Full Circle Farming
A sustainably managed acreage supplies Tangletown Gardens and Wise Acre Eatery with everything from pansies to pork chops
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Wouldn’t it be cool to go back to the farm?
Dean Engelmann and his business partner, Scott Endres, started their company with that nostalgic vision. They even had one in mind, conveniently located less than an hour’s drive southwest of Minneapolis in Plato, Minnesota.
Both men grew up on farms. Their shared affinity for “everything nature” drew them together when they were horticulture students at the University of Minnesota. This value is still at the core of their business, which began 10 years ago with their Nicollet Avenue garden center, Tangletown Gardens, and has grown to encompass their Farm Fresh Food Share Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and, last year, a restaurant across the street from Tangletown called Wise Acre Eatery. At the heart of all these operations is the aforementioned farm in Plato, which just happens to be the same 100 acres whose every gulley and anthill Engelmann memorized as a kid. He and Endres began using the land to grow unusual plants for Tangletown, but today the farm also supplies their other businesses with an abundance of edibles.
Engelmann’s parents live in Plato and his father, Les, still drives one of the farm’s three vintage Farmall tractors, as well as a state-of-the-art refrigerated truck. Several times a week, Les uses it to make deliveries to south Minneapolis, hauling meat, produce, and ornamental plants from the farm that is the businesses’ lynchpin and laboratory.
“People want a connection to their community and the food they feed their families,” Endres says. “Most of the plants we sell at our store, and at least 80 percent of the food we serve at the Wise Acre, come from Plato. It just doesn’t get much more local than that.”
Engelmann, who manages the farm while Endres oversees the retail side, describes the Plato operation as a four-phase rotational system. When a section isn’t in production for the businesses—i.e. growing food or ornamental plants—it’s being groomed for that purpose. First, it’s planted with a cover grass digestible by the longhaired heirloom Scottish Highland beef cattle whose occupation of the field represents phase two, the grazing period. The cattle leave behind plenty of manure, whose distribution is performed by the third-stage occupiers, Heritage chickens. Next come the Large Black and Berkshire hogs, which join forces to root up the soil, aerating and mixing nutrients as they explore for food underground.
In winter, the fields await seedlings that have been germinated in greenhouses. (These versatile structures are also used for winter propagation—they grow all the restaurant’s sprouts, salad greens, and herbs—and to shelter annuals and perennials that would freeze outdoors.) Cold-tolerant plants are the first to hit the fields come spring—pansies and snapdragons for the garden center, sprouts and parsley for the restaurant and CSA customers, for example. At the same time, seed is sown in the fields. Plants that must have a warm soil to properly develop are put into the ground after the first crops are harvested.
“We have it down to a science, really,” Endres says. “The science is based on the old ways of farming that mimic nature, with thousands of species growing instead of just one crop, so that if a pest comes along it doesn’t wipe you out. All that bio-diversity takes care of the problem if you rotate your crops and animals. Our soils are teeming with tiny organisms and nutrients that continually feed the diverse crops we produce.”
Every year, the company produces more than 200 yards of compost that feeds the fields. That organic matter comes from the livestock, from green manures (cover crops, mostly grasses, whose roots are tilled into the soil after the cows are finished grazing), and from waste that Les hauls back to the farm from the restaurant. “We recycle everything, even the biodegradable packaging served with our custard sundaes,” Endres says. “It all gets composted and goes back on the fields.” There’s no need for fancy fungicides or fertilizers when you give your plants what they need from the outset: fresh air, drip irrigation, and soil that drains well and is constantly being enriched.
A brand new 40-kilowatt solar field provides power for the farm and any excess feeds back into the grid. While the businesses aren’t completely carbon neutral, Engelmann and Endres are well on their way to that goal.
Endres says customers really appreciate their holistic approach. “People get it that the animals and the land have been lovingly cared for,” he says, “that the fresher the ingredients, the more nutritious the food. It’s gratifying when people see the connection—hey, the compost is going back to the farm—and how things come full circle.”
Wise Acre Eatery’s menu, created by chef Beth Fisher, focuses on scratch cooking that uses ingredients fresh from the farm. Many items are what Endres calls comfort zone foods targeted to customers on the go. We make a really good corn dog that we're just as proud of as we are the entrées, he says. “It’s not five-star dining, but it can be a five-star experience,” he adds.
Endres makes it clear that he and Engelmann aren’t out to change the world overnight, but see themselves as part of an evolution that is nature-driven. He says the pendulum is swinging back from an impersonal and highly mechanized monoculture approach to farming to something more human-scale and earth-friendly. And he’s convinced that it will catch on.
When farmers in the neighborhood see Les pulling a small, two-row cultivator behind one of the Farmall tractors, they have a good chuckle, Endres says, but it makes them curious, too. “They see us doing things differently and they can’t help but wonder what’s going on.”
Les tells them, simply, “It turns out Grandpa’s way of doing things made a lot of sense.”