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.
Unlike 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.
Although 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.”
Jeff 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.
“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.
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.
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.”
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.
Besides 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.
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.
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.