Three Sisters Community Farm: From Farm to Doorstep

Jeff Schreiber and Kelly Kiefer are the owners and farmers at Three Sisters Community Farm in Campbellsport, Wis.

What if you were told that you could get a box of fresh, organic produce, delivered to your doorstep every Thursday from June to mid-October from a local farmer? Nearly 70 households in southeastern Wisconsin already do, thanks to farmers Kelly Kiefer and Jeff Schreiber, owners of Three Sisters Community Farm in Campbellsport, Wis.

While home delivery isn’t new, it’s rare nowadays to find farmers like Kelly and Jeff who do the fieldwork, harvest crops, pack the CSA boxes and drive to customers’ houses to drop off bushels of organic vegetables on their front stoops.

tomatotransplantsUnlike the traditional CSA model of having drop sites where customers go to pick up their produce, Three Sisters, behind a push from the marketplace, the proliferation of middle-man “box schemes,” and their own “think outside the box” mentality, decided to tinker with the way they conduct business. They’ve found their home delivery CSA model to be successful.

“We found that it actually isn’t that much more time than going to centralized drop sites, and it fits with our philosophy of having a direct connection with the people that we serve,” Jeff says. “There is this sort of connection, dropping off the box at somebody’s house.”

In addition to offering home delivery, Three Sisters also gives their customers what is referred to as a choice option, or “U-pick,” with their weekly CSA share. Some CSAs have centralized drop sites and allow their members to take produce that they want and leave behind what they won’t use. Kelly and Jeff offer this option, but instead allow customers to customize what is in their share on a weekly basis via their online e-commerce store.

“One of the biggest things that people want who do CSAs is more choice in what they get in their box,” says Jeff. “But that has to be balanced with what we’re doing too because it’s challenging to offer a lot of options each week. So we have a balance where we have four or five core items that we’re deciding and we’ve learned over the years of doing this, that people generally want carrots and fruits and things like that. Those are high-value items to most people. Not everybody wants kale every week. So, something like that might be in the choice item and somebody may get five boxes of kale if they were really keen about kale. We’re trying to offer a little more choice to people. So we’re tweaking with the original model of CSA a little bit to try and meet people’s needs nowadays.”

Fresh On the CSA Scene

While Kelly and Jeff have over 10 years of farming experience, Three Sisters is still relatively a fresh face on the CSA scene. After gaining valuable experience working for Wellspring in West Bend, Wis., for several years, the couple decided to pursue their dreams of owning their own farm. In 2011, they formed Three Sisters Community Farm on Kelly’s family’s land in Campbellsport, where she was raised with her two sisters, Angie and Michele. The name is also synonymous for a Native American planting of corn, beans and squash.

ducksAlthough Kelly and Jeff had big dreams, they knew they had to start small. With no money saved up to buy their own property to farm, the couple moved into Kelly’s family’s house and used the available land on the property to jumpstart their CSA, providing produce to six shareholders.

The couple quickly gained notoriety for themselves during their first season. Undeniably, their biggest fan was their neighbor, Dorothy, a woman in her 80s, who no longer could maintain her property that she was using to raise sheep.

“Dorothy would talk to me over the fence and she was really into what we were doing,” says Kelly. “And by the end of the year she made it clear that she was selling her place because she couldn’t take care of it by herself anymore. She was pretty forceful about getting us to buy it.”

transplantsJeff and Kelly spent their entire first year drawing up their business plan. While Jeff had a much more grandiose plan for the farm, Kelly convinced him that starting small was in their best interests. And then everything just came together and felt right. Kelly and Jeff purchased Dorothy’s property in April 2012 with help from the Farm Service Agency (FSA) and transformed it into the home base for Three Sisters.

Between their new land purchase and continuing to use the family’s land next door, Three Sisters now has close to five acres of land to grow on. This season they’re also renting an additional three acres of land in West Bend at Suave Terre Farm.

While Kelly and Jeff are still settling into their new home, things are shaping up for Three Sisters’ future. Besides focusing on the day-to-day activities surrounding the CSA, they’ve been busy constructing a massive 34 feet wide by 312 feet long hoophouse, a new greenhouse, and planting of a variety of fruit trees that will allow them to increase their customer reach, expand their growing season (they are offering a winter share for the first time this year), and ensure success for many more years to come.

hoophouse“We’re planting a lot of fruit trees this year because in three to five years we’d like to start offering fruit to our members because we feel that’s a huge need,” says Kelly. “I always hear people say they don’t know how to cook or don’t know what to do with vegetables. With fruit you just eat it. Especially with fruit, the varieties that we can grow, because we’re not shipping them across the country, we can grow varieties that are just out of this world. We can pick varieties for flavor, not for how well they can ship. So we’re really excited about that.”

One of the visions on the farm is to have full rows of blackberries and grapes. However, that means eliminating the space they currently use for vegetable growing. Kelly says that it is intentional.

“When you’re planting plants that take three to seven years to bear fruit you want to have them on your land, whereas the vegetables we can rent land,” she says.

Fruits of Their Labor

For Kelly and Jeff, farming is not a 9-to-5 job. It’s a 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. job most days and it involves a lot of manual labor. But this year, they’re not ashamed to ask for some help. They’re offering worker shares for people who agree to work four hours a week on the farm in exchange for a share of produce. They’ve also offered discounts this season for those members who agree to work two four-hour shifts on the farm.

The Drangen is a lay-down work cart used at Three Sisters Community Farm in the fields to weed and transplant.

Although they are a small-scale farm, they also rely on an appropriate scale of mechanization to ease the strain on their bodies. So, they have a tractor to plow the fields and a motorized machine for tasks like weeding and transplanting.

“We are able to do most of what we do by hand,” says Jeff. “We aren’t beyond the human scale. We might need a few extra hands some days but we’re trying to strike a balance of making a living doing this and having it be human scaled and small.”

Kelly and Jeff have their own designated tasks on the farm. Kelly is in charge of the greenhouse work, field work, transplanting, weeding, watching the plants, putting on reemay row cover, administrative tasks such as accounting, responding to emails, and getting information out to their members.

While Kelly is really detailed, Jeff is in charge of getting the larger systems in place on the farm. He prepares all of the growing beds, does all of the tractor work, manages their compost, constructs new structures, and is designated as the “perennials guy” on the farm. This spring he planted apple trees, pear trees, raspberries, and has grafted 100 plum rootstocks.

Farmer Kelly Kiefer of Three Sisters Community Farm in Campbellsport, Wis.They each have their own fields that they maintain, but they coordinate each morning to make sure they are making the best use of their time.

Besides working as full-time farmers, Jeff teaches two English classes a semester at Marian University and Kelly works part-time at a coffee shop in Port Washington. But, as they get more established with Three Sisters, they hope to soon only focus on farming full time.

“Our reputation is the most important thing so we didn’t want to sell more shares than we could handle,” says Kelly.  “We could have sold 50 shares last year but we probably wouldn’t have had very good shares. And so it’s lets do what we can do and supplement our income with other jobs. But we’re getting to the point  where we’re more confident in what we’re doing and things are starting to be in place a little more.”

Plowing Ahead

While Three Sisters uses 100 percent organic practices, the farm is not certified organic. However, they have plans to get certified in the coming years.

“We’ve been on the fence because we grow organically and we want to stay at a size where we know all of our members and they can come out and visit and that they just trust us with what we’re doing,” says Kelly.

The farm actually maintains records as if they were certified organic growers.

beekeepingBesides produce, Three Sisters also raises free range chickens and ducks on the farm, and Kelly’s sister Angie has three horses that are kept on her family’s land next door that they use their manure for making compost. They have plans to expand on their livestock options in the future.

“Right now we’re just dipping our toes in the water with some different livestock options,” says Kelly. ‘It’s really part of our long-term goal to have some land to graze some animals because with vegetables, one things that is overlooked is you need a lot of fertility, and if you don’t have animals to have manure, your system isn’t complete. We just haven’t felt comfortable purchasing conventional manure because of antibiotics.”

The farm also keeps honey bees. They are used mostly for pollinating the vegetables, and as an added incentive they get a little bit of honey that they keep for themselves. But, Kelly says she is learning more about beekeeping, and it eventually might be an enterprise where the farm could offer their own honey to their shareholders. Currently, they only offer honey to the farm’s members from Bernie’s Bees, Kelly’s beekeeping mentor.

Their big picture goal is to make the farm a center of activity.

Three Sisters Community Farm in Campbellsport, Wis.“We’d like to get to that point where it’s a center of social activity as well as a farm,” says Kelly. “It’s really our goal to have a diverse farm.”

They’ve already started in small ways. Kelly’s sister Angie, who is a teacher in Chicago, is already planning activities for their member’s kids this year.

“That’s a huge need of our members,” says Kelly. “They always want to bring their kids out to the farm. It’s difficult to integrate the kids into the real work that needs to happen. The members will come out and work the four hours on the farm and they’ll bring their kids and my sister will work with the kids.”

Kelly and Jeff will admit they’ve still got a long way to go, but with the passion they exude for farming and providing fresh and healthy produce to families across southeastern Wisconsin, we’re confident this young farming couple has what it takes to rise to the top.

Three Sisters’ CSA Home Delivery

Three Sisters offers a unique “U-pick,” home-delivered CSA option where for every Thursday for 20 weeks from June until mid-October, the farm delivers a box of fresh produce to your doorstep. The farm delivers to select ZIP codes in Milwaukee, Wauwatosa, Brookfield, Elm Grove, Shorewood, Whitefish Bay, West Bend, and Campbellsport.

The farm also offers bi-weekly shares (delivered every other week) to members with smaller households or for those who don’t want as much produce.

Starting in 2013, Three Sisters is allowing for both regular and bi-weekly members the option to customize the contents of their box via the farm’s online ecommerce store. Members also have the option to purchase additional items such as eggs and honey. However, if members don’t prefer to pick and choose the produce they will be receiving, the farm will pack a share based on what is the freshest produce that week.

Three Sisters also offers a shareholder discount to those members who agree to a farmwork agreement to get their hands dirty and help out on the farm. Members can receive a discount if they agree to work two four-hour farm shifts over the course of the season. Work times are Wednesday and Thursday mornings, and a limited number of Sunday mornings.

Farmer’s Market

Three Sisters is a regular attendee of the Wauwatosa Farmer’s Market, which is held every Saturday from 8 a.m.-Noon from June to mid-October.

threesistersbarnThree Sisters Community Farm
W3158 Hwy 67
Campbellsport, WI 53010
(920) 533-3042
threesisterscsa@gmail.com
http://threesisterscommunityfarm.com/
Like Three Sisters on Facebook

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.

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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