Bob and Bonnie Dehn, Twin Cities herb masters, keep local cooks and chefs supplied with the freshest in local greens
Any fan of fresh herbs in the Twin Cities knows the Dehns’ produce. Their small packages of culinary magic enable us to add zest to stews in the dead of winter and fresh zip to salads anytime.
Dehn’s Garden produce—basil, fennel, rosemary, edible flowers, and much more—has become a staple in local grocery stores and at the Minneapolis Farmers Market, where the family has been selling herbs since 1979.
Bonnie Dehn spends her days surrounded by fragrant greens at the 100-acre family farm in Andover, where six of the 21 greenhouses are hydroponic. “Some chefs are very particular about their basil, and they can taste subtle differences in basil grown in a pot, in the field, or hydroponically,” she says, handing over a few sweet, tender leaves to taste. Nearby, arugula and watercress also thrive on the nutrient-rich fluid that flows through the troughs. The plants are just a few of the fresh herbs, as well as baby lettuce, grown by Bonnie and her husband, Bob, their daughters, Norah and Jennelle, and Jennelle’s husband, Matt Eisinger.
The Dehns, assisted by a small crew of seasonal employees (mostly young college students), usually grow close to 30 different varieties of fresh herbs, 15 types of hot peppers, 10 types of field greens, edible flowers, and a long list of vegetables in the fields.
It’s a far cry from the garden they envisioned when they bought the land in 1978. Bonnie was going to do a little market gardening, while Bob continued his long-time job with the postal service. Then Bob was diagnosed with stage 4 Hodgkin’s lymphoma. They were told it was terminal, but decided to try an experimental program of chemo, radiation, and surgery anyway. Bonnie kept the family together by gardening on 7 acres. Miraculously, Bob recovered and went back to work. By 1986, the farm was doing so well, he quit the post office to work with Bonnie full-time on the farm. “We’ve been having a ball ever since,” Bonnie says.
They turned to hydroponic gardening in 1988, when a long drought turned their hard work to dust in the space of a summer. Today, they also rely on the structures to protect the plants and growing equipment—the troughs and tubes that deliver nutrients and water—from the elements. Added over time, as the family could afford them, the rest of the greenhouses are home to soil-grown crops, as well as the hanging baskets of annual flowers they sell during the busy summer months.
The Dehns grow everything without chemicals, though the farm does not have organic certification. They use natural methods of pest control, including companion planting (the idea that cultivating certain plants can benefit others by improving growth or repelling insects) and releasing beneficial predators such as ladybugs.
The family’s commitment to growing fresh, high-quality herbs and produce has not gone unnoticed. Their stalls at the Minneapolis Farmers Market are always packed with customers. Multi-tiered carts are packed with organically grown herbs people can take home and plant in their own gardens, while tables are stacked high with packaged herbs, baby lettuce, hanging baskets, and other seasonal veggies.
Because they like to be available to their customers, a member of the family is always part of the crew. Larry Cermak, manager of the market, has known the Dehns since 1984. “They’ve got a big following because people know the Dehns, and they know they can buy rosemary or fennel, and someone there will take the time to tell them how to use it,” he says. “I know people who say they won’t make carrot cake without [the Dehns’] carrots.”
The recent trend toward eating more fresh and locally produced food has only increased demand for their crops. Last year, the Dehns added to their regular lineup of chefs, caterers, and restaurants—which includes Lucia’s restaurant in Minneapolis and Minnesota locations of the HomeMade Pizza Co. chain, known for choosing local ingredients whenever possible. Fresh herbs and edible flowers from the farm can also be found at some Kowalski’s stores, as well as Lunds and Byerly’s. “The biggest factor for us is the superior quality of what they offer and the fact that they’re local is important to us, too,” says Rick Steigerwald, produce director for Lunds and Byerly’s.
Bonnie and Bob are turning over more and more of the day-to-day operations of the farm to Norah, Jennelle, and Matt (Bonnie is busy taking care of her five grandkids these days). But they continue to ponder new ways to grow the business. They may soon start a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, where they would offer boxes of produce to seasonal subscribers. “The farm is always evolving,” says Bonnie, squinting out over a long stretch of field where Bob is pulling weeds in the low afternoon sun with a few fieldworkers. “I just think we’re so lucky. I mean, who gets to work with their best friend every day doing something they love?”
Meleah Maynard is a Minneapolis freelancer writer.
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