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Spotlight on Carol Ford

September 6, 2017
Carol Ford standing holding a large basket of local produce.
Carol Ford at home with local produce.

Imagine the edge of four-dimensional spacetime—that line where mystery meets science. Imagine growing bright, fresh foods in the middle of winter. Imagine helping bring local foods into a food desert.

Carol Ford is good at imagining a brighter future. Even more importantly, Ford is good at taking steps to make that vision a reality. Whether writing a “hero’s tale” modern novel, creating a winter Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) project, or building one of the first Deep Winter Greenhouses (DWG), Ford is an innovator. We at the University of Minnesota Extension Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships (RSDP) are fortunate to have her vision on our team as a Program Coordinator.

Imagine: A small town and a farm

“I grew up as a young kid in a small town, which is probably why I love them so much,” Ford said. She recalled her early childhood in Chariton, Iowa, as a particularly formative experience. It was in this small town where Ford learned about being in a close-knit community, and it was through family where she learned about following her dreams.

Ford applied those lessons to her career. After studying creative writing at Southwest Minnesota State University (SMSU) in Marshall and later working for the University of Minnesota Morris as a secretary, Ford became interested in local foods farming. As a Master Gardener, Ford was disappointed at the lack of fresh, local fruits and vegetables available during our cold Minnesota winters. So she did something about it.

Imagine: A burst of green in the dead of winter

Carol Ford taking people on a tour of a Deep Winter Greenhouse.
Carol Ford (second from right) gives a tour of her Garden Goddess greenhouse in Milan.

When Ford met Chuck Waibel, together they envisioned a winter CSA project. CSAs are a type of local food distribution. People buy a “share” of a small farm for a growing season, and each week the farmer gives them a box full of whatever fresh has grown in the garden for that week. CSAs already existed near the area, but this was one of the first local winter CSAs.

Ford and Waibel worked hard to make their dream a reality. In addition to extensive background research, both enrolled in the Farm Beginnings courses taught by the nonprofit Land Stewardship Project. These classes were invaluable to helping create a viable business plan and secure financing to build the greenhouse. After hundreds of hours of hard work, Ford and Waibel had a clear business plan. One of the class instructors vouched for them at a credit union, and they obtained their first loan.

The CSA was a resounding success. Members loved the opportunity to get fresh, delicious food in the dead of winter. The income from CSA shares paid in advance of the growing season covered Ford and Waibel’s yearly business loan payment, plus operating expenses and a modest profit. In seven years, they were able to pay off the loan.

Others became curious about the idea. Ford and Waibel received scores of phone calls and emails from people interested in learning about winter gardening. Eventually, they published a book. Thanks to support from the Southwest RSDP (formerly West Central RSDP), Ford and Waibel were able to write The Northlands Winter Greenhouse Manual and get it edited and prepared for publishing. The book sold out on the first run. “At that point I was really interested in writing another book,” Ford said. “At the same time, Chuck had applied for a Bush Foundation leadership fellowship.”

Unfortunately, Ford and Waibel couldn’t have foreseen what would happen next. “We found out the summer that Chuck was awarded the fellowship that he had terminal cancer. A month after finding out the bad news, he died.”

Imagine: The start of something bigger

It was a tough time after Waibel passed away. Ford recalled, “It was very hard for me when Chuck died. We were a team, and we were a dang good one.”

However, Ford has never been the type to give up, and after a difficult time found ways to not only honor Waibel’s vision, but to move it forward and grow it with help from RSDP. Statewide Director Kathy Draeger helped Ford convert Waibel’s fellowship into a grant, with the generous understanding and support of the Bush Foundation. With support from the Bush Foundation grant, the RSDPs were able to hire Ford and lay the groundwork for what has become a major body of work for RSDP statewide: DWGs.

Carol Ford smiling at the camera
Carol Ford

Ford is quick to acknowledge that a network of local farmers, RSDP staff and board members have helped make the DWG vision a reality. Collectively, these partners along with University faculty and researchers with the College of Design Center for Sustainable Building Research have organized multiple workshops, hosted talks on winter production, and supported production research and the design of a DWG prototype that maximizes energy efficiency. Today, five of these prototypes are being built across the state for further outreach, education, and research with the support of University of Minnesota Extension, MnDRIVE Global Food Ventures, MnDRIVE Robotics, Sensors, and Advanced Manufacturing, the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment, AgCountry Farm Credit Services, AgriBank and Compeer Financial.

Ford said, “I credit RSDP with this amazing success. I really do. They saw the value in what we were doing and wanted to support it.”

In the words of Greg Schweser, RSDP Director for Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems, “We [at RSDP] saw the energy and interest this concept generated, both in the Southwest region and around the state. It was clear that this was a concept that had legs. As interest in DWGs started growing, we wanted to find ways to help those who were interested in the concept have access to University research and outreach opportunities to ensure that DWG was something real and not just another passing fad.”

Imagine: A cycle of learning

Today, Ford finds that one of the most satisfying parts of her job as DWG Program Coordinator is to promote and teach people about opportunities for winter food production in Minnesota. She has hosted numerous workshops, presentations, and even a TEDxMinneapolis talk. “I love meeting with people who have gotten excited about this and have a ton of questions,” Ford said. “That’s what the University should be all about.”

Ford has been in conversation with farmers and producers throughout the state, including members of underserved farming populations such as the Hmong American Farmers Association (HAFA). “I knew some Hmong farmers in St. Paul, and I’ve always been very, very impressed with their ability to make the most out of [the land],” Ford said. “I figured we could assist them to overcome whatever barriers they have to considering winter production, and they will give back to this endeavor tenfold. I want to do everything I can to help them succeed because it’s going to help all of us succeed.”

Ford hopes that every interaction with current or future winter producers can be a mutual learning experience. “I think it’s a very profound part of the teaching experience—what we can discover from each other. That is the piece I try to bring to every presentation and every workshop I do,” she said.

Ultimately, Ford finds this cycle of learning uplifting. “Every time I walk into a room full of people who want to be more a part of this, and see the value in it, that gives me hope. What we are doing is inspiring. After all these years, it still inspires me.”       

Schweser agrees. “People are looking for transformational opportunities in small-scale farming to help move agricultural sustainability forward,” he said. “Carol's winter production achieves that on many levels.”

Carol Ford standing in front of crowd singing with a sign language translator standing next to her signing.
Carol Ford sings a capella while community activist Audrey Arner signs at the July 2017 RSDP statewide meeting in Granite Falls.

Imagine. Just imagine.

When not working to promote sustainable agriculture, Ford keeps busy. She has been interested in creative writing, singing, and performing on stage since junior high, and today she continues to exercise her creative side as a musician (guitar and bass), songwriter, singer, and writer. In fact, you can catch a glimpse of Ford singing a capella at the end of our July 2017 statewide meeting highlights video.

Ford is currently working on a fantasy/science fiction novel that draws on her own family history, the “hero's tale,” and string theory. In addition to hobbies, Ford has two brothers in Iowa and a sister in Alabama whom she loves to visit.

“It’s a good life. For the most part I feel very lucky,” she said. And we feel inspired!

For more information on DWGs:

Elizabeth Braatz, September 2017

Elizabeth Braatz graduated in spring 2017 from the College of Food, Agricultural, and Natural Resources Sciences (CFANS) with a degree in Environmental Sciences, Policy and Management. She worked with RSDP as a Student Writer/Communications Assistant during her junior and senior years.

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