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.”
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.
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.
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.
“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.