This story is a product of Heavy Table’s first Listening Session, underwritten and hosted by the Lakewinds Food Co-op. On May 23, we interviewed 15 local food artisans over the course of eight hours, with a goal of taking a snapshot of the vibrant Minnesota food scene.
The average age of an American farmer is 58; Ariel Pressman is 31. The average size of an American farm is 434 acres (the median size is 80); Pressman’s organic Seed to Seed Farm cultivates about 12 acres of land in Balsam Lake, Wis. The average farmer is a high school graduate; Pressman went to college for neuroscience and social psychology, looking at how unconscious prejudice influences decision making.
“My favorite game to play with my employees is ‘Who’s Wasting the Most Expensive College Degree?’” Pressman says with a grin. “It’s always me.” We talked to Pressman early this summer about the state of agriculture in the Upper Midwest, the joy of growing unusual vegetables, and the maddening thrill of working the land to supply produce and plant starts to wholesale customers including co-ops, Whole Foods, and the Minneapolis School District.
Pressman’s business has evolved from restaurants (he used to directly supply spots like Lucia’s, Tilia, and Mill Valley Kitchen) and the Mill City Farmers Market to bigger customers, like co-ops. “Lakewinds made me a grant and a loan to put up two high tunnels, which I’m growing tomatoes in,” he says. “I’m paying them back in tomatoes. It’s really a unique deal. And it’s a win-win for everybody.”
ON DISCOVERING THE UPPER MIDWEST
What I studied was really specific, and the options were you become a professor, or you don’t do it. I just didn’t see that as a reality. I had an office job my first year out of college, and it was pretty ho-hum. I was WWOOFing on a farm in Vermont for six months, and just by total happenstance the woman who ran that farm was an ex-pat from Luck, Wis. I was 22, and moving somewhere new seemed like a good idea.
I’m originally from Philadelphia. It’s hard to explain to people not from the coasts, but flyover country is real — I knew nothing about this place before moving here. When I moved here, one of my friends asked me if they had the internet in Minneapolis.
My intent was to come for a year and intern on the farm. But the farmland in Wisconsin is amazing. And the Twin Cities scene, as far as local and organic food, doesn’t exist anywhere else in the country. And then you couple that with the affordability of farmland.
If you look at the farms around Boston, they’re five hours away, and they’re paying 10 times as much for the land.
As a 31-year-old, I 100 percent financed my farm and my business. The fact is that I was able to buy my own farm. I have friends in the Boston area, and they’re buying starter homes, and they paid more for those.
THE BRUSSELS SPROUT BOOM
Our big-success crop has been Brussels sprouts. When I started farming [five years ago], the kale trend was at its peak, and I funded my whole farm on kale. Slowly but surely, kale has plummeted. As that’s gone down, Brussels sprouts have just infinitely exploded.
When I first started, it was an uphill fight to get shelf space for Brussels sprouts. I don’t sell to many restaurants anymore, and it’s cool to see the reverse effect — restaurants started buying them, and then all the co-ops and supermarkets wanted to buy them. I’ve seen that happen with a couple crops, which is really cool.
My first year I grew one bed [of Brussels sprouts], which is like 600 plants. This year we’re growing 24 beds, which is about 15,000 plants. So it’s really been cool.
ON THE JOY AND MISERY OF FARMING
People have one of two perceptions: Either it’s this romantic, hold hands and watch the rainbow experience, or it’s just endless toil. The reality is it’s both. You definitely have times when it’s a wonderful, amazing, borderline spiritual experience, and then you have times when it’s heinous.
[In May, we were] planting onions for Lakewinds Co-op, and it was like a Greek-style push a boulder up a hill thing: 80,000 plants going into tiny holes, in the rain. Nobody’s having a good time. But, by the same token, we had all these extra strawberry starter plants, so I was eating strawberries out of our greenhouse.
The bigger you get, the more you spend time managing rather than doing. I think the attraction of farming is the challenge of it. I don’t know what I’m doing after 10 years, because it’s a different experience every single day and every single time.
If you’d talked to me my first year, I’d say, “I’ve got it under control ——”
ON TAKING THE WINTER OFF
[The work week] goes from 60 hours to 30 hours. I’ve been trying to figure it out. You work for years to get the idea of having an off season, and then you get there, and you’re not sure what to do. It’s amazing how fast weeks fly by when you’re watching Netflix in the middle of winter in the middle of nowhere, Wisconsin.
The interview was lightly edited for clarity.