FARGO - Under warm indoor lights, vegetable stalks are already sprouting and spreading leaves at Heart and Soil Farm about 30 miles north of here. Soon these crops will be moved into open fields to soak in the North Dakota sun.
"We grow probably 60-plus varieties of different things" - tomatoes, peppers, corn, carrots, lettuce, potatoes, peas, beans, beets and broccoli, said farmer Amber Lockhart.
Starting their fifth growing season, Lockhart and her husband, Ross, are among a group of small-scale farmers fueling a local food movement in the Fargo area. It's a movement rapidly gaining momentum with the help of not just farms but also farmers markets, community gardens, a new food co-op and - maybe most importantly - conscientious eaters seeking healthy food with a limited environmental impact.
"I think you're starting to see a lot more people have an interest in what's in their food, where it comes from, and in particular, who they're buying it from," said Kurt Kopperud, general manager of the Prairie Roots Food Co-op, which has attracted about 1,500 members and expects to open in June on the edge of downtown.
Lockhart believes Fargo is catching up with the local food movements in full swing on both coasts. As the city tries to lure and retain young people, it's finding that having a local food scene is part of that, she said.
One person at the center of the scene is Megan Myrdal. A dietitian by trade, Myrdal serves on the Cass Clay Food Commission and helped create a group called Ugly Food of the North, which works to remind people that misshapen produce is still tasty and shouldn't go to waste.
Myrdal said the Fargo-Moorhead area has a long tradition of growing its own food, but she believes "a cultural food shift" is afoot. As evidence, she points to Fargo's clarification of an ordinance to allow backyard chickens, Moorhead's interest in urban agriculture within city limits, expanding community garden programs as well as a local food celebration called Terra Madre that's set for Saturday, April 22.
A catalyst of this shift, Myrdal said, has been the Red River Market. "It isn't just a farmers market," she said. "It's a community gathering space."
Joe Burgum, one of the market's organizers, said it was started to fill a void in downtown Fargo after the Dike East farmers market moved to West Acres mall because of construction by the dike.
The Red River Market, one of six farmers markets in the metro area, is coming up on its third season. This summer the market, which began with 17 vendors, will likely have 60, many of them local growers.
"Aside from the NDSU football game, the Red River Market's the largest weekly community event in the Fargo-Moorhead area," said Burgum, son of North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum. "You can meet the people who are growing your food, and the dollars are staying local."
The long view
Over the past few decades, Gretchen Harvey has witnessed the ebbs and flows in the popularity of local food. When she moved here in 1987, downtown Fargo had a food co-op. After it closed, she and others started a buying club in the late '80s or early '90s, so they could keep getting organic groceries.
In 2004, she founded the Probstfield Organic Community Garden in Moorhead where people wanting to grow their own food can still rent plots. She stepped away from the garden in 2009, and now she's vice president of Prairie Roots' board of directors.
With all her experience, Harvey wanted to make something clear: "This isn't just an elitist foodie phenomenon," she said. "Good, healthy food is affordable."
"Is a grass-fed T-bone steak going to be expensive? Well, yeah," she said. "But that's not the only way to eat locally."
So that more people can access local food, the Red River Market accepts food stamps, Burgum said. "It really sort of completes the curve of being able to help all people within the community," he said.
Nature's in charge
On a handful of acres near Grandin, N.D., Lockhart and her husband use organic practices to grow vegetables and some fruits, like apples and berries.
She said they hope to sell their crops at Prairie Roots once it opens. Already they find buyers at the Red River Market and Amazing Grains Food Co-op in Grand Forks. They also deliver produce to area residents through what's known as a CSA (community supported agriculture).
Lockhart said an advantage of growing food locally is that vegetable varieties can be chosen for their taste or nutrient density rather than their shipping durability or shelf-life. For consumers this means, "A tomato tastes more like a tomato," she said.
A constant challenge for the Lockharts is the unforgiving climate of the northern Plains. "We work with nature, and nature continually shows us that it is in charge," she said, noting that a high tunnel built to extend their growing season was destroyed in a hailstorm last summer. "We're in the process of purchasing a new one."
Extending the season
The benefits of a high tunnel are on display at Concordia College where students have been using one to grow vegetables since the spring of 2016. Last week, the tunnel was humid and smelled earthy just before students Raelin Kronenberg and Alyssa Armstrong rolled up the plastic sidewalls to let in some fresh air.
Armstrong said they were able to plant crops as early as February in the tunnel where the soil is heated by solar panels. Describing last year's bounty in a blog post, she said, "The grape tomatoes in the high tunnel grew so well that they had to be strung up with twine and are reaching, still, for the ceiling."
Kronenberg said much of the produce raised is donated to food shelves and homeless shelters, as well as the Heart-n-Soul Community Café. For almost a year the café, started by Leola Daul, has been serving meals on the second Sunday of every month at Josie's Corner Café & Bake Shop in downtown Fargo.
The community café is run by volunteers, and diners pay a suggested amount. If they can't afford it, they pay what they can or volunteer by washing or busing dishes, cooking or serving, Daul said.
"Everybody's welcome," she said. "It's a way to come and have a locally sourced meal."
Daul said her inspiration for the café came from similar ones around the country. The idea jibed easily with her upbringing in Fargo.
"Food brought people together," she said. Whether it was good times or sad, "food was always a part of that."
If you go
What: Terra Madre, a free event that includes a farmers market, a community meal, family friendly yoga, artist demonstrations, live music, square foot gardening classes, kid games and activities
Where: Trollwood Performing Arts School, 801 50th Ave. S.W., Moorhead
When: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Earth Day, Saturday, April 22
For complete details, visit Terra Madre on Facebook.