Haberman employees harvest the vegetables of their labor in corporate garden

Kate Otto sneaks a treat from the tomato crate
Kate Otto sneaks a treat from the tomato crate

It's 9:30 a.m., and a rooster is bellowing as Liz Otto and her daughter Kate make their way down the gravel road to the garden.

Decked out in red rubber boots, Kate steps into a labyrinth of pepper plants, Brussels sprouts, and tomatoes. And with the keen eye of a junior horticulturist, she immediately spots some uninvited guests.

"That's right, those are worms," confirms her mom, bending down to take a closer look. "We battled worms all summer. We have to get rid of them, don't we?"

Wide-eyed, Kate nods with as much steely determination as a two-year-old can muster. Even as a youngster, she already appreciates the importance of their work. This isn't just any patch of vegetables, after all. It's the employee garden for Haberman, a full-service marketing agency based in downtown Minneapolis.

Littered with everything from arugula to zucchini, this parcel of land in Delano began as a small experiment. But four years later, it's produced a harvest much greater than anyone could have hoped for.

"We have a number of food clients, like Organic Valley, Annie's Homegrown, and local co-ops," explains CEO Fred Haberman of the decision to take on the project. "We wanted to learn more about what our clients did on a day-to-day basis and help [our employees] learn more about where their food comes from."

Food has long been a passion for Haberman, who co-founded the company with his wife, Sarah Bell Haberman, in 1994. After being introduced to organically grown produce 26 years ago--"It was a cherry tomato," he recalls fondly--Haberman has been an advocate for local, fresh, and sustainable ingredients.

In the spring of 2009, Haberman was meeting with a CSA owner and became intrigued by the notion of a employer-sponsored garden. Otto, who happened to be walking by the conference room, poked her head in to ask a quick question.

It was a serendipitous interruption.

Haberman bounced the idea off Otto: "Maybe we should we go get some land in Stillwater?" he mused. "Why would we do it in Stillwater?" she asked. "I've got some land in Delano!"

Seven years earlier, Otto and her husband, Kevin, had moved west to farm some property that had been in his family since the 1960s. "When we moved, the first thing I said to Kevin was, 'Could we have a garden?'" Otto remembers. She was envisioning a modest space with a few rows of veggies. But he carved an enormous 30-by-125-foot swath out of the earth.Originally, it was her personal garden, but suddenly it seemed like the perfect candidate for some corporate cultivation.

Just one month later, the new agency garden--dubbed the "Dude Ranch"--was up and running. Today, it houses 50-plus varieties of vegetables, fruits, and herbs, and has expanded to a second 30-by-50-foot plot for vining plants, like pumpkins and watermelons.

The Haberman growing season begins in February, when Otto starts seeds in her indoor greenhouse, and stretches into the chilly days of October. In between, employees are invited to help with the garden's major milestones: planting in the spring, weeding and maintenance throughout the summer, and harvesting in the fall.

Small groups of employees, accompanied by family members and friends, spend several Saturdays with Otto -- learning the ins and outs of gardening, pitching in where needed, and usually leaving with a trunk full of goodies. And for those who can't make it out to the farm, the harvest comes to them, delivered fresh to the office every Thursday morning.

"We realized this was a tremendous HR concept," Haberman says. "People could come together and get to know each other, as well as their families. And they were also learning about food and eating better."

"For me, the most gratifying moments in the garden have been watching people change over time," Otto says. Whether it's the co-worker who started as a nervous novice and has since graduated to canning her own tomatoes, or her 13-year-old son Charlie who correctly diagnosed and treated a cucumber problem this year. "We're changing the way people think about food, which makes me very proud."

The impact has been felt outside the Haberman family as well. When the program began, corporate gardens were just starting to taking off. Although companies like Google and Blue Cross Blue Shield were already tending their own crops, it was still an emerging phenomenon in many industries.

Haberman decided to put its experience to work for other organizations and introduced, a resource for any company who wanted to test out its green thumb. They continue to provide free guidance to anyone who comes calling.

Their efforts were quickly noticed by the national media, including the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. And Human Resource Executive magazine named Haberman's employer-sponsored garden one of the top five new HR ideas of 2010.

The tremendous windfall from the garden has also been shared with the surrounding community. Haberman has made donations to organizations like Open Arms of Minnesota, Sharing and Caring Hands, and distributed goods on an ad hoc basis. "Sometimes, we'll send in our harvest and the garden will still be pressing on," says Otto. "A couple days later, we'll have a big basket of veggies and hear about someone who needs help--maybe lost their job--so we'll bring it over to them."

"I didn't know if it was going to last one year or two years, but here we are in our fourth year, and it's been successful," Haberman says. "It's an incredible thing to give food to people, to be around food, to be closer to the earth. It's invigorating."

As the warm days of summer draw to a close, so too will the 2012 edition of the Haberman garden. And this weekend, employees and their families will gather for the final harvest of the season. The kids will amble through the vining garden and hand-pick their own pumpkins. The adults will participate in cooking contests and tell stories. And appropriately, they'll all gather around a large wooden table and share a meal--a plentiful feast that has managed to reach far beyond their tiny plot in Delano.

Sponsor Content


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >