As I sit down to write for the second spring share, I look out my window at the second heavy snow fall of the week. What a different spring this is from last year. Last year we were already able to work the soil in our outdoor fields in Mid-March, and by then abnormally dry conditions had already set in-conditions that have only recently started to turn around. We are glad for more precipitation, especially in the spring. Last year just felt strange--AND there were no morel mushrooms to be found! This year feels a little more normal, but we are indeed antsy to get into the fields to start planting for the regular season.
Because every year is so different, we have learned that you can't really count on anything! What does well one season may be a total bust the next year. So far that has proven to be true this year. Last year we were loading boxes with spinach that over-wintered in our outdoor fields under a temporary miniature version of a greenhouse. This year we have been unable to harvest that planting and so we are glad that we diversified with a planting in our hi-tunnel of both spinach and kale for spring shares.
Growing greens this time of year without supplemental heat and light feels a bit like wizardry. Nothing else outside has even greened up yet and the trees are still without leaves. The days to maturity dates in seed catalogues which are supposed to tell you how long a crop takes from seeding to harvest don't mean a thing. For example kale mix is supposed to take 30 days from planting to harvest. Well it was seeded last October and we are just harvesting it now, so that is actually 147 days! This kale, seeded last October, made it through the winter miniature in size which means that it remained that size for about 100 days. Since the last share on March 24th, it has tripled in size-so much so that we will offer it as bunched kale for the coming share.
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Imagine 30 two-hundred-foot-long rows of onions planted 6 inches apart. These onions will supply Three Sister's 250 CSA members with onions for several months each year. Transplanted in April, by June they have already been weeded with a tractor and hoed at least once. Now the plants have grown too big for these tools to be used, but a new flush of weeds is threatening to overtake the entire crop. Something needs to be done or the weeds will outpace the crop and the onions will be stunted and lost in a forest of weeds come harvest time in August.
These onions need to be hand-weeded; a task that would theoretically take one farmer 40 hours to complete. It is however unlikely that any one farmer would be able to complete this task; there’s too much else to do at the same time, and one’s physical body or mental health would likely give out before the task was complete.
At Three Sisters Community Farm we have always taken a community-oriented approach to solving the problem of a burdensome workload. When 13 people show up on a Saturday morning – like they did this year -- weeding the onions only takes 3 hours, and no one leaves feeling physically or mentally exhausted. In fact, the work seems almost effortless. During such sessions, members and farmers can get to know each other and share stories and ideas that lead to the further development of the farm community. And it’s fun!
Hand weeding onions is just one example of a long list of epic tasks that present themselves one-after-another each growing season on a diversified organic vegetable farm.
Each year the work of feeding 250 families/friends is made possible by a small core of employees and contractors and a much larger army of volunteers. On any given week there are between 15-45 people helping out with harvest, field work. packing boxes or overseeing our pickup locations. That is ALOT of people! We are so thankful for this crew. We believe that people power allows us to produce a much higher quality product than the industrial food system, not only because things are done by hand but also because they are done with heart.
We are excited to announce that next year we will place even more emphasis on our volunteer program. Alyx -- who has been both a worker share volunteer and employee at the farm -- will step into the role of volunteer/social coordinator. In this capacity, she’ll help us streamline and grow our volunteer program as well as provide new and fun opportunities that will serve members of all ages. This is a role that needs more attention than we have been able to manage, and Alyx has the skills to take this aspect of Three Sisters to the next level.
In order to take this leap we are asking for your help. We know that the benefit of this program to the farm will sustain its cost in the future; it is during the initial phase of its development that we ask for your support. If you have ever been positively impacted by your time as a volunteer or benefitted from the work of a farm volunteer we ask that you consider a gift to help support the salary of the volunteer coordinator position at Three Sisters Community Farm as well as the procurement of additional tools, signs, infrastructure, advertising/outreach that will help make this initiative a success.
How will these needs be met? (Part Two)
After ramping up our infrastructure over the past three years, we’re now ready to bring on some co-workers to help move Three Sisters forward. Last winter, after crunching some numbers and honing a vision of the next four years that includes some modest growth (view our 4 year financial projections here) we realized some financial assistance would be helpful to support the creation of the new salaried positions we identified as integral to this next phase. We learned we were prime candidates for a USDA Rural Development grant program that focuses on supporting the creation of jobs in agriculture, and also learned that our chances of receiving an award were good due to an influx of Covid-19 relief funds into the available pool. All that was needed was the commitment of time and energy to complete the application.
During the months of February, March, April and May this year Kelly felt as if she was forging the future of Three Sisters in a bureaucratic crucible. In the end the grant ate up at least 100 hours of precious down-season and planning time, and was over 100 pages of essays, cash flow projections, financial statements, job descriptions and supporting documentation. Finishing the grant would not have been possible without the help of several friends, notably Angie, Sarah and Stephanie.
We found out in August that the grant was funded! This gives us some additional confidence to step toward a new future. Starting in 2022 the farm will bring on two co-workers, Adrian and Alyx. We have worked with both these fine individuals in the past. The USDA grant will cover half of the salary of one full-time person for a year for their role helping Jeff in our vegetable pack shed. Adrian brings his experience and expertise to the production side of the farm, and to the development of our fruit orchard.
The talented Alyx we see wearing many hats: serving as member liaison and helping with farmwork and packing. Also, we’re excited for her to wield her considerable people skills as the farm’s social coordinator – think more volunteer opportunities, more on-farm events. It’s for this aspect of Alyx’s role that we will soon launch a crowd-funded campaign.
We are stepping into a new era at Three Sisters! We are thankful for any support you have showed us so far and we hope you will continue to be a part of the journey.
2021 – Three Sisters Community Farm’s 10th season – is coming to a close next week! And what a season it was.
We trialed our first Spring Share in March – the most challenging time of year to produce local produce –and it was a success. We hope to expand this offering in 2022 and beyond.
Our Summer Share filled up earlier than ever. We delivered (working with new local delivery company Farmstead Logistics) about 180 boxes each week, serving over 250 families – the most we’ve ever served.
We weathered – through lots of sweat and extra work moving irrigation around -- an epic early dry spell with minimal crop losses.
We learned, in August, that Kelly’s 100+ hours of toil on a USDA Rural Development Grant earlier this year paid off. This funding gives us a real boost to take Three Sisters to the next level – more on that to come.
While a few finishing touches remain, we largely completed a 3-year, member-financed infrastructure upgrade project. The final component -- a new packshed, complete with a big new cooler and more professional vegetable washing and handling equipment – is ready to go for the 2022 season (for which signups will open in December!).
Not many small, local farms make it to 10 years, and we’re pretty grateful to be where we’re at. After 10+ years of this crazy work we’re also, to paraphrase Willie Nelson, “surprised to find our minds (and our bodies!) still fairly sound.” So, what’s next? What do we feel is being asked of us, from you our members and from the times we live in? And how can we artfully steward Three Sisters into a new phase in a way that meets everyone’s needs?
Even before the past couple years, the message we’ve gotten from supporters and from observing our larger societal situation is clear: our work is needed! Specifically:
• We strive to grow healthy, fresh food with integrity and openness. Such food, unfortunately, is rare. It’s understandable, then, that our customer base has been asking us to serve for more people, and for more of the year. For the past few years we’ve reached our membership goals earlier and earlier, often having to turn many interested people away.
• Nature in general and agricultural lands in particular need help and healing. The land is asking for more attention and care. Such efforts take time and resources. We’re blessed to steward 33+ acres of land and have implemented (in partnership with our like-minded landowners) a host of practices aimed at building soil, encouraging biodiversity, and increasing pollinator habitat.
•Friends, acquaintances and people we haven’t even met yet are asking for a positive place to volunteer, work and contribute to the greater good. We strive to create a space for farm-centered social healing, a place where urban and rural people alike can exchange ideas, increase awareness of and participate in responsible land stewardship, and engage together in meaningful, mindful and enjoyable work.
•Internally, Jeff and Kelly are asking to reduce the burden of too much responsibility and be more realistic and proactive about drawing a salary from the business to meet modest personal needs – all while compensating other helpers fairly and equitably.
How will these needs be met? Stay tuned for the next installment.
-This week continued to be quite busy at the farm. Fall cleanup and winterization is the least glamorous part of the yearly workload--pulling up landscape fabric, taking out trellising stakes, mulching garlic with leaves, moving frost blankets and sandbags and mowing crops that stopped producing are just a few tasks that kept us busy. This time of year everything is rotten, moldy, cold, dirty and wet. Anyone who thinks having a small farm is romantic has obviously never helped out during this time of year. I manage to stay amused by throwing rotten melons and tomatoes at my coworkers.
There is always so much physical and manual labor to do on the farm to grow and distribute vegetables. Each year our work is made possible by a small core of employees and contractors and a much larger army of volunteers. On any given week there are between 15-45 people helping out with harvest, field work. packing boxes, or overseeing our pick up locations. That is ALOT of people! Sometimes people think its just Jeff and I doing everything-which couldn’t be further from the truth. We are so thankful for this crew. People power is our secret weapon or magic power that allows us to produce a much higher quality product than the industrial food system. I believe this is not only because things are done by hand but also because they are done with heart.
We are excited to announce that next year we will place even more emphasis on our volunteer program. Stay tuned in the coming days to find out how you can help us with this! Thank you to everyone who has helped out this year at the farm in any capacity:
Joseph, Alyx, Gillian, Angie, Renee, Mikayla, Susan, Kathryn, Barb, Cory, Sarah, Andrew, Clarissa, Stephen, Sam, Scott, Tim, Robin, Theresa, Jillian, Alicia, Michael, Ken, Laura, Monica, Ryan, Jessica, Lynn, Jaime, Kate, Maria, Becky, Carmen, Rob, Anna, Alissa, Linda, Mackenzie, Jan, Chris, Linsey, Carly, Courtney, Kim, Greg, Jessie, Mia, Eli, Avi, Mordy
Last week we planted our garlic for the 2022 season using garlic that we grew at the farm this year. We are currently taking stock of what remains after planting. We have two really solid varieties of garlic that we have been growing and developing for years. The first variety is called “Mom’s” because we were given some seed heads from my Mom who had been growing this variety for many years after receiving seeds from a little old lady who patronized the local meat market where she worked. This variety is the best tasting garlic we have tried, with a super balanced flavor profile that doesn’t come on too strong even when eaten raw such as in pesto.This variety is a cold hardy hard neck rocambole type. When comparing it to named garlic varieties, “German Red” is the variety that it most closely resembles. We have been growing and selecting this variety since 2011.
The second variety that we grow was originally gifted to us by our friend Ken as a wedding gift in the fall of 2014. While we call this variety, “Ken’s,” it is actually called “Armenian.” When Ken gave us this garlic it typically produced 3-4 very large cloves per bulb. We have selected it to consistently produce 5-7 medium to large cloves. The flavor profile of this variety is a close second to “Mom’s”, and it has the added benefit of having larger cloves which most people prefer.
In addition to our two solid varieties, since 2019 we have been developing and growing a third variety which is called “Chesnok Red.” We have not yet been able to hand out this variety because we are still working on selecting for larger bulb size. This variety has pretty darn good flavor, though not as good as the first two varieties. It has ALOT of cloves in each bulb -- an outer ring of larger cloves and an inner ring of smaller cloves. It has a really pretty pink color skin when properly cleaned. These are a couple of reasons we are developing a 3rd vareity:
The 2021 season is off and running, but before things get too crazy we thought we'd pause to celebrate Three Sisters' 10th anniversary. Enjoy this pictorial stroll through the years...
In 2011 we left the farm-based non-profit Wellspring (where we'd been managing the CSA program) and struck out on our own. With few resources, we crashed in Kelly's mom's basement, worked other jobs, and started Three Sisters' Farm on Kelly's family's land.
Kelly's neighbor took a liking to our project and, because she was ready to move, offered to sell her property to us. It wasn't the picturesque 40 acre parcel we had imagined (it is actually 3.8 acres, the majority of which is kind of swampy), but we needed a homebase and couldn't afford to be too picky. Working with the USDA, we secured a beginning farmer loan and got to work establishing some veggie growing infrastructure.
During these years we expanded a bit each season and tried to get creative with the CSA concept. In 2014 we set up an online ecommerce site that allowed members to choose the contents of their weekly box -- it was a hit. Having maxed out our 3.8 acres, we looked elsewhere for additional land to rent and learned a secret of growing tasty, nutritious veggies: make and apply lots of quality compost!
As any small, values-driven business owner knows (especially farmers!), it is sometimes easy to focus on what's going wrong, on what's lacking. When the dust settled after our initial farm-building push and a couple challenging years, it was apparent we needed to make some changes. But it was also apparent that we had it pretty good -- that we were blessed with wonderful friends and family, an amazing group of supporters, and a beautiful small farm. Renewed by this realization, we set to work to take Three Sisters to the next level, one -- especially -- in which Farmers Jeff and Kelly would not be responsible for all the work!
Serendipitously, a friend connected us to a group of ecologically-minded investors who were looking to support organic farmers and build pollinator habitat. With this group we worked to purchase a 29-acre parcel about 5 minutes from our home farm. Three Sisters has a long-term lease to farm this property. We organically certified it in 2019, planted about 500 fruit trees, and are in the process of establishing habitat for pollinators -- especially monarch butterflies -- on a large portion.
With this important piece of the puzzle in place (stable land access is a serious hurdle for beginning farmers) we felt confident to reinvest in our equipment and infrastructure. We asked our members for a loan and they responded enthusiastically. With this capital infusion we initiated a carefully-planned 3-year Community Loan expansion project, which we've documented on this site.
While a lot of detail work remains, over the past three years we've managed (while growing the CSA every year to meet unprecedented demand) to get the infrastructural "bones" of a new, larger farm in place -- a farm capable of equitably supporting more farmers and of meeting the needs of more eaters. We've had some amazing part-time employees the past two years but now (one of our biggest feats yet!) we would like to, in addition, bring on another full-time farmer.
To help achieve that goal, Kelly dove headlong this winter and spring into the writing of a USDA grant that would help support the salary of an additional farmer for a year until we ramp up production to support them on our own. This was an epic task -- such grants are not particularly "farmer friendly!" We find out in September if we received it.
Even if we don't, we'll still move forward with our plan -- because we've got someone in mind: our friend Adrian Lee. Adrian's been a wonderful presence in our world -- and in the larger sustainable ag world of SE Wisconsin -- since he interned at Wellspring in 2009 when Kelly and Jeff were managing. He is a highly skilled, versatile farmer and orchardist with tons of experience on farms of various sizes and scope. Most of the fruit trees we planted in 2019 were from his nursery; to really thrive and come to "fruition" they need the focus and expertise of someone of Adrian's caliber -- we're hoping he'll take on the challenge as well as contribute to the functioning of a larger, broader, more holistic farm.
"Broader" because we've just wrapped up a trial run (for a small number of brave members) of a "Spring Share." This share mirrors our Fall Share, started in March and included lots of overwintered roots, frost-sweetened spinach (you can't get that from California!), squash and much else. It went pretty well but we'd like to fine-tune it before rolling it out on a larger scale next Spring.
Here's to a happy, healthy and abundant 2021 season, and beyond! -- Farmer Jeff
December was fairly mild at the farm which meant that we were able to get a concrete floor poured in our new building. We had some garlic leftover and since the ground wasn’t frozen yet we decided to plant another 1800 bulbs-which was in addition to the 9,000 bulbs we had planted in late October.
January is a month that in addition to all the regular annual business tasks which I will not tell you about because it would be too boring- we place our seed order. In other years we have encouraged members to vote on new varieties we should trial. This year there will not be a vote because we placed our orders earlier than ever—one at the end of December and the remaining order a couple of weeks ago.
Seed companies are struggling to keep up with the overwhelming demand from new customers. It is not surprising that the pandemic has engendered an interest in seeds. Afterall seeds represent hope and security.
One of our main suppliers has stopped taking orders from home gardeners except one day a week. They are mailing orders without germination test results on packages because as one employee of the company said “if it means we can get 1,000 more orders out the door in one day we thought our growers would appreciated that”.
We are still in limbo waiting to see if certain things we ordered are out of stock. In past years our orders might have showed up with in 7 days. This year it may take up to 30. I nearly started crying when I saw that my favorite red slicing hoop house tomato, Bolseno, was unavailable this year because of a seed crop failure. I was left with no choice but to try something new and settled on a variety called Geronimo.
We often feel that it would be better if we were able to save more of our own seeds. Each year we try to save seeds from a couple of things. All of our garlic and some of our potatoes are replanted from our own seed stock. We also save seeds from a few varieties of tomatoes and lettuce. The reality we face is that seed saving is time consuming and really complicated. To do it efficiently specialized equipment would be necessary. For this reason we are glad that there are reputable companies that focus on sourcing high quality seeds that perform well in our bioregion.
The more one comes to know about the seed industry the more one is faced with difficult ethical questions about woman’s/man’s relationship to the natural world. A person has to grapple with the notion of intellectual property, genetic modification, and chemical usage to name a few ‘light’ subjects.
We do not purchase seeds that have been genetically modified. There will be no fish genes in the tomato you eat grown by Three Sisters Farm. We also do not purchase seeds that have been treated with any chemicals. We do purchase some varieties that have been patented. This often means that a portion of the cost of the seed goes to the plant breeder-which seems reasonable that they would be compensated for their work. We appreciate the innovative work plant breeders using the organic paradigm are doing-developing varieties that perform better and taste amazing.
This week on the farm a haze of smoke from the fires burning out west filled the air on Tuesday and Wednesday making it hard to breathe and reminding us that while everything seems hunky-dory here there are tragedies and hardships happening elsewhere.
As our consciousness expands to encompass the happenings of a global community facing many challenges right now the feeling of hardship and suffering can feel overwhelming at times.
Jeff and I both came to the work we do, despite a lack of a cultural narrative that this was a viable future path, from a place of searching for a way to live in the world that we felt made sense to us . Ten years later, it has been a bumpy road and much of our idealism toward the work has faded away. However, the sense that what we are doing makes sense remains--as well as the gratitude for being privileged to do this work.
Agriculture has a huge impact on our landscape and the health of our soil and water(I would also argue our human population). Much of the food produced in this country is grown using extractive and destructive techniques and strategies that kill the life in the soil and contaminate the waterways and poison the creatures that live therein. Grimm picture, right? We have had the opportunity to take over several conventionally managed corn fields--the soil is brittle and mineralized, almost powdery. The soil in this state can no longer support the healthy growth of plants of its own accord. It becomes dependent on a system of inputs in order to make things grow. The inputs, many of which are carcinogenic, are applied year after year. They wash away into our ground water, streams and rivers.
At Three Sisters we are passionate about developing regenerative practices to bring a healing impact to the land we are managing as well as a higher nutritional value to the food we produce. We have found that compost is the solution to pretty much all the problems mentioned above. It can supply a crop with the needed macro and micro nutrients, builds soil life, is not toxic in the least and is stable and so doesn't leach anything nasty into our waterways. Additionally it increases a plant's disease and pest resistance making the use of toxic pesticides and fungicides unnecessary. It also imparts quality to the food we grow, helping it store longer. Our main challenge now as we see it, is how to sustainably produce as much compost as possible on our farm.
The fact that there is unprecedented support for the work we do right now is a hopeful sign that awareness of the importance of shifting the paradigm of agriculture in this country is increasing.
-Have a good weekend,
During the months of March and April Jeff and I are the primary workers at Three Sisters. Just like each of the past nine springs, we are hard at work getting the farm into motion to provide food for you, our members and supporters. You-all along with our family and friends have been at the forefront of our minds as we enter this new phase in physical isolation I(Kelly) have personally taken up the practice of sending out loving kindness to anyone I can visualize in my evening meditations.
The first round of greenhouse seeding has already happened: the onions are up and looking good. They’ll be transplanted in another month. In the hoophouses peas are seeded and up -- we always aim for these to be ready for our first boxes at the beginning of June -- and we are busily preparing beds which will soon be filled with greens and radishes, and then with tomatoes and cucumbers. So far it has been fairly dry (a welcome relief from last fall!) and we are well-prepared and excited for the year.
In May we begin to welcome more help at the farm. Food safety and the health and well-being of everyone connected to our farm has always been a high priority for us. In the current times this takes on new meaning. We continue to monitor the situation and stay current with recommendations for sanitation and social contact that are coming our way. Because we are a small farm with an amazing network of human resources--with some creativity--we can always make adjustments to our dropsite pickups where necessary to make sure that you receive your scheduled deliveries of fresh produce this summer.
Just like every year at this time, spring is returning to Wisconsin. The robins(blissfully unaware of COVID-19) are dancing around the yard and fighting over worms, the maple sap has stopped flowing (we got several quarts cooked down this year!), the rhubarb is poking up and, just the other day, we were awed by the beautiful sight of sixty or more sandhill cranes flying and trumpeting in formation overhead. In the wake of rapid changes in the lives of those surrounding us right now the rhythmic connection with the returning spring feels like a real blessing.
While it may be a little early to say for sure, we are cautiously optimistic about the 500 fruit trees we planted last spring. We did the best we could to protect these: a deer fence seems to have kept the deer from snacking on branches, and individual tree guards (many installed by volunteers) seem to (mostly) have kept the field mice or voles from girdling the bark. The other day we replaced a few trees that died with some we held back in a nursery bed. Now, this year we’ll shift modes: we made a huge amount of compost which we’ll apply to help the trees grow strong and healthy; and we recently scored a boatload of woodchips, which will serve as mulch to help roots grow deep and unencumbered. Healthy trees will (fingers crossed!) yield healthy, nutrient-dense organic fruit… in maybe four years.
Finally, if you or someone you know has experienced a sudden change in income and is a CSA member or considering joining the CSA please consider contacting us about our assistance fund. We have funds available to subsidize the cost of a CSA share that have been contributed by our members.
We sincerely hope you and your families are healthy and warm. Let us know if you have any questions about the upcoming season. We’ll be updating you in the coming weeks as we near the start of deliveries at the end of May/early June. Until then --
With courage and calm,
Farmers Jeff and Kelly