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Going local: Dean Engelmann, Scott Endres and the craft of small-scale farming

PLATO, Minn.  “If you told me 10 years ago that I would be doing this, I would have probably said you were crazy,” Dean Engelmann said.

The cattle at Tangletown Gardens Farm graze in wooded and open pastures, but the farm includes no iconic red barn.
MinnPost photo by Gregg Aamot

While covering important events in our civic and cultural life, journalists typically focus on facts, controversies, issues and their impact. They rarely look through the lens of understanding leaders and leadership: who is leading the causes and creating change, how those leaders were motivated to tackle tough problems and create opportunities for their communities, and how they worked through the challenges that arose.

In this series, “Driving Change: A Lens on Leadership,” MinnPost is profiling such leaders in order to provide new insights — and, we hope in some cases, inspiration — for our readers. Each profile is paired with comments from members of a panel of experienced leaders and scholars of leadership. The project is made possible by a grant from the Bush Foundation.

PLATO, Minn. — In 1992, Dean Engelmann was studying at the University of Minnesota, mostly in classrooms and greenhouses on the school’s agricultural campus in St. Paul, when a teacher introduced him to plant propagation: the phenomenon by which plants reproduce through cuttings, bulbs and other plant parts.

Dean Engelmann
MinnPost photo by Gregg Aamot
Dean Engelmann grows annuals, perennials and other plants for the garden center on a 100-acre farm near Plato, Minn.

Engelmann was a sophomore and had been planning to major in environmental studies, but the science of plants spoke to him; he had grown up on a farm and done some gardening, mostly at the behest of his grandmother.

“That’s when I knew what I wanted to do,” he recalled. He changed his major to environmental horticulture.

Over the next decade, Engelmann worked in the nursery industry before striking out on his own as co-owner, along with his friend and business partner Scott Endres, of Tangletown Gardens, a garden center that has become a popular destination for upscale landscapers and gardeners in south Minneapolis.

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Engelmann grows annuals, perennials and other plants for the garden center on a 100-acre farm near Plato, a hamlet of 320 people just west of the Twins Cities. In fact, nearly all of the plants at Tangletown are home-grown; it’s a model that allows Engelmann and Endres full control over the quality of what they sell – and the way it is grown and delivered.

A few years ago, buoyed by their success with the garden center, the two decided to add another piece to their business: a farm-to-table restaurant. They bought a closed custard shop across the street from the garden center and opened Wise Acre Eatery, a restaurant developed primarily around the produce and livestock grown on the farm.

“If you told me 10 years ago that I would be doing this, I would have probably said you were crazy,” Engelmann said. “Actually, that’s kind of what my Dad’s response was when I started doing this – ‘You’re crazy!’”

Minnesota grown

Engelmann and Endres are part of a growing number of farmers in Minnesota who sell their products directly to consumers through local farmers markets, nurseries and – in rarer cases – restaurants. The two have taken the model a step further by, in a sense, creating their own market – their garden center and eatery. They don’t sell anything to middlemen or other retailers.

It’s a closed-loop, self-sustaining business built around the bounty of a tiny farm.

Paul Hugunin, who directs Minnesota Grown, a state Department of Agriculture program that promotes locally grown products, said more and more growers are branching out beyond traditional farming both because the demand for locally grown food is on the rise and because many growers are seeking a small-scale, sustainable and sometimes organic form of farming.

“Part of what we see is kind of that next generation trying to figure out a way to make farming work for them,” Hugunin said. “There are different models. You can be conventional and go big and be a low-cost provider, or you can go in the other direction and look at how to maximize your gross income per acre – your profit per acre – as opposed to how many acres you have.”

The idea behind the farm-to-table movement is to supply consumers with fresh, locally grown food that is served not long after it is picked or, in the case of livestock, processed. Most often, the food gets to consumers through farmers markets; in some cases, as with Wise Acre Eatery, the produce reaches consumers as food prepared in restaurants.

(Engelmann noted, rather proudly, during a late November interview with MinnPost that the tomatoes, peppers, carrots and lettuce picked on his farm at 10 a.m. that morning were going to be eaten by Wise Acre customers sometime that evening.)

Tangletown tomatoes
MinnPost photo by Gregg Aamot
Tomatoes picked at the farm in the morning are often on Wise Acre customers’ plates by the evening.

Hugunin said the movement is an expression of people’s desire to be more connected with the food they eat and the people who prepare it – a link that has been lost in an era of cheap food spurred by large-scale, highly mechanized farming.

“Part of it is people realizing that they have lost touch with farmers and where their food comes from and people realizing that their kids – without having that connection to a farm – don’t know much about food and how it gets to the table,” he said.

A decade ago, according to Minnesota Grown, there were 507 growers in Minnesota who sold directly to consumers, mostly through farmers market booths and stands; five years later, there were 644 who did so. Today, nearly 1,000 growers in Minnesota grow vegetables and livestock that end up in nearby farmers markets or restaurants.

Not your grandpa’s farm

Plato Water tower
MinnPost photo by Gregg Aamot
Plato (pop. 320) sits just west of the Twin Cities

Tangletown Gardens Farm runs up against the northern edge of Plato, which sits just north of U.S. Highway 212 between the McLeod County towns of Norwood-Young America and Glencoe. The town’s silver water tower is clear in the distance; so is the gray brick grandstand of Blue Jay Stadium, where Engelmann once played catcher and centerfield for the town’s amateur baseball team.

Engelmann’s parents still live on the farm site, though he and his wife, Jill, and their three children live in Victoria, about 20 miles to the east. In the winter, he spends much of his time tending to the livestock on the farm and to the produce being grown inside several greenhouses.

Tangletown Gardens Farm is Engelmann’s refuge from the urban hustle of the garden center and restaurant, which are nestled into a tony Minneapolis neighborhood of stuccoed Tudors and Cape Cods.

He makes the drive into Minneapolis two or three times a week but spends much of his time on the farm running, with the help of a handful of seasonal workers, “the production side” of the business. (Endres focuses on retailing and customer outreach while Jill Engelmann serves as the office manager).

“I can go there and get my urban fix,” he said, “and then drive 45 minutes and be out here.”

The farm consists of small plots of land, each set aside for various crops that supply the restaurant; barnyards and small shelters where cattle and hogs live; and rows of white-domed greenhouses where plants and vegetables are grown.

The small plots and greenhouses evoke a hobby farm feel, but it’s the appearance of the cattle that is the most striking. Rather than Black Angus or Hereford, Engelmann raises Scottish Highland cattle, whose distinguishing characteristic is a loose covering of hair that looks like an afghan. It’s a breed more common in Scotland or Wales than rural Minnesota. (The British Royal Family apparently dines on the exotic-looking beast, according to Engelmann. “If it’s good enough for the Royals,” he said with a grin, not bothering to finish the sentence).

The hogs are of the Heritage Berkshire breed, chosen, Engelmann said, for their taste and also as a way to prolong the breed, which is rare. Chickens roam around the farm, even along the roadside, though Engelmann said “they always come back.”

The cattle graze in wooded and open pastures, and the farm includes no iconic red barn. Instead, small domed shelters serve as breaks from the weather, though Engelemann said most of the livestock don’t use them very often. The cattle, in particular, simply turn their back to the wind in inclement weather.

One large building serves as a refrigerator for all of the food that will be shipped to the restaurant; on one recent day, it held cabbage, carrots, leeks – and five acres worth of potatoes.

Engelmann follows a rotational system, meaning that parts of the land are allowed to go dormant in order to be rejuvenated. When a section is taken out of production, for instance, it is planted with cover grass that is eaten by the cattle that, in turn, leave behind manure that is spread by the chickens. Hogs finish the task by digging up and aerating the soil.

Driving a reporter around the farm in a dusty pickup, Engelmann is dressed in leather boots, canvas pants, a baseball cap and a jacket – emblazoned with the words “Tangletown Garden” – over a green hoodie. He has a three-day growth of sandy brown beard.

Engelmann stops the truck near a plot of land where he recently grew 2,500 pounds of popcorn, “just the right kind” for Wise Acre, where it is served as an appetizer in small glass bowls.

A common vision

Engelmann and Endres met at the University of Minnesota and developed a kinship around their shared agricultural heritage and a love of new ideas. Even in college, they were restless. The two were active in the Department of Horticulture Science, a horticulture club and, as Endres put it, “dorky things like the Minnesota flower judging team.”

Scott Endres
MinnPost photo by Gregg Aamot
Scott Endres focuses on retailing and customer outreach for the farm.

Endres grew up on a 320-acre farm near Hampton, a small Dakota County town south of St. Paul, but, like Engelemann, knew he wanted something different from traditional farming. He wasn’t sure what that would be.

“Back then, it was clear that we connected on a lot of different levels and we wanted to make the best of our U of M experience, and we bring that to the table today,” Endres said of his and Engelmann’s college days. “We decided that we would rather push the envelope and be trend-setters than be followers doing the same old thing.”

He added: “It’s just more exciting to go to work everyday.”

Shortly after graduating from the university in 1995, Endres went to work as the manager at Highland Nursery, a well-known garden center in St. Paul. As the center grew, so did Endres’  responsibilities. He knew he would need help – and he wanted his old friend to come and join him.

Engelmann, meanwhile, was working in Park Rapids, a lake town in northern Minnesota, where he was the national sales manager for a wholesale nursery. Engelmann was on the road a lot, and Endres thought he might be enticed by the idea of putting traveling sales behind him, moving to the Twin Cities and going into business for himself. He was right.

The two started Tangletown Gardens in 2002 and soon added landscaping services to their enterprise. The restaurant only came along when they determined that it fit their business philosophy and could be done right.

“Every step of the way, when we add something, everything else has to be on a firm foundation,” said Engelmann, who also oversees landscape designs for the business. “We would rather not do something than do something that is only OK.”

The two eventually gravitated to those parts of the business they most like, which is why Engelmann was on the farm on that chilly November day while Endres was inside the garden center 30 miles to the east.

“I guess he’s the country mouse and I’m the city mouse,” Endres said with a laugh. “He likes the production side and I have more of a passion for retail and people and the city – for trying to get people to see the benefits in a fresh plate of food, for instance. That kind of thing.”

“I do go to the farm once in a while, and I love it,” he said. “But this is where I spend most of my time.” 

Healthy eating

Wise Acre Eatery has the clean, sharp-angled look of the mid-20th century Standard Oil Station that it once was. In a stroke of symmetry, Tangletown Gardens is also housed in an old service station – a late 1930s Pure Oil Station that, with its brick chimneys, resembles a countryside home more than a business.

Wise Acre Eatery
MinnPost photo by Gregg Aamot
Wise Acre Eatery is housed in a 1950s-era Standard Oil Station.

Engelmann and Endres have preserved the outer architecture of each building – two garage doors remain on the restaurant, providing odd, large windows for customers – in a gesture of preservation and community spirit.

The food is prepared by a veteran chef who mixes the produce and meat from the farm into selections that range from the familiar-with-a-twist, such as the Royal Brie & Bacon Burger with pumpkin cranberry ketchup, to the unique, like the Plato Cornucopia, which consists of a maple glazed squash bowl, roasted farm vegetables, almond lentil rice pilaf and cauliflower sage sauce. The beverages include a wide selection of locally brewed craft beers.

Open ducts run along the ceiling, and color photos of scenes from the farm hang in an open section of the kitchen.

Wise Acre Eatery interior
MinnPost photo by Gregg Aamot
Open ducts run along the ceiling of Wise Acre, and color photos of scenes from the farm hang in an open section of the kitchen.

Asked about this eclectic mix of food and scenery, Engelmann explained: “We want a relationship with the end user, which puts a certain amount of pressure on us to do things well and to provide quality.”

The bathrooms have cloth towels (no paper towels that need to be thrown away), and food scraps are returned to the farm, where they are spread on fields; even the plastic forks and knives are corn-based and can be returned to the soil.

All about connections

While farm-to-table restaurants operate far outside the norm, their numbers and influence continue to grow, notes Hugunin, the agriculture department official.

“They are still unique. If you looked at all of the restaurants in any given state, it is still not the norm. But things are changing. More restaurants are making connections to farmers,’’ he said. “And it’s also become a way for restaurant to differentiate from fast food.”

Engelmann reads voraciously about sustainability, organic farming and other trends in agriculture, looking for ideas that could be put to use on the farm. He is familiar with the critics of modern farming – writers like Michael Pollan, whose book, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” was a hit among advocates of locally grown food.

Yet he and Endres reject faddish labels, as well as the idea that there is only one way to farm.

Right across County Road 9 from Tangletown Gardens Farm, in fact, sits a large dairy run by a first cousin of Engelmann’s father. “We aren’t on a soapbox telling people what they should do or what they should eat,” Engelmann said. “This just works for us.”

Even so, he said, “I have had more farmers say to me, ‘Gosh, I wish I could do something like you are doing. A lot of guys today – they think of themselves as equipment operators more than anything. They do what the seed companies tell them to do.”

He thought for a few second and continued: “I just have this theory that human hands are drawn to the dirt. You know, it doesn’t get any more basic than that. It’s where the work gets done.”