LotFotl Community Farm: Organically Grown Farmers

timhuthlotfotlDon’t confuse the name of Tim Huth’s farm, LotFotl, for a text message abbreviation. There’s actually a meaning behind the tongue-tying, six-letter name. LotFotl, which rhymes with “tot bottle,” is an acronym that Huth, a former sociology major turned farmer, crafted based on the phrase “living off the fat of the land.”

When Huth enrolled at Carroll University in Waukesha, Wis., in 1999, he knew he wanted to help people in some fashion. He just didn’t know that it would eventually lead him to farming. The seed to becoming an organic vegetable farmer was planted by a group of farmers who came to speak to his class on the importance of local food.

Inspired by the farmers, Huth started growing vegetables on his porch and rented small garden lots. He also began working at Good Harvest Market in Waukesha, a grocery store that sources from local farmers. Working on a community-supported agriculture (CSA) farm in Whitewater was his next stop. It was in 2007, while working on the farm, that he was encouraged to attend classes and workshops at the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute in East Troy. Soon thereafter Huth was given a proposal he couldn’t refuse – he was asked to take part in Michael Fields’ business incubator program.

Through the incubator program, LotFotl Community Farm was born and Huth was molded into a farmer. During the four years of running a successful CSA on leased land at Michael Fields, Huth also learned business planning, financial analysis and feasibility, debt management, and received basic administrative mentoring on how to run a farm.

Tim Huth, LotFotl Community Farm

Huth and his electric tractor.

“You move there, you have a business plan to some degree and some level of competency. They allow you to establish business there using their equipment and their land, and your first year you get a pretty decent price,” Huth says. “Your rent price is slightly subsidized and your equipment use isn’t all that expensive. And then gradually over time, they want you to leave there so they raise the prices more to full and you’re encouraged to find another place.”

In April 2011 Huth left Michael Fields and moved LotFotl to historic Quinney Farm, a 144-year-old farm (1868) located at W7036 Quinney Rd., in Elkhorn. It’s here, where the farmer in his early 30s, alongside girlfriend April Yuds, is managing 20 acres of produce that sources 350 CSA households, as well as grocery stores, restaurants, and farmers’ markets across southeastern Wisconsin.

Moving On Up

2011 was the first year LotFotl wasn’t operating on land leased from Michael Fields. That meant the farm had to essentially start over with a clean slate. On top of moving, Huth had new land to learn, new loans for equipment purchases, and new elements to fight.

The location of Quinney Farm is notorious for high tail-end winds, so planting crops in the first year was a trial and error process. Because of the high winds, Huth says LotFotl isn’t able to start growing many of its crops in the fields. Instead, the farm does a lot of transplanting from its several greenhouses on the property or risks raising unharvestable crops.

LotFotl Community Farm

“We used to just try and transplant on overcast days or early or late in the day because the sun can beat them up,” says Huth. “But now, we have to play against high wind. Last year we planted three-quarters of an acre of broccoli and we planted on the right day, it was cool, and the next day it wasn’t all that hot but it was seriously windy and the plants were wind stressed.”

A new location also meant getting the farm up to speed and ready for the first CSA delivery. That meant transforming the barn, which previously was set up for a dairy farm, into a workable area for washing and packing produce. It also involved installing a large walk-in cooler, which was ready just in the nick of time for the 2011 CSA season.

2012 is a new year and a new season, however, and with one year under his belt, Huth plans on improving the operations the best way he can through learned and shared knowledge.

A first generation farmer in his early 30s, Huth is learning what works and what doesn’t work with each passing day. Although he doesn’t have anyone to turn to for advice when something on the farm doesn’t go as planned, he says he has befriended other Wisconsin CSA farmers that he can exchange ideas with.

Because he understands that farming is a lot of work, Huth delegates his otherwise 15-hour a day workload in the fields appropriately to the farm’s six employees. He has made it a goal to train his employees on areas he has perfected, while freeing up time to focus on other areas he would like to improve.

“My work has really shifted. I used to like weeding. Now I delegate weeding out,” Huth says. “So now I took on harvesting. I can put together a bunch of radishes really fast. But now this year I’m not going to harvest anything. I’m going to delegate that out and I’m going to train it. Now I need to learn how to drive tractors better and cultivate better. That’s one thing that’s interesting about this line of work. Your role just constantly changes. There’s so much to learn and I don’t have anybody out here to teach me, so I have to fight my way through it and figure it out.”

LotFotl’s CSA

LotFotl offers a 26-week CSA season. In 2012, the CSA season began on May 31 and goes up until the week of Thanksgiving. The farm supplies 80-plus varieties of produce to fulfill 350 shares, of which, 325 are paid families. The rest are worker shares, where community members work four hours a week for a full size share of produce.

LotFotl Community Farm

LotFotl offers two different size shares: a smaller share (Small/Staple), which is a smaller box that has 26 weekly deliveries, and a larger share (Full/Gonzo) with 26 weekly deliveries. Customers also have the option of a large every other week share (Full E/O/ See Saw).

By providing different size shares, LotFotl is making it a goal to evolve its CSA so it’s accessible and fits just about any household.

“Our staple share, we’ll restrict the amount of produce that goes in it so it works for busy people that didn’t come from a family that cooked like mad and knows how to cook,” says Huth. “They just want onions, carrots, simple stuff in an amount that they can get through without having to throw it away or compost it.”

The farm currently offers 13 pickup sites in southeastern Wisconsin, as well as on the farm. The farm also has open hours on Sunday to purchase produce from its walk-in cooler.

CSA deliveries also can include more than just vegetables. LotFotl teams up with livestock farmer John Hall, who also rents land on Quinney Farm to sell free-range grass-fed beef and pork. Currently, customers can place beef orders for a half, a quarter or a 25 pound box. Pork will be available for sale in the fall. LotFotl also purchases broiler chickens and eggs from other local farmers and makes them available in shares as well. The farm also sells Bolzano Artisan Meats.

Fruit is sourced from Michigan and this year, the farm is hoping it is able to find certified organic growers. The fruit purchases are from farms that are having a hard time going to market. The farm also sells maple syrup from Wisconsin.

Honey Bee Sanctuary

AprilYudsLOTFOTLBesides the 80-plus varieties of vegetables that are grown on the farm, a select product, honey, comes from the farm’s sustainable Honey Bee Sanctuary, managed by Yuds, who is in her fourth season keeping bees.

The bees are given biodynamic teas in the spring and the fall and are allowed to forage in locations on the farm that are free of commercial chemicals and pesticides. Yuds says the honey is not seen as a commodity on the farm, but rather a gift shared by our domestic bee friends. Currently, Yuds is managing nine different hives. On June 2, she hosted the farm’s second annual bee blessing and looks forward to educating the public on the importance of sustainable beekeeping.

“We’re hoping to make the blessing of the bees into an annual event,” says Yuds. “This year we really wanted to make people more aware of what we do out here, besides grow vegetables.”

Find LotFotl at These Markets, Grocers and Restaurants

Along with its 350 member CSA, LotFotl sells to Braise RSA, which supplies many Milwaukee-area restaurants, Beans and Barley on the east side in Milwaukee, Good Harvest Market in Waukesha, Sweet Water Organics in Milwaukee, and also sets up shop all season at the South Shore Farmers’ Market in Bay View. The farm also has plans to make a few appearances at farmers’ markets closer to their home base in Elkhorn and Delavan in 2012, but not for a full season.

“It is difficult to have our food run down Hwy 43 away from the community,” says Huth. “And we’re new here so it’s somewhat to be expected. But April is really pushing to try to set some better roots here. And a lot of the people out here are more receptive to what we’re doing.”

LotFotl Community FarmTim Huth and April Yuds, LotFotl Community Farm
W7036 Quinney Rd., Elkhorn, WI 53121
Phone: (920) 318-3800
or (262) 951-0794
E-mail: april@lotfotl.com
Website: www.lotfotl.com
Follow LotFotl on Facebook and
on Twitter.

Pinehold Gardens: Big City Scene, Small Farm Dream

David Kozlowski and Sandra Raduenz are the owners of Pinehold Gardens in Oak Creek, Wis.

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.”

The staple crop on the farm is garlic. Nearly 13,000 heads of garlic (12 different varieties) are planted by hand annually.

The staple crop on the farm is garlic. Nearly 13,000 heads of garlic (12 different varieties) are planted by hand annually.

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.

solarpanelpineholdgardens

In May of 2005, the farm installed a photovoltaic solar panel.

“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.

solarpanel“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.

mobilegreenhouse“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

henPinehold 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.

PeachesThe farm also has several hives of Italian honey bees. David says the bees not only are used to pollinate the many crops, but as an added incentive, each hive produces 100 to 125 pounds of honey.

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.

IMG_1413

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).

ItalianhoneybeesPinehold’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.”

TractorPineholdGardensPinehold Gardens

Sandra Raduenz and David Kozlowski
1807 E. Elm Road
Oak Creek, WI 53154
Phone: (414) 762-1301
E-mail: info@pineholdgardens.com
Website: http://www.pineholdgardens.com

River Valley Ranch & Kitchens: The Midwest’s Oldest Mushroom Farm

ericroseOperating a year-round mushroom farm, overseeing a commercial kitchen, and planning for 30-plus farmers’ markets every year results in a lot of blood, sweat, tears, and a whole lot of mushrooms. Just ask Eric Rose, it’s in his job description as the owner of the oldest commercial mushroom farm in the Midwest, River Valley Ranch & Kitchens in Burlington, Wis.

Even though he has experienced a fair share of ups and downs during the last 36 years of mushroom farming, Rose says he would have it no other way. In fact, every day that he steps foot on his 37-acre farm, he is carrying on his late father Bill’s vision of growing the finest mushrooms in the Midwest.

As a former restaurant owner in Chicago, Bill always had a tough time finding quality mushrooms for dishes on his menu. As a result, he purchased farm land in Southeastern Wis., and formed River Valley Ranch in 1976 with the impetus of providing the highest quality mushrooms to restaurants and markets. Just a few months later, Bill took Eric under his wing. Quickly thereafter, Eric was hooked and was soon tasked with running the operational side of the farm.

“I just found the whole process fascinating,” says Eric. “I really was drawn to it.”

When the farm was founded in 1976, Eric says there were 800 mushroom farms in the United States. Now, he estimates that there are less than 100; mostly in the state of Pennsylvania. What once was a two-man operation that only cultivated white button mushrooms, now employs 40 people, harvests five different certified organic mushroom varieties a week, and also grows 10 acres of pesticide and chemical free vegetables.

Mushroom Growing

Following the tenets of organic farming, River Valley grows five varieties of mushrooms (portabella, crimini, white button, shiitake, and oyster) year round in its five growing houses. In these dark mushroom houses where temperature, humidity and airflow are carefully controlled, the farm harvests nearly 7,000 pounds of mushrooms on a weekly basis – all picked by hand.

mushroombeds

Mushroom beds in one of River Valley’s growing houses.

In each house, mushrooms begin growing in 40-ton batches of compost, produced on the farm using sustainable methods. Every 10 days the farm is supplied with 30 tons of fresh stable bedding. The farm uses this as a base for its compost, which is produced on an ongoing basis. The compost is a mixture of straw-bedded horse manure, a few different protein supplements, non-GMO soybean meal, a poultry fertilizer, gypsum, and calcium phosphate. In the beginning stage, the compost is a bright yellow wheat straw. Two weeks later, it breaks down into a dark aromatic blend that is then packed into mushroom growing trays.

Rose grows all of the white buttons, portabellas and crimini mushrooms in trays. One crop represents 176 growing trays, 22 square feet each. The trays are stacked four high just like bunk beds. After the trays are filled with compost, they get moved into a temperature controlled room for pasteurization. Pasteurization occurs as the temperature of the compost is regulated to 140 degrees for a period of seven or eight days. When the process is complete, the material gets cooled down and then the mushroom culture is introduced, says Rose.

From there, the mushrooms go through a 20-day incubation period where the temperatures are maintained to encourage mycilium, a lacy white filament, to grow. Eventually when the crop starts showing some maturity, the environment is changed, which stimulates the mushroom myclium to reproduce. Rose says it’s similar to how green plants sense and respond to daylight.

mushroomcompost

Compost prepared on site.

“Because mushrooms are not light sensitive, they don’t have that trigger, but basically if everything is done well, we see mushrooms 10 days later and pick two cycles after a 14 day period,” says Rose.

After two cycles of mushrooms have been picked, the trays are emptied, the houses are sterilized with steam, and the process starts over again.

The 40 tons of compost does not go to waste either. The farm packages it and sells it to the public at its retail store. Rose says it is an excellent fertilizer for home gardens.

For oyster mushrooms and shiitakes, the process is a bit different. Although they are also grown in mushroom houses, they don’t grow in beds like white buttons, portabellas and criminis. To grow oyster mushrooms, compost is pasteurized,

To grow oyster mushrooms, compost is pasteurized, cooled, mixed with spawn, and packed into plastic bags.

Oyster mushrooms sprouting from plastic bags filled with compost.

cooled, mixed with spawn, and packed into plastic bags. Holes are punched into the bags to allow the mycelium to breathe and the bags are set on racks in the growing houses. After about two weeks, the mushrooms pop out through the holes and can be harvested. Rose says the farm harvests 500 pounds of oyster mushrooms a week.

For shiitake mushrooms, oak sawdust is packed together into a brick shape, sterilized, mixed with spawn, and placed in environmentally controlled rooms. Mushrooms can then be harvested in about seven weeks.

Even though temperatures, airflow and humidity can be easily controlled in the inside environment, the growing process doesn’t always go as planned. Mushroom flies and diseases can easily decimate a crop so careful monitoring is very important. Pleasant surprises also arise, as was the case back in 1990 when Rose walked into a mushroom house where he was growing criminis.

River Valley Ranch & Kitchen's portabella mushrooms have been a hot item at farmers' markets

River Valley’s portabella mushrooms are popular at farmers’ markets.

“I started growing portabellas by accident some years ago when my air conditioning shut down and all the crimini mushrooms blew up into giant portabellas,” he says. “I had no idea what to do with them.”

He took them to a farmers’ market outside of Chicago and people were amazed at their size. A woman identified them as portabellas, and told Rose that chefs in Chicago were getting these mushrooms, which are a hand-sized version of a crimini mushroom, shipped in from the East Coast.

The next week he brought more to the farmers’ market and people lined up 20 deep to buy them. Rose says it was then that he started to grow portabellas on a regular basis.

Pickling

Even though Rose grows mushrooms year-round, their demand in the winter months face a significant drop. With farmers’ markets pretty much non-existent due to the cold weather in the Midwest, he was often left with a large portion of mushrooms that he ended up having to sell at less than production cost. It was not healthy business for a farm that was already struggling at the time.

Eric Rose, owner of River Valley Ranch & Kitchens came up with his own unique way of pickling the leftover supply of mushrooms.

An assortment of River Valley’s pickled mushrooms.

Fifteen years ago, he thought that there had to be a better way. He came up with his own unique way of pickling the leftover supply of mushrooms. What started as just two different flavors of pickled mushrooms has expanded to more than a handful over the years. And it didn’t stop there.

In 1997, Rose opened a licensed commercial kitchen on the farm. He began producing artisan sauces, dips, salsas and pickled vegetables, using the vegetables grown there.

He takes pride in producing a superior product, so he does not use chemical preservatives or thickeners. Rose says he lets the freshness of the product shine instead. Each jar is prepared and packed by hand.

The farm’s kitchen also produces a veggie burger that is vegan and gluten free and was recently a hit at the music festival Lollapalooza in 2011. Another popular item among customers is the farm’s portabella bratwursts (a regular bratwurst that combines portabellas and Swiss cheese). Newest to the kitchen this year are vegetarian-friendly portabella tamales.

River Valley Ranch & Kitchens sells a grow-your-own mushroom kit. The kits come with everything needed, so all one has to do is follow the instructions. The kit will yield up to 10 pounds of mushrooms.

Grow your own mushroom kits are available through River Valley Ranch.

The superior quality of River Valley’s products have gained recognition by the Chicago Tribune in December 2007 as one of the 16 must-have foods for the holiday table. The farm was also featured on the Food Network’s “Food Finds” television show, where its Portabella salsa was highlighted for its unique ingredients and outstanding flavor.

River Valley’s fame and success isn’t dependent on just one person. Rose says it takes a lot of hard work and dedication from all of his employees.

“This business doesn’t operate without a lot of really good people giving 110 percent,” says Rose. “I feel real fortunate that I’ve been able to grow as a business and provide opportunity for people to do some great work and produce some good food. Employees are excited and energized and sometimes it’s hard to get people to go home.”

Where to Buy

River Valley Ranch & Kitchens’ farm store is open 364 days a year (closed on Christmas), from 9 a.m.-6 p.m.; summer hours are 9 a.m.-7 p.m.

Mushrooms and other jarred products can also be purchased on the farm’s website and at 30-plus farmers’ markets in Southeastern Wisconsin and Illinois. Click here for a list of the markets River Valley attends throughout the year.

The farm also sells a ready-to-grow mushroom kit. The kits come with everything needed, so all one has to do is follow the instructions. The kit will yield up to 10 pounds of mushrooms.

rivervalleyretailshopRiver Valley Ranch & Kitchens

39900 W. 60th St.
Burlington, WI 53105
Phone: (888) 711-7476
Email: info@rivervalleykitchens.com
Website: www.rivervalleykitchens.com

Not My Farm, Or Your Farm, It’s R-Farm

macriemenschneiderWhen his alarm clock sounds at 4:30 a.m., Mac Riemenschneider can’t afford to hit the snooze button. That’s because he knows he’s got a whole lot of work ahead of him pulling double-duty as a full-time farmer and a full-time construction estimator.

Hours before clocking in at his daytime job in Waukesha, Wis., Riemenschneider starts his day by tending to the livestock on his 100-acre farm, R-Farm, in Dousman.

A husband and father of three young children, fulfilling his role as farmer and estimator takes a lot of balance and dedication. Once morning farm chores are completed, Mac heads to the office. At 3:30 p.m., it’s back to the farm to do field work until the sun goes down.

Mac Riemenschneider, R-FarmSince his freshman year in high school (1991), Mac has been raising livestock. What started out as simply raising two steers with a friend, has evolved into Mac owning his own diversified livestock farm that produces naturally-raised steer, chickens and pigs without the use of growth hormones or antibiotics. His passion for farming and connecting the community to local food resources, whether it be from R-Farm or a fellow farmer, prompted the formation of the Dousman Farmers’ Market where he served as the market’s organizer and first manager.

Steer

R-Farm is well known for its steer. Mac currently raises anywhere from 30 to 40 at one time. Currently, his herd of choice is Jersey Steer. He starts them as calves and finishes them all the way through, which typically is just over two years.

“Jerseys are not as big an animal,” says Mac. “It works out for a family that buys a half [of a steer]. They aren’t getting a lot of meat as if they would out of an Angus or a Holstein. It’s a little more consumer friendly and they’re a little more reasonable to buy.”

The farm purchases its Jersey Steer calves from a rotational grazing dairy farm in Waukesha. With help from his dad, Bill, the calves get a bottle of milk twice a day until they are two months old. Afterwards they are fed a grain mix and hay. After reaching two months of age, the calves are moved into a separate pasture for the summer. Then, in the fall they get mixed in with the bigger steers.

Some farmers like to keep their calves in a barn. Mac raises calves until they are two months old in calf hutches because he says if there’s a sick cow, it will jeopardize the well being of the calves.

“The idea is you want them separate when they’re young in case one does get sick, then it doesn’t move through all of them,” he says. “And as long as you keep them dry and out of a draft, they’ll do better. You can put them in the barn but if it’s humid in there or if it’s warm and then there’s a draft, they’re more likely to get sick. If you keep them warm and dry and out of a draft, they do a lot better.”

The calf hutches, Mac says, are a proven, healthy, safe method. Most days, calves are taken out of the hutches and let into a larger group of four to five other calves where they can socialize and drink milk with one another.

cattleThe farm’s cattle herd is grass-fed on pasture from spring up until winter. The farm’s pasture is a mixture of alfalfa, orchard grass, timothy, festulolium, and whatever wild grasses creep in.

When the steers are out on pasture they are moved every day.

“Our cattle are all grass-fed on pasture in the warmer months and dry hay in the cooler months when the pasture is not available,” says Mac. “It takes better hay through the winter to feed them. We usually butcher them at about two years old, but because our animals are grass-fed it can sometimes take a little longer to finish them.”

Poultry and Pigs

R-Farm currently raises a variety of 200 Production Red and Barred Rock chickens. A Production Red is a hen that is a cross between a Rhode Island Red, New Hampshire Red and a Leghorn chicken. The Production Red are a vigorous, hearty chicken that is touted as the best brown egg layer. The hens start laying dark brown eggs between four to six months of age. New to the farm this spring, Mac is raising Barred Rocks that are expected to begin laying eggs for the first time in May. He says Barred Rocks are heavy birds that produce large eggs (about 20 eggs per month) and are also ideal for a soup chicken.

 

hensBoth of the hen breeds raised on the farm lay brown eggs that contain rich, orange yolks. They are a big hit with customers. In fact, on our visit to the farm, the weekly supply was sold out in less than 30 minutes.

The hens lay about 70 dozen eggs a week and around 300 dozen large and extra large eggs a month. When young hens first start laying, they lay smaller eggs known as pullets. The farm sells a pack of 18 for the same price as a dozen.

While the public can come to the farm to purchase free-range eggs, R-Farm also supplies two local gas stations – Wales Lawn & Garden on Hwy 83 in Wales and The Paperchase Mobil on Hwy 67 in Dousman. The two stations purchase 20 to 40 dozen eggs a week.

The chickens rotationally graze in moveable pens starting in early spring and then get moved into the greenhouse by Thanksgiving. The portable, floorless coops have mesh or wire sides, a roof for shade and some enclosed spaces for nesting. The chickens have access to fresh air, all the grass and insects they can eat, and protection from predators.

chickenpens

Chicken pens for rotational grazing

“When we put them out on pasture, we’ve had everything from foxes, raccoons, owls, hawks, and coyotes,” Mac says. “We’ve run the gamut on just about every predator.”

Pens are moved around the grassy pasture on a daily basis.

“We’ve got old lawnmower wheels on the back, so we pull them around,” Mac says. “We cover these with a tarp on the top and one side to keep the wind and the rain out. In the summer, the chickens will have it all grazed down, then it will all grow back.”

The farm has adopted a rotational grazing system where steers are moved first through a portion of the pasture to graze and then the chickens follow a few days after. Mac systematically moves the livestock based on the stage of growth of the forages. While one area of the pasture is being grazed, the rest of the pasture rests. This rest and recovery time helps maintain healthy forage plants for the livestock throughout the warm months.

In the winter, the laying hens are housed in a greenhouse that was constructed in 2009. Ground-up corncobs are applied to the ground as bedding for the hens and temperatures remain warm enough where water does not freeze. The sides roll up to allow for fresh air to pass through.

Mac Riemenschneider mixes his own feed for his pigs with the corn he grows on the farm, soybean meal and kelp. In the barn, he deep beds them in straw.Unlike the steers and chickens, the pigs on the farm aren’t pasture raised. They get housed in  the barn, but do have access to a large pen outside where they can come and go.

“I stick to the old fashioned way of doing it,” Mac says about raising pigs. “I’m not brave enough to turn them out to pasture yet.”

Mac mixes his own feed for the pigs with the corn he grows on the farm, soybean meal and kelp. In the barn, he deep beds them in straw.

One of the farm’s large sows is expected to give birth to piglets early this spring. He also just finished raising a boar that weighed 740 pounds.

Raising Crops

Besides raising livestock, Mac also is busy tending to his farm’s fields. He provides custom feed for his livestock by raising a variety of vegetables without the use of herbicides or chemical pesticides. He does not use genetically-modified seed.

“We raise our own corn for the hogs and chickens and then I grow oats,” says Mac. “We’re going to grow some peas and wheat and barley this year for the pig feed. Something a little different. I like to move to a more organic feed for the hogs and the way you can do that is with the field peas. Then we raise peas and triticale as forage for the calves. That makes really good forage. Then we’ll do some annual grass, Sudan grass and some millet.”

Although Mac follows organic methods whenever possible, he isn’t always able to raise organic crops.

Barred Rocks are heavy birds that produce large eggs (about 20 eggs per month) and are also ideal for a soup chicken.“I use conventional soybean meal, I use some commercial fertilizers because some of the fields I have are real sandy and using organic methods, I’m just losing money,” Mac says. “I’ve taken a few fields that weren’t farmed for a few years and I’ve tried to get a crop out of them with the organic methods, but it just hasn’t been working too well.”

As a result, he uses water-soluble fertilizer to grow crops. At the same time, however, he’s trying to build up the organic matter by growing cover crops. He also has not used any herbicides in five years.

“I do use organic practices but don’t have the certification,” says Mac. “Most of our customers come right here, so if they want to know what I’m doing, I can show them and tell them.”

Three-person Operation

The farm has been in Mac’s family dating back to the 1950s, when his aunt’s in-laws purchased the farm. Since then it has changed hands a few more times. His parents purchased 20 acres of land in the 1970s and his dad cash-cropped the land. They purchased the house and buildings in 1990, and shortly thereafter, Mac started farming the land and took over the operations and named it R-Farm.

Even though there are hundreds of livestock and nearly 100 acres of land to tend to, a three-person operation is typically what it takes to run R-Farm. Mac runs the operational side of the farm with help from his dad Bill, who has a house on the property. Bill helps with daily chores in the morning and at night and will run errands while Mac is away at work. Mac’s wife Nicole does the bookkeeping, updates the website and responds to emails. She does the meat ordering, keeps track of orders and calls in orders to the butcher. Nicole also has the important job of cleaning the eggs before they get packaged and sold to the public.

Open For Business

rfarmretailstoreIn 2005, R-Farm obtained its retail license in order to offer a variety of cuts of meat. Prior to that they sold meat by quarters or halves. The retail store, located on the farm, is open to the public from 9 a.m. to noon on Saturday mornings.

“It’s just come and pick up what you need,” says Mac. “Just come and get whatever you want out of the freezers.”

When we visited the farm it was on a Saturday and several customers were coming in to pick up their Easter hams and other meat. Mac says it’s not unusual to get customers coming in from Dousman, Wales, Delafield, Oconomowoc, Waukesha, Brookfield, East Troy, Lake Geneva, and as far as Northern Illinois.

Besides eggs, the farm offers grass-fed beef, custom cut roasts and steaks, ground beef, whole chickens, pork, ham, and different sausage products, to name a few. R-Farm has been using Detjens Northern Trails Meat in Watertown for its butchering since 1991.

R-Farm's retail store, located on the farm, is open to the public from 9 a.m. to noon on Saturday mornings.Mac believes in using the whole animal and Detjens helps provide odd cuts of meat that can’t typically be found in supermarkets.

“We get soup bones, oxtails, tongue, liver and heart,” says Mac. “Oxtail I can’t get enough of. There’s only one oxtail per steer, so that’s part of the issue, but people really like it. Last year I don’t know why, but oxtail was going like crazy. I talked to our butcher and they were having people drive out from Milwaukee, buying all of the oxtail they had.”

The public is encouraged to call ahead of time or check the farm’s website to see what offerings they have prior to stopping by as some products sell out faster than others.

R-Farm

Mac and Nicole RiemenschneiderR-Farm is a diversified livestock farm located in Dousman, Wis.
W394 S4398 Hwy Z
Dousman, WI 53118
Phone: 414-881-2098
Email: mackayrr@hotmail.com
Website: http://rfarmdousman.blogspot.com/
R-Farm is also on Facebook

Tipi Produce: Happy Soil, Happy Produce

Beth Kazmar and Steve Pincus, owners, Tipi Produce

 

Want to see happy soil? There’s no shortage of it on the 76-acre farm, Tipi Produce, owned and operated by Steve Pincus and Beth Kazmar in Evansville, Wis. Since purchasing the land from an Amish family in 2002, Tipi Produce has transformed a farmland that had been dormant for many years into a certified-organic vegetable farm that wholeheartedly believes in nurturing its soil. Having an unconditional love for the earth allows this small family farm to grow some of the most attractive and tastiest organic produce the state of Wisconsin has to offer.

Tipi Produce takes pride in feeding nearly 2,500 people from Madison to Milwaukee through its 26-week CSA program (as well as thousands more who purchase their produce from local stores like Outpost Natural Foods and Willy Street Co-op), and also makes sure its 45-acres of soil is being fed a strict diet. The farm plants several organic cover crops in late fall after the growing season has concluded in anticipation for the next year. So by the time spring rolls around, the land sprouts a mix of bright green cereal rye and hairy vetch. On our visit to the farm in the last week of March, the cover crops were already ankle high due to the unseasonably warm winter and spring thus far. Tipi grows these cover crops and tills them into the earth prior to the planting season to nourish the soil and for soil fertility. Pincus says the cover crops release carbon and nitrogen into the soil where microorganisms start chewing on it, producing organic matter.

“Cover cropping is a real important part of the program,” says Pincus, who heads the operations for Tipi Produce. “It is on any good organic vegetable farm. We always have something growing. That’s the goal. We like to have something decomposing in the soil, so the soil is always chewing on something. Whether it be cover crops or the things we’re adding like compost.” At the beginning of each growing season, Tipi has no shortage of compost. Located just three minutes outside of the city, the farm has worked out a contract with Evansville to take all of their leaves during fall collection. The city collects the leaves and delivers them to the farm free of charge. What starts as a mound that is half a football field wide and two stories high, gets tilled into the soil that grows the farm’s 45 different crops. “They bring them right here and they’re glad to do it. It’s an inexpensive and simple way for them to dispose of them,” says Pincus. “And we use them all, they go on the fields and are more or less in the food.”

compostleaves

Compost Leaves

Strictly a vegetable farm, the farm does not raise any livestock. However, it does use composted manures from neighboring farms to fertilize. Pests and diseases are controlled through proactive management and gentle natural materials.

An Organic Start

Tipi Produce is currently in its 36th year of producing quality certified organic vegetables. For nearly 20 of those years, the farm, which is now in its third and permanent home, has been certified organic – a way of growing produce that Pincus has endorsed since becoming involved in farming. Tipi Produce started five years after Pincus, a young city dweller at the time, helped form Outpost Natural Foods. But before there was an Outpost, Pincus helped start the East Kane Street Co-op in Milwaukee. He served as the store’s first manager. In May 1971, Pincus, along with a half dozen others, opened the first Outpost on the northeast corner of Clark and Fratney street in Milwaukee. In his role with Outpost, Pincus was tasked with finding local organic farmers in the state of Wisconsin.

transplants

One of Tipi’s four greenhouses, filled with crops waiting to be transplanted into the ground

While traveling the state, he met a lot of people who were farming on a large scale and fell in love with the lifestyle. It was then that he decided he wanted to leave city life behind and become a farmer. Nowadays, alongside his wife Beth, Tipi Produce provides produce to Outpost’s three Milwaukee locations, as well as Willy Street Co-ops in Madison and Middleton, Basics Cooperative Natural Foods in Janesville and Whole Foods Market in Madison. Selling to co-ops is half of the farm’s business. The other half comes from CSA sales, which is headed by Kazmar. Alongside six or seven of the farm’s 23 employees, Kazmar manages and oversees the packing of 500 CSA boxes on Thursday mornings that get shipped to the Madison and Milwaukee markets from mid-May until November.

The Farm Operations

Along with its 45 acres of farming land, Tipi has four large greenhouses — one they added to the farm this year. The greenhouses serve as the starting point for some of the crops on the farm until they are ready to be transplanted into the land. This year the farm started growing the crops in the greenhouses in February and planted its first wave of lettuce in the third week of March, which is uncharacteristically early for Wisconsin.

Lettuce in the ground and ahead of schedule

While Pincus and Kazmar tend to the farm on a daily basis, they do need a lot of help to keep operations moving smoothly. The farm expects to employ up to 23 people again this season. Workers often commute from Madison five days a week, Monday through Friday, but not all of the farm’s employees care to own a car. As a result, Tipi subsidizes carpooling. Not every employee is full-time, but typical shifts start at 6 a.m., with 18 to 20 workers working at the same time. “They kind of do everything,” says Kazmar. “Their work varies anywhere from seeding plants to working in the greenhouses, transplanting out to the fields, weeding, and mostly picking, washing and packing the CSA boxes.” Tipi Produce doesn’t believe in working its employees longer than eight-hour shifts. As a result, they have been rewarded with committed and long-standing relationships with their employees. “Employees tend to stay with us for a long time,” says Kazmar. “We have one worker who is having her second baby so she’s not working this summer, but she’ll be back in the fall. She’s been here over 17 years. And then we’ve got a couple workers at 13 years, and a whole bunch at five to eight years.” Part of Tipi Produce’s mission is to teach employees how to farm. As a result, Pincus says there have been several employees who have moved on to run their own farms. “We need more farmers,” he says. “We have more people that want to eat well, but we can only grow a certain amount. We’re maxed out here and I’m not interested in buying more land.” Because the farm is organic and does not spray pesticides, weed control is a major chore all season long for employees. In fact, Pincus says weeds, not insects, or diseases in the crops, are the farm’s number one problem pests. “We try to control the weeds the best we can mechanically, but there’s no crop we can grow without some weeding or hoeing,” says Pincus. “There’s a lot of getting down on your knees depending on the crop.” Weeds aren’t the only things that grow in abundance on the farm. The farm’s soil is a sandy loam that is ideal for vegetable growing, including its signature crop, carrots, which are available through the farm’s CSA and at natural food stores. “These soils grow good carrots, really terrific carrots,” says Pincus. “But because the soils are somewhat lighter, even when the soil is wet, we can harvest mechanically, we can go in and get those carrots out under some fairly tough conditions. We know that from the farm we moved from, a heavier clay soil is more fertile innately, but you have some real problems with getting those vegetables out. This soil works great.” Another benefit of the soils on the farm is that they drain well and warm up quickly.

radishes

Radishes protected by a roll cover to help advance growth

“One of the advantages is that we do get crops early which is one reason we can start our CSA earlier than some other farms and get some things on the shelves in stores,” says Pincus. Even though the farm does operate with eight tractors and a variety of mechanical tools, Pincus says it takes about 450 hours of hired labor per acre planted to make the farm run smoothly. How does that compare to a conventional farmer’s methods? “[Farms] growing corn and soybeans the conventional way, they might put in one hour or one and a half hours of labor per acre,” says Pincus. “They have incredibly large equipment and nobody even sees the fields in the middle of the summer. It’s totally different. It’s the nature of vegetables vs. other crops. It’s a lot of people. It takes a lot of time to make it work even with all of the equipment.” It also takes a lot of farmer with a whole lot of love for the land to grow a quality crop.

Tipi Produce CSA

2012 marks the 10th anniversary of Tipi Produce operating at its current homestead. Tipi offers a 26-week CSA (mid-May to early November) with 13 pick-up sites in the Madison, Janesville and Milwaukee areas, including the farm itself, which is located 35 minutes southeast of Madison and one hour and 45 minutes west of Milwaukee. The farm is still accepting registrations for the 2012 season, and expects to begin deliveries during the third week of May.

Produce grown on the farm: The farm offers the complete line of crops it sells to local stores, plus additional crops nurtured in small quantities for CSA members only.

Crops grown on the farm include: Asian greens (bok choy, tah tsai, etc.), asparagus, beets, beans, broccoli and Romanesco broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage (green, red, savoy, napa), carrots, cauliflower, celeriac, cucumbers or pickles, edamame soybeans, eggplant, herbs (basil, cilantro, dill, parsley, oregano), fennel, garlic, greens (collards, kales, mustards), leeks, lettuce, mushrooms, onions (walla walla, Spanish, red, yellow), parsnip, peas (snap, snow), peppers (green, red, orange, yellow bells, ethnic and hot), potatoes, pumpkins, radishes, raspberries, rhubarb, scallions, spinach, strawberries, sweet corn, sweet potatoes, Swiss chard, tomatoes (heirloom, slicing, plum, cherry), watermelons and muskmelons, winter squash, zucchini and summer squash.

Membership options: The farm offers several membership options. The weekly share (26 weeks) supplies enough produce for a family of four. The every-other-week share (13 weeks) offers the same size box as the standard share, but is delivered every other week. The farm also offers a winter share that consists of two large deliveries of stored vegetables in November and December. Tomatoes, peppers, basil and strawberries can be purchased in bulk for canning or freezing when crops are abundant.

Newsletter, farm events and U-picks: The farm issues a bi-weekly newsletter for its CSA members with information about the vegetables in the box, news on the farm, as well as some recipes. CSA members are encouraged to visit the farm for several celebrations each season, including a strawberry festival and a pumpkin U-pick and gleaning event. The farm expects to offer raspberry U-pick days in its young raspberry planting this season. The farm does charge for the strawberry and raspberries taken home, but not for pumpkins or gleanings.

Payments: The farm offers payment plans where a household can pay in full or pay in three installments. Low-income households can pay with food stamps or may be eligible for subsidies through the Partner Shares program. Members in the Madison area also may be eligible for a HMO rebate towards the cost of their CSA share.

Tipi Produce

14706 W. Ahara Rd. Evansville, WI 53536
Phone: (608) 882-6196
Email: csa@tipiproduce.com
Website: www.tipiproduce.com
CSA online sign-up: tipiproduce.csasignup.com/members

Why Buy Local?

Why Buy Local?

In our first post Nick talked a little bit about the “hows” of purchasing from a CSA.  But what about the “whys?” In the weeks and months to come, we will be documenting the farms we visit and the views of the farmers that work so hard to bring delicious wholesome food to our plates. But we have to stop and ask ourselves why? What motivates us to travel many miles to meet these hardworking individuals that toil over the land? What is behind the profound need to know our food growers and see from where our food comes? I do not believe one can begin this journey without first asking themselves these questions and finding answers that are right for them.

When Nick and I started this site we knew that there had to be others like us with the same desire to connect to local farmers, but not necessarily having the means to do so. It was then that we decided we not only wanted to represent ourselves in this process, but also others in search of the same knowledge and resources. Our mission is to develop a connection with the food growers of Wisconsin and come to a better understanding of the purest and most valuable forms of sustenance. Learning the ways, values and techniques of the local, small-town farmer, we will not only answer why we do what we do but why they do what they do.

Here are just a few reasons why we believe buying local and eating local is important:

The benefit of enjoying the highest quality of fresh and healthy food that is in season – Knowing the origin of your food is a valuable resource to which everyone should have access. Many times at the big-box grocery stores we are purchasing food that has traveled many miles with fillers and preservatives that are often unknown. Purchasing from a farm allows you the opportunity to have a dialogue with your farmer regarding the food that is grown so that you know exactly for what you are paying.

Support the “little guy,” not the food conglomerates – We can build a stronger local economy by putting the compensation back into the family farms that have the best interest of their communities in mind.

Reduce waste –  Buying local can cut the upcharge one pays in transportation, packaging and marketing costs of commercial, store-bought foods.

Get creative and make it a family activity – Become an extension of the local farmer by starting your own home garden. Do not let space limit you. Patio and balcony gardens are a manageable and affordable way to grow. At the end of season, experiment with canning, drying and freezing your harvest to last you throughout the year, or share with family and friends.

Become a better steward of the land – help to preserve the natural world for our generation and generations to come by supporting sustainable growing practices that are better for you, your children and the planet.

CSA 101: Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food

CSA 101: Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food

While the majority of Wisconsin residents were throwing back green beer and enjoying St. Patrick’s Day festivities, the Urban Ecology Center in Milwaukee hosted the 10th annual Local Farmer Open House on March 17.

Residents were able to interact with dozens of local farmers on hand promoting their farms and CSA programs. A CSA, otherwise known as community supported agriculture, has become a popular way for the community to purchase local, seasonal food directly from an area farmer.

Kimberly and I attended the event with hopes of signing up for our very first CSA. Boy were we surprised at the number of great local farmers and the services they provide.

Before we made our decision on what farm we would choose, we were able to sit in on three educational workshops. The first was on how to choose a CSA and what to expect, presented by Jamie Ferschinger, community program coordinator with the Urban Ecology Center. Next, Chef Annie Wegner LeFort led a discussion on how to get the most from a CSA purchase with some helpful tips on planning menus, cooking and preserving fruits and vegetables. Lastly, Lynn Markham from the UW System, led a discussion on how pesticides and food choice affect our health and water quality.

Armed with some great information, Kimberly and I navigated our way through the three levels of farmers’ booths. What better way to know where our food comes from than the farm owners themselves. Each gave us a run-down on their farm’s philosophy, how they care for their land, and how they operate their CSA.

Common questions we learned one should ask when searching for the CSA that is right for them are:

  • What do you sell?
  • What are your growing and production practices?
  • How do I order and buy from you?
  • Where and when are your pick-up sites?
  • What is the length of the season?
  • Can you describe the cost and size of your shares?

It is important to pick a farm that has an ideal drop-off location and time that fits into your schedule. While some farms do offer home delivery, most have drop-off sites where participants can pick up their box on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. Pick a CSA that fits the style of food you cook with or eat. Otherwise, you might have a box full of produce that goes to waste. Growing season and the length of the CSA is also important to consider. With pesticide use being a big decider for us, we sought answers on how the farmers fertilize their crops. Some do in fact spray, but have adopted techniques allowed by certified organic farming practices.While purchasing produce through a CSA can be a financial commitment that some may find difficult to make, many farms offer payment plans split throughout the growing season and accept food stamps and worker shares. Along with your box of produce, many farms provide newsletters that include recipes and tips on how to cook from what’s in your box, as well as the farm’s weekly happenings.

An up close and personal introduction with the farmers that are growing your food is an experience in which everyone should partake. Know your farmer, know your food.