farmers market mainstay Bonnie Dehn. “People say, Oh you’re one of those rich farmers, but we are just trying to make a living for us, for the children, and for the people who work for us,” she says. “It’s a life, not a career. If the year is good, there’s extras that year. If the year is not good, nobody does well, no extras — there are sacrifices.”
That dose of realism belies Bonnie’s energetic and, to a certain extent, joyful dedication to farming: For more than 30 years, she has not only grown and sold vegetables and herbs, but also played an integral role in the Minneapolis Farmers Market, taught people how to cook with herbs, and raised a family of farmers. And when she talks about her life, one doesn’t get a sense of regret. Rather, there’s strong sense that Bonnie was born to this — she was always going to be a farmer.
Bonnie’s family came to Minnesota in the mid-1800s and homesteaded in the Brooklyn Park area, where her grandfather had a farm. There he raised vegetables and Grade A dairy cows, which are used for bottled milk, rather than cheese or butter. “They were farming to be sustainable more than anything,” she says, “but they were able to do a lot of commodities. Hay was a huge commodity when the farmers market started in 1876. In fact, it was nicknamed the hay market.”
Eventually, the Brooklyn Park farm became a part of the Hennepin County park system. In 1950, Bonnie’s father bought the land in Andover that she now farms. At that time, it was all cow pastures and bog. “I grew up on a Grade B farm,” Bonnie says. “Dad had veggies, but he also had cows to milk because I had three sisters and, as he always said, If you’re not busy, you’re going to be in trouble.”
Apparently, if you wanted to take Bonnie or one of her sisters out on a Saturday night during the summer, you had to show up on Friday and help load trucks to go to market.
“So, if you didn’t come to do that,” Bonnie laughs, “you didn’t date any of us. My Bob loaded many a truck before we were married.”
Bob Dehn (below) is definitely a farmer and it’s his smiling face you’ll see in the Dehn’s Garden stall at the Minneapolis Farmers Market every Saturday morning, but it wasn’t always that way — he doesn’t share Dehn’s genetic predisposition to farm. When he and Bonnie started out, he was working in a post office and she was raising their girls, Nora and Jennelle.
Then, in the late 70s, Bob developed Stage IV Hodgkin’s Disease. Although there were other factors, his illness provided a strong reason to return to farming. “I could make a living market farming,” Bonnie says, “and without having to put the girls in daycare; I could keep them with me, no matter what, if something would happen.”
In 1978, they bought the farm from her father and for two summers, Bonnie farmed it without Bob, running between the farmers market and Unity Hospital. “It was terrifying, but you don’t realize it at the time; days just tick by, you know what you have to do and you just do it, that’s it,” she says. “Sometimes, I wonder, What would have happened if it wasn’t that way? Would we have done the farm the way we did it? No, it made us stronger as individuals — I was considered one of the shiest people in high school and I’m no longer that.”
Within five years, the farm was doing well enough to support the Dehns and some employees; it was time to grow. Bob, now fully recovered, quit his job and they rented 160 acres in addition to their 20 — where, for nearly 13 years, they grew close to 200 acres of vegetables, including carrots, cucumbers, lettuce, tomatoes, watermelon, sweet corn, herbs, and peppers. “It was huge,” Bonnie says. “But you were going in circles because you had to work so hard and furious; basically, we just spun our wheels.”
Then they hit a drought year. “Everything we put up on the [160 acres] could not be irrigated, so we lost most of it,” Bonnie says. “It was just pathetic; you could just see the things sizzling out in the hot sun it was so dry — we were not going to do that again. We decided to pull in our wings, work smarter, not as hard, and do it again.”
That’s when they started building greenhouses.
Even back then, and with Bob doing the work, a single greenhouse cost around $40,000, which meant they could only build one a year. So far, they’ve built six hydroponic houses, eight regular dirt houses, one germination and propagation house, and five high tunnel houses.
The greenhouses are remarkable in their ability to produce a high yield, quickly. For example, in the hydroponic house, plants are grown from seed in spun peet moss. Seeds take about two weeks to germinate and then are set in troughs, where water cycles and recycles through, carrying all their nutrition. “We got the troughs at a DEA auction, bless their souls,” says Bonnie.
Hydroponic plants are incredibly clean, but they do tend to have a milder flavor than plants grown in dirt: basil is incredibly sweet and arugula is more nutty, less spicy.
High tunnel greenhouses are also called cold frame because they do not employ a heating or cooling system; the walls pull up or down, as necessary. “More than anything, you are really just protecting the plants from the weather,” says Bonnie. “It gives you a three to six week advantage over winter, and that’s necessary in Minnesota. And, even in that smaller area, you can plant more than in the same square footage outside, because you are feeding it and protecting it.”
The Dehns do not use pesticides or weed spray in the fields or the greenhouses, but for financial reasons, they have never been certified organic. “We don’t have the manpower or the wherewithal to complete the paperwork,” Bonnie says.
Whether it was a byproduct of his illness or the fact that he had little experience farming, Bob immediately latched onto organic farming practices. “My dad was a conventional farmer; any new gimmick that would make the weeds and bugs go away, he was on top of it,” Bonnie says. “Bob came in and said, What do you use that for? Well, we use it for bugs. Do you really need it? Is there another way?”
“I think it has worked out,” she adds. “We have a very complete farming atmosphere and it’s nice to go back to the old ways — ants around our house can be taken care of with cinnamon, thank you, and we are always looking for new ways to go green.”
In addition to composting excess and bolting greens into the fields and making all their own soil, they’re also looking at composting greenhouse pots for the herb starts. “We prefer coconut husks, but we find that the roots go through the fibers and intertwine with with the other plants,” she says. “And the rice hull breaks into shards. You are supposed to step on it in the garden and within a year or two it will disintegrate, but in the meantime those shards are really sharp — I’m afraid for our customers and little kids.”
All of the Dehn’s Gardens herbs are sold in composting packaging made from corn.
Today, the Dehns grow lettuces, carrots, pansies, nasturtiums, herbs, and houseplants — the latter covers their annual heating bill, which runs around $200,000. The carrots are beloved for their sweetness (apparently, carrots are scaled on bitterness, and a University of Minnesota study found the Dehn carrots to have high sweetness and very low bitterness. “It’s the soil,” says Bonnie.)
But it’s the herbs that have made the farm, and Bonnie herself, rather famous locally. “It wasn’t always any easy sell. For the longest time, people just didn’t know,” Bonnie says. “They’d see me in the warehouses and say, Oh, here comes Bonnie with her weeds! My one and only speeding ticket was in Minneapolis, going 37 in a 35. The officer pulled me over for contraband because I had dill hanging out of the tailgate!”
“So, in the ’80s, if you grew 20 pounds of basil in a week, you worried about how much you were going to have to compost,” Bonnie says. “Now, you need 200 pounds a day to meet consumer need — or it doesn’t work. Pesto is not an unfamiliar word.”
If the Twin Cities are hip to herbs, it is due in part to Bonnie, who has used radio shows, speaking engagements, and cooking classes everywhere from Lunds, Kitchen Window, Cooks on Crocus Hill, and the Minneapolis Farmers Market to teach consumers and chefs how to use fresh herbs. “Education was important to our existence, but I’ve had to cook less,” Bonnie says. “So now I only do one class a year and I’ll go to the farmers market for two or three market talks — for the next one, we are going to make five pesto recipes.”
About five years ago, at the age of 54, Bonnie had a heart attack. “In the hospital, the cardiologist came up to Bob and said, She’s got to cut her hours in half! And Bob said, So we’re down to 40 hours, now what do we do?”
Slow way down. For the first year, Bonnie had to stay home to recover, which meant doing almost nothing, a supremely difficult task for a woman who had previously been juggling her family, the farm, the Farmers Market Board, and city council. “I baked cookies every day until they threatened to take my range away, because I didn’t know what to do,” she says. “I had never not worked, even as a kid — I was always working.”
These days, she watches her grandchildren while her daughters and their husbands make deliveries, run the crews in the fields, and go to market with Bob. “Yes, they help me pick strawberries and weed,” she says. “I have a nine-month-old. She’s in a Baby Bjorn most of the time and the biggest effort with her is that she wants to kick her legs while I’m hoeing!”
Her family comes in from wherever they are — the fields or a farmers market — for lunch each day. Bonnie cooks things like smoked turkey salad with red grapes and cinnamon basil, which she serves with salad greens and new carrots.
Bonnie’s kids get one weekend a month away from the farm, so that they can have time with their own families. “We emphasize the importance of family,” she says, “but that might have to cease if the recession continues, because we might not be able to hire the people to replace them.”
So far, the Dehns have weathered recession well, in part by hiring fewer people to work on the farm; this year they hired 25 workers, mostly college students, down from last year’s 35. In terms of consumer behavior, Bonnie says the economy has made people less adventurous. “People aren’t using fresh herbs unless they find they can use them in a more formable way,” she explains. “If they are going to experiment with something and it costs a dollar to do that, they may hesitate. We’ve also found that having your own garden is the ultimate this year — and people are buying more plants and actually taking care of them.”
Another possible change that could affect the way the Dehns operate the family farm is an amendment to Minnesota’s 1968 “Green Acres” tax program, which gives farmers a discount on property tax. Under the proposed changes, land that is not being used for production will no longer be eligible for the discount and will be taxed at its full estimated market value. “We’ve got a woods that’s close to 12 acres,” says Bonnie. “We leave it as open space because there are deer and coyote in there and, on occasion, we’ve had bear. We don’t farm it because we don’t have to — we can’t sell it, we can’t eat it, why waste it?”
According to Dehn, the tax law is currently under consideration for repeal, but it has the potential to generate up to $35 million in new tax revenue for the state. “So you won’t see it go back to what it was in 1968,” says Bonnie. “I’m afraid you will see a lot of seniors that were holding onto land, hoping that maybe one of their children would come back, will sell it and it will be gone forever.”
The Dehns have no plans to sell the farm, but there may be other repercussions: “The net income that we divide among the family members will become less and less each year, not just from Green Acres but the cost of transportation and lower sales,” she says. “It may make the decision to remain a farm difficult, but we’ll find a better and improved way of farming. We are already looking at other avenues — maybe a CSA — so that we expand within the farm and don’t give in to local pressure.”
In a follow-up piece, the Heavy Table will look at changes in the Twin Cities farmers market scene over the last 30 or so years. Interviews will include Bonnie Dehn.