Locally grown food may seem like a new trend, but there’s a family farm that’s been providing that service to the area for more than 100 years. Founded in 1913 by Peter Costa Sr., Costa Farm & Greenhouse is a third-generation grower of everything produce: tomatoes and sweet corn to kale and kohlrabi. “We firmly believe in local agriculture,” their website proclaims. It’s a mission statement they’ve proven from one Costa to the next, all from the outskirts of the city as they balance the needs of commercial farming amid an encroaching urban environment.
When people think of Minnesota farms, most think of corn, soybeans and dairy, instead of vegetables. For decades, Costa has sold in bulk to wholesale companies who then move those crops to grocery stores, restaurants and other vendors across the Midwest. In addition, Costa sells at farmers markets (every Friday in White Bear Lake), and has added the greenhouse and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). They hit many segments of the population: “I’d say 80-percent of our business is wholesale,” says Ron Costa, owner of the farm. But their CSA, a subscription service where members receive a box of mixed produce weekly, is immensely popular. Funds are collected in advance which the Costas use to purchase seed at a discount pre-paid price. CSAs are delivered to over 40 pick-up spots across the metro, including Café Cravings and Festival Foods in White Bear Lake.
Sprouting the Idea
Originally founded in Little Canada, in 1990 the farm moved to a plot of land along Highway 96 just outside of Mahtomedi. The move was a crossroads between generations. Peter Costa was set to retire and, with land options dwindling, his son took over the farm’s new home. The convenience of trucking into the city is paramount for keeping Costa’s produce fresh, and they wanted to stay as close to the city as possible.
“Walmart and Target bought the land we were renting,” Ron explains. They own their plot of land, which features varied crops, their vegetable and flower greenhouses, a sweet corn stand, and their home. They rent additional fields nearby and, as they grow, they’re constantly on the lookout for more. Produce requires sandy soil that absorbs a lot of water, and it also needs to be accessible for irrigation.
Sowing the Seeds
The youngest of three children, Ron grew up on the farm. “I wanted to be a police officer,” he says. “But my heart wasn’t in it.” After beginning study in that field, he returned to the farm instead. “This is all I’ve ever done, and I enjoy it,” he explains. While he’s always had Costa Farm at heart, it’s not a direction chosen by all with the surname. His brother and sister elected different careers, he notes, and he doesn’t expect either of his two daughters—currently in high school and college—to keep the tradition going. The girls help with the sweet corn stand and odd jobs. But, he admits, “I don’t think my girls are interested in it.”
At this point in their lives, neither expects to farm, but its impact is sure to last. Gina is currently studying business in Iowa and the younger, Grace, is undecided. “Growing up on a farm and seeing the hard work and long hours it takes to be successful has inspired me to have a strong work ethic,” Gina says. “I think it will prepare me for my future.”
Change is a constant in any business to survive. Technology, regulations, and customer tastes are in constant flux. Tomatoes, sweet corn and peppers have always been major crops, but the farm adapts to meet modern needs, which includes a bustling flower business; stunnig floral baskets are key to that success.
“We do a lot of mixtures of different plants,” says Karin Costa, Ron’s wife and manager of the flower business. A family-run greenhouse allows for hands- on customer service, Karin says, stressing that Costa’s plants are vibrant and healthy, with an array of color choices not found at the big-box stores. Grown right on the farm, Costa’s plants are carefully groomed by a small staff and aren’t subject to the stresses that affect many commercial greenhouses.
Flowers and produce are labor intensive. Unlike the mechanized field corn industry, most vegetables are delicate and handpicked. And it takes a lot of hands to make it all work. There are 15-20 crewmembers, Ron estimates, depending on the season.
“I started here when I was 16,” says Little Canada native Dave Slain, now the farm manager and in his late 20s. He attended University of Wisconsin-River Falls and studied agriculture, largely because of his experience at Costa. “I like the reward and the pride in being a producer. I like the idea that you’re supplying people with so much food,” he explains. As manager, he oversees safety and regulations, coordinating the various crops, staff and hygiene practices. For him, the urban setting makes Costa stand out.
At River Falls, he was an outsider, he says. He remembers outward glances when he’d introduce himself to fellow ag students: “This kid grows produce, and has earrings and farms in the city,” he laughs. “It’s a totally different kind of farming.” As classes discussed field corn and dairy techniques, he was able to interject about growing new vegetables that many weren’t familiar with. “I [had never] seen kohlrabi grow,” he says, citing a new Costa crop from 2016.
As Costa embraces retail atop their already successful wholesale business, they are able to connect closer with customers in the age of the locavore. They’ve moved, grown, and passed the business between generations. As Costa Farm & Greenhouse adapts to the times, that close connection with the community has never been lost. Their staff still work at the local food markets and deliver CSA bundles, and Karin and their flower experts offer hands-on treatment that larger enterprises can’t sustain.
“People want to know where their produce is coming from,” says Ron. “People want to meet their grower.”