Most people call David Kozlowski and Sandra Raduenz crazy for leaving their full-time corporate jobs for a life focused on growing organic vegetables. But the owners of Pinehold Gardens in Oak Creek, Wis., say they wouldn’t trade it for the world.
“We gave up paid vacations, we gave up good insurance plans and jobs we liked,” says David, a former magazine editor, who alongside his wife Sandra, retired into farming in their 40s. “But this is something we knew we wanted to do and this is something that we had an opportunity to do. It sounds trite and it sounds kind of 60s-ish, but we both really did want to make the world a little better place and we both weren’t getting that satisfaction or meeting that sort of goal in our other jobs. So we switched to this and we think we’re doing a little bit of that by producing organic food for people that seem to appreciate it and want it.”
David and Sandra didn’t start farming until the mid-1990s – the same time they jumpstarted their own community supported agriculture (CSA) program. The couple used a small portion of the land they previously rented for 14 years at 1807 E. Elm Rd., in Oak Creek, as well as two other small areas of land in southeastern Wisconsin to grow produce for their CSA program.
But as their CSA member shares began to outgrow their available land to harvest, the couple decided it was time to quit their full-time jobs and pursue ownership of the 21 acres of farmland in the shadows of Milwaukee. But with a price tag of nearly $1 million, David and Sandra’s aspirations were shot down initially because they couldn’t afford the high price tag of the property. So, they began a search for their own farm that took them all across the state.
“We couldn’t find a farm. It was too expensive in the southwest, it was too expensive in northern Wisconsin, it was too expensive in Door County,” says David. “Every place we went to, land prices had skyrocketed. They went from $200 to $2,000 per acre basically overnight.”
After a number of years searching for a place of their own, they were back to square one. Feeling a bit rejected, David and Sandra refocused their efforts on the farmland they had been calling home in Oak Creek. Their plan of attack resorted to penning letters, writing e-mails and sending the owner of the property a book on a man who started an urban farm in Los Angeles.
“We said, ‘this is what we want to be, we want to be near the city, we want to bring people out here, we want the kids to come out here.’ It was a hard sell,” says David. “We did that for about a year or so and then we pitched them again.”
The couple also upped their offer.
“We basically said, ‘we can pay $200,000 for this property,’” David recalls. “The [previous owners] said, ‘we like what you’re doing, it’s yours.’ So they took a big loss. They had paid $110,000 for it and that was supposed to be their nest egg.”
In December 2003, David and Sandra officially became owners of Pinehold Gardens. Today, the small organic farm landlocked by a newly-built sprawling Oak Creek suburb with supermarkets and big box stores, serves as one of the few reminders of the type of hard work it takes to produce good food.
Learning the Roots of Farming
Stewards for the slow food movement and sustainable agriculture in Wisconsin, David and Sandra have made it a goal to stay committed to providing the freshest, highest quality produce, and educating the public on healthy food options. Although Pinehold Gardens is not a certified organic farm, David and Sandra stress that they only rely on cover crops for fertilization, and avoid using any pesticides or herbicides.
Before starting their own CSA program in 1995, David and Sandra were gardeners that had no prior background in farming. Everything that they have learned over the last 18 years has been either self-taught through hands-on experience, reading books on farming, attending educational conferences, as well as sharing best practices with the close-knit network of organic farmers in Wisconsin.
“There’s so much sharing of knowledge that there is very little reinvention of the wheel,” says David. “Every year you learn something new. You’re picking up something, you’re picking it up from another farmer, or you’re learning it on your own farm.”
David says every day on the farm is a new learning experience. David and Sandra take it as a challenge, while at the same time are constantly searching for sustainable methods to improve their operations, their land and the produce they grow.
The greatest resource they have on the farm is the sun. The sun not only helps grow their crops, but it also produces the electricity on the farm.
A member of the Midwest Renewable Energy Association for 20 years, David is a huge proponent for renewable energy. So first on David’s mind when they bought the farm, next to getting the land ready for planting, was putting in a renewable energy system. Initially he says he was going to put a wind generator in, but things just worked better for them to go to photovoltaics. So, in May of 2005, the farm installed a photovoltaic solar panel, a 2.5-kilowatt dual-axis tracker that generates electricity by converting solar radiation. They then followed that up in October 2008 by adding a larger second system that is 2.7 kilowatts and is mounted to the roof of the tool shed.
“What that has meant for us is savings in electricity,” says David, who has become a solar pioneer in southeastern Wisconsin. “Being a farm, we’re running wells, we’re running walk-in coolers, and then of course all of the household appliances and things like that. Last year we had a net positive electric account with WE Energies where they actually paid us $200. We had no electrical bill and made $200. So that’s a significant savings for us.”
David says a financial move was never their goal with the installation of the solar panels.
“Our intent was always to do what we thought was the right thing,” says David. “We wanted to produce energy with the sun and we wanted to supply that energy to ourselves and our neighbors. That was our first priority and to put less carbon in the air. The fact that we’re making money at it and the fact that the systems are actually paying for themselves, that’s the icing on the cake.”
Walking around the farm, there’s no shortage of experiments going on. This spring, David and Sandra have begun a new endeavor where they carved out vegetable beds that are 100-foot long, 4 foot wide, with strips of grass in between.
“What that means is I have less to cultivate, so I’m using less gas except for the mower to mow the grass down,” says David. “And then in two years it will get reversed. Then we should get good black ground. It’s an experiment. We don’t know if it’s going to work or how it’s going to work.”
Another undertaking on the farm recently has been its 30×75 foot mobile greenhouse that runs on rails like a train. Currently, it has the option to be moved in three different positions in the field.
“We can move it over crops rather than trying to grow the crops inside the greenhouse,” says David. “Nobody around here is doing it yet, so we’re the guinea pigs. But I’m convinced it’s going to be really useful.”
David has devised a two year plan that details each move and what types of produce the mobile greenhouse will help yield. His hope is that the greenhouse will be a source in helping supply more produce to the public year-round.
Produce, Bees, Chickens, and Peaches
Pinehold currently grows over 40 different fruits and vegetables, and in some cases has dozens of varieties of some items. The staple crop on the farm is garlic. Nearly 13,000 heads of garlic (12 different varieties) are planted by hand annually. While Pinehold takes advantage of the plant vigor and production quality of hybrid vegetable varieties, it also seeks to preserve the genetic diversity and exquisite flavor of select heirloom varieties. The farm grows a number of items that have been recognized by the Slow Food Ark of Taste, a program that prevents the extinction of food and promotes them in the marketplace.
Besides growing fruits and vegetables, Pinehold also raises chickens on its land. The farm raises free-range heritage breed chickens, including Java, Ameraucana, Barred Plymouth Rock, Delaware, and Silver Laced Wyandottes, in a pasture lined with fruit trees and black currant bushes. In this pasture, the chickens feast on an assortment of clover, grass and insects. The chickens also get a nice supply of organic feed that consists of corn, soybean and flax. The flock produces a dozen to 18 eggs a day.
One of several family pets, Peaches, the Ossabaw Island Hog, is the official farm greeter. She is a rare heritage breed and descendant of pigs released by Spanish explorers on Ossabaw Island off the coast of Georgia (hence the name, Peaches) over 400 years ago. She was born at the turn of this century, coming to the farm by way of Old World Wisconsin. When she’s not busy munching on her pile of food scraps provided by area restaurants, she enjoys belly-rubs in the sun and chatting it up with visitors.
Pinehold Gardens’ CSA
Pinehold’s 16-week CSA share begins in mid-July and ends in late-October, with deliveries on Wednesdays (2012 shares are still available). Pick-up sites are in Cudahy, Oak Creek, Racine, Bay View, Greenfield, Milwaukee, Shorewood, Wauwatosa, and on the farm. A weekly newsletter keeps customers up to date on the farm as well as providing recipes and food preservation techniques from a Milwaukee area chef.
Since the farm’s CSA starts after the sugar snap pea and strawberry season, Pinehold gives CSA members the opportunity to U-Pick a certain amount of those items for free. The CSA share also includes a U-Pick of 10 pounds of tomatoes.
In addition, CSA members are offered a 10 percent discount on “Market Dollars.” The use of Market Dollars is an opportunity for customers to supplement the CSA box with fresh produce of their choice any week during the 2012 market season at the South Shore Farmers Market, at Pinhold’s farm stand, and at the Milwaukee County Winter Farmers Market.
CSA members and the community are also invited to the farm’s annual open house celebration, the End of Summer Harvest Festival, which will be held on Aug. 26, 2012.
Instead of paying the lump sum for a box of produce, Pinehold offers a limited number of worker shares. A worker share is an exchange of labor for a CSA membership. Worker shares receive a box of fruits and vegetables as a result of working four hours per week. The majority of the worker share hours are Tuesday mornings from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sandra says a worker share commits to a shift and works that shift for the entire season. All shifts are 16 weeks long for a total of 64 hours. The early season begins May 15th and the late season begins July 10th. The farm’s worker shares are full for the 2012 season, but schedules change, so Pinehold encourages the public to send them an e-mail and get on a wait list for possible openings.
“Because this is a job, we expect people to come on their shift every week. They have to make up their time and plan it and tell me ahead of time if they’re not going to be there,” says Sandra.
For those unable to meet the financial obligations of being a CSA member and are unable to partake in the worker share program, Pinehold offers an Assistance Fund. The fund is used to partially offset the difference in what a member is able to pay and the cost of a membership. In 2012, the farm is offering up to $100 off a membership. Flexible payment options are also available. For more information about Pinehold’s CSA program, visit the farm’s website.
How to Buy From Pinehold Gardens
Pinehold currently sells its produce at the South Shore Farmers’ Market, through its CSA, and sells produce on the farm at its farm stand (2-6 p.m. Saturdays during the CSA season).
Pinehold’s produce is also found on the menu at several well-known area restaurants in Southeastern Wisconsin. These include La Merenda and Juniper 61. The farm also supplies MATC Cuisine and Oconomowoc Lake Club, among others.
“We like working with the restaurants, but it’s not the name of the restaurant or the popularity that matters to us,” says David. “The only things that matter to us are the chef, we need to bond with them, they need to understand us, we need to understand them, and the menu.”
Bonding with the chef means having a close interaction and understanding of exactly what type of produce is wanted for a particular dish. David and Sandra take pride in the food they grow, so they want to ensure that all of the produce they supply to local restaurants is being used in its entirety.
“That’s the other thing we like about chefs,” says Sandra. “A good chef is a cheap chef. He’s not going to waste anything.”
Sandra Raduenz and David Kozlowski
1807 E. Elm Road
Oak Creek, WI 53154
Phone: (414) 762-1301