Spring has not yet sprung here at Three Sisters Farm, but it seems oh so close! If you’ve been dreaming of fresh, tasty veggies like we have, come commiserate with your farmers this Saturday at the Urban Ecology Center’s CSA Open House, from 11-3. Farmers Jeff and Kelly will both be there and would love to say hi!
New Beginnings thanks largely to a successful member-funded loan campaign last fall (Thank You!), we’re diving in to the next stage in the farm’s development. We’ve spent the winter researching and making plans and now -- from snow melt until about our first deliveries, when we get too busy for much else -- the race is on to enact some of these exciting developments. Here’s a taste:We’ve been enjoying tasty salads of spinach and lettuce mix from our hoophouse almost daily over the past few weeks -- so much better than the tasteless California stuff! Jealous? Well, we’d like to offer the same to you, along with some of our nice storage vegetables, starting with a Spring Share next year. But doing so means lots of changes. We’re re-habbing our current hoophouse, and are in the process of constructing another one. A new larger and adequately heated greenhouse will let us get started earlier (Kelly’s in there seeding onions as I write).
Additionally, a revamped washing and packing area -- complete with a greens spinner to better dry your greens, and a larger cooler to hold more produce -- is getting off the ground. On top of all this is the fact that growing greens in the winter in our climate is expert-level stuff. Kelly’s taken on the task, so it is good that she is, in fact, an expert.
Farmer Jeff, meanwhile, has been hard at work designing and laying out our new site. This 29-acre parcel is nearer to our home farm than where we’ve been growing, and is a really cool partnership with some ecologically-minded investors who want to establish habitat for monarch butterflies and other pollinators. Jeff’s been laying out the growing fields and crop rotation, which will include a unique system of cover-cropped aisles between the vegetable growing beds. We hope to modestly begin a farm stand there this summer, and also to plant a bunch of fruit trees.
More on that below.Fruit! We’ve long wanted to add high-quality, locally-grown fruit to what we offer you, but establishing and growing fruit trees successfully and organically is no easy task (especially while you’re also trying to grow high-quality and tasty vegetables). Now though (fingers crossed) the stars may be aligned. There is plenty of space at the new site for fruit trees, and a secure long-term lease makes planting them worth the investment and time. Add to this the fact that we dug hundreds and hundreds of fruit trees last fall, from our own nursery bed and that of our friend and nurseryman Adrian Lee, and stored them in our barn this winter. Provided they survived the brutal temps, we hope to get them in the ground this spring.The main impetus behind this initiative, while it is still evolving, is not to start some kind of orchard following a conventional business model. No, our times call for a different approach. We’re accordingly imagining something like what we do with vegetables, call it “fruit for 100 families.” A diversity of seasonal fruits -- apples, plums, pears, peaches and more -- will be grown and distributed as a “share” through the season to those who value quality local and organically-grown fruits. We’ll do the bulk of the work but -- even more than with vegetables -- we’ll need some extra help for the really labor-intensive tasks like pruning, thinning and harvesting (this will all be 3-4 years off). If you’re interested in being part of this “core group” -- this “fruit crew” -- (with plenty of fruit to reward your troubles) then planting this spring would be a great time to explore your interest. Get in touch with us if so!
Tuesday evening was a bit of an emergency situation at the farm because we received an epic amount of rain and our electricity went off because of several tornados and strong winds in the area. With no electricity to run our sump pump to take water out of our basement, which was rapidly pouring in, our basement was flooding and the same thing was happening to my mom who lives next door by herself. We were able to eventually get some gas pumps and generators(stuff that was sitting around that hadn't been used in years and that all had dubious spark plugs) set up but not until 4-5 inches of water had entered each of our the basements. Luckily my mom keeps gas on hand and we were able to power the pumps because the whole town was out of power(you can't get gas at the gas station without electricity) and many roads to other communities were closed due to downed trees and localized flooding.
It was a long, rough and tiring night. We were running a gas powered pond pump to remove water from our basement but we were unable to adequately vent the gas pump that was at the bottom of our basement stairs and it filled our house with carbon monoxide gas. We new the levels were high and kept out of the house which meant we were in the rain and our van with our cats all night. We made the decision to run the pump to avoid thousands of dollars of damage to the furnace, water heater and well pressure tank that are in the basement.
We called the natural gas company to disable our service in case the flooding that happened before we got the gas powered pump working had put out the pilot light on our water heater so that the house wouldn't fill with natural gas. When the man from the natural gas company arrived he didn't know we were in our van and his Carbon Monoxide meter went off so he called the first responders in a panic worried that someone was passed out in the basement.
The fire department showed up and ventilated the house. We were unable to turn the pump back on after that. It was about 4:30 in the morning and it was still raining so we figured despite our efforts the basement was to be flooded anyway...and at that point we were so exhausted and glad to be alive that we accepted that as our reality.
Eventually the rain let up and in the morning we were surprised to find that it had made all the difference. Water hadn't continued to pour in at epic rates and there was only an inch or two of water on the floor. The fact that we were able to pump out the majority of it with the pond pump had saved the basement, and fortunately no one was hurt in the process. Most things in the basement were up on cement blocks and would be ok.
In the morning when stores opened we were able to purchase a generator to run a pump that didn't have to be located inside to continue to remove the water. The rain stopped completely too, which helped.
The electric company was unable to give any estimate of when power would be restored which made it almost impossible for us to know if we were going to be able to pull off this weeks share. The generators we got on Wednesday morning were able to keep a couple refrigerators going for eggs and a couple perishable things, but not big enough for the walk-in cooler. We had to purchase a lot of ice and kept the cooler closed so that the residual cooling from before the electricity went out wouldn't escape. If it came to it we thought we might even put unwashed produce in peoples shares. Thankfully the power was restored at 7:30 pm Wednesday night which allowed us to get the walkin cooler back on and allowed us to wash this morning, but that was no small undertaking after a very stressful turn of events. It usually takes us the better part of a day to wash all the produce for our CSA boxes.
This past week weekend we stayed up past our normal farmer bedtime of 9pm for a the Perseid Meteor shower. The moon was new and the sky was extra dark which made for spectacular viewing. Each year at this time the earth passes through the dust and debris or the comet Swift-Tuttle which is the largest object known to repeatedly pass by the Earth; its nucleus is about 16 miles wide. It last passed nearby Earth during its orbit around the sun in 1992, and the next time will be in 2126. This week I'm grateful for space because when I contemplate it's infinitude it gives me a whole different perspective on my life here on earth.
As farmers we spend a lot of time with our heads down tending the soil. At the same time on our farm we try to tune solar and lunar rhythms and how they affect the growth of our crops. Farmers used to be tuned into this but many have left it behind in favor of technology and petrochemicals.
Fortunately for us we do not have to start from scratch and figure it all out. While we would love to do experiments, we simply do not have the time. There have been researchers who have dedicated a lot of time to experiments in the garden and we use the information they provide as a basis for our work. Its really exciting when you start to see connections between sky and earth. Of course we approach this work with a healthy amount of skepticism. Over time we can say we have observed concretely how seeding crops leading up to the full moon improves germination, yields and shapes of the vegetables. We also pay attention to the phases of the moon and their impact on the storage capacity of vegetables. We harvest our storage vegetables if possible between last quarter and new moon when leaf and root growth are both declining according to the work of Alan Chadwick. I think it works because for example, we still have shallots from last year in our kitchen...meanwhile we just harvested this years shallots.
This week we are grateful for the amazing network of people who make running the farm possible. To illustrate my point I want to describe a conversation I had the first time one of our new workershares came to the farm this year. For those of you who don't know, a workershare is someone who trades 3 to 3.5 hours each week for a box of produce each week. One of the first things she said was "This is not what I imagined at all--I thought your were like a big corporation--you're just two people and a garage." I laughed and corrected her by adding, "and two mini-vans and a lot of volunteers." Some of our volunteers get food for their work, but some of them just offer their time for nothing in exchange. We have people who help in the fields, manage dropsites, deliver shares, build infrastructure, design marketing materials, and promote us to friends and family. As a small farm in a world that is used to the industrialized food system that relies heavily on mechanization, chemicals and the exploitation of laborers to keep food price artificially low, it feels like a really counter-cultural thing to rely so heavily on volunteers to accomplish our work at Three Sisters. The fact that someone would mistake us for a corporation is at once an insult and a compliment. On the one hand, a compliment--it seems like we have our act together! On the other hand -- we are not a group of high paid executives looking to maximize our profit margins. We are instead a community of people working together with a lot of goodwill trying to make the world a better place through stewardship, beauty, joy, connection with others and really good food.
This past week we were grateful to have off from CSA deliveries. The 4th always marks a turning point in the year. It officially feels like spring is over. The part of the garden that provided all those greens for your first share looked tired and worn out with just some weeds left after the harvesting. All the summer crops that have been growing since May are looking great and the greenhouse is full of seedlings for the fall. Even though we were just 5 deliveries in, we have been 'working our butts off' both literally and figuratively since March. Many crops take a months of management before you see them in your shares. Having the week off from deliveries allowed us to catch up on some of the weeding that was getting away from us. Our soil is so fertile from all the compost we have applied over the years that weeds grow 2-3 feet in the course of 2 weeks...so its a lot to keep up with.
We were challenged this week by the epic heat and humidity. The dirt, plants and sun can easily irritate your skin and make you break out and itch, so we usually have to stay fully clothed even when it is really hot. This is the gritty side of organic farming that bucolic imaginations often overlook. When it gets above 90 we usually have to stop working mid-day and work later into the evening hours to make up for it. It makes for long days, but its a better alternative than heat exhaustion. The hoophouse becomes almost unbearable when it gets this hot since it is always 10-15 degrees hotter in there. We're going to try putting some shade cloth over the tomato side this week because the cherry tomatoes are starting to ripen and we will be picking them by the middle of next week. Like all things, the heat will pass and by fall we'll find some other aspect of the weather to complain about!..its part of being a human in Wisconsin. In between the heat, humidity and deer flies we did make it to the beach and to see some fireworks with family.
The week off means that we have an abundance of food coming your way this week...
I went out after dark with a head lamp to turn off the well that irrigates our crops and was surprised to find this salamander.
We are excited to start this CSA season. We haven’t decided yet if we will pack first shares on May 31st or June 7th--we are watching the crops grow and need one more week before we can make a solid prediction. You will receive much more information from us the week of May 21st. You will also be receiving a CSA essentials booklet in the mail from us in the next two weeks. We currently have 15 shares available.
When it rains it pours--the old saying goes. This last month at the farm Jeff and I have seen a lot of our long range plans beginning to take shape. It feels like many of the things we set out to accomplish when we started Three Sisters are finally taking shape and finding a home.
In mid-April we gained long term tenure over a 30 acre piece of land 3.5 miles from our home farm. The land is part of a new project that connects social impact investors interested in restoring the health of ecosystems with organic and biodynamic farmers seeking farmland. A wonderful aspect of this arrangement is that 10-30 percent of the property will be dedicated to monarch and other pollinator habitat at no cost to us.
With the land secured we have found a place to plant the hundreds of fruit trees we have been keeping in a nursery bed. We now have the confidence to grow our business. We have taken out a small equipment loan and begun some infrastructure projects to update our home property so that we will be able to store the additional produce we will grow to distribute in the winter and spring.
We look forward to getting more feedback from our current members as we fine tune our winter and spring share options that we would like to offer in the not so distant future. This summer we will be sending out a survey to get feedback and hope to follow up with a smaller focus group.
We also plan to raise funds to help us complete our infrastructure projects this year. Many of you expressed interest when we raised funds through Kiva a number of years ago at zero interest rate. We are considering doing something similar this July. Instead of Kiva we would use promissory notes and offer a modest return. If you are interested in investing in our business feel free to reach out.
It is easy this time of year to get the grocery store blues. You go to the grocery store because there is nothing to eat at home. After roaming the aisles for a long time looking for something inspiring to eat you manage to find some things to put in your cart.
You get home, unpack stuff and somehow for over a hundred dollars you still feel completely without inspiration in the kitchen. This is our experience in the winter and part of the spring. Produce from the store just doesn’t have the same ‘certain-something’. It’s hard to define. You might call it ‘je ne sais quoi’ or that little something; a quality that eludes description.
We have been busy seeding in the greenhouse. The peas are up in our hoophouse. The herbs are starting to pop out of the ground. The nights have been cold this spring, so it may be a couple weeks before we get into the outdoor fields. We will plant spinach, scallions, lettuce, and assorted other greens in our hoophouse instead of the field so that we can stay on track to start our first deliveries in June. The inspiration in your kitchen from our garden is just around the corner.
Everything is still icy and frozen outside and we are glad to have at least one full month to get the coming season planned and set business goals for the next 3 years. We are working diligently to be able to submit our paperwork for organic certification by the February 15th earlybird deadline.
Growing really high quality food for you is at the heart of what we do. We poured over the seed catalogues doing our best to select varieties that we think you will love.
We plan to grow many similar varieties to last season, but we are trialing some new exciting varieties too. We are implementing a new intensive garden system with permanent raised beds and a sprinkler system in Campbellsport that should have a positive impact on our ability to consistently produce high quality greens. This new system is my primary focus and I am going to focus on growing really nice butterhead/bibb lettuces with the goal of having them available every week of the CSA. I also hope to have a more regular supply of spinach, arugula, celery and radishes.
Jeff will be growing all of the less perishable crops like onions, carrots and potatoes on the land we rent from Sauve Terre Farm in West Bend. Jeff applied an epic amount of compost last fall to these fields which should translate to really high quality foods for you to eat. He is excited to grow more potatoes including a few new varieties to supplement the delicious pink-skinned-gold-fleshed potatoes we all love. He will also include a few new varieties of summer squash, peppers and make another attempt to grow a variety of melons.
By the end of the month we will be planting snap peas in the Hoophouse and seeding our onions in the greenhouse! We are also excited that we have created an assistant farm manager position and have a really skilled individual considering the position. We will sell a total of 135 CSA shares this year, a slight increase from last year. The increase will offset the cost of the new position.
Talking recently with a local dairy farmer who weathered the farm crisis of the 1980s, it was difficult to not make some comparisons between that time and our own. Kelly and I know, for instance, many small-scale producers who, feeling the pressure of market-based forces, have decided to stop farming. Others have responded in different ways, perhaps by innovating or scaling up or specializing. There are, of course, plenty of differences between now and then: those struggling now seem to be small-scale, localized, direct-market farmers, not necessarily the big dairies or crop farms.
CSA was born and began to grow at least partly in response to the farm crisis of the 80s; that it is struggling at this particular agricultural moment would seem to suggest the need for a re-visioning. Many farmers are actively engaged in this exciting task in ways specific to their own circumstances and inclinations. Here are just a few of the ideas Kelly and I have had and which we hope to explore further over the winter months.
A challenge many local, direct-market farmers have is securing affordable, longer-term access to land near their markets. Younger farmers like Kelly and me have to get very creative in this respect – working with landowners near the city is often our only option to have a viable business. It is not an option without risk; stories of hand-shake rental deals gone awry are increasingly common in young farmer circles. We’ve been blessed to have a great relationship and long-term lease agreement with the owners of Sauve Terre Farm in West Bend. We hope going forward to renew our lease, expand the acreage we farm there, plant more fruit, and update the irrigation system. This site is closer to the city than our small Campbellsport homestead (which we own). We’ve hoped that this proximity might attract members to come visit the farm, either as worker share members or for farm events or festivals. By making our field there more accessible and installing some basic infrastructure – and by doing a much better job than we have of letting you know about on-farm opportunities! – we hope we’ll lure more of you out to meet your farmers and see how your food is grown.
The land in West Bend, however, does not currently meet all our needs. For instance, an affordable and secure place to live is necessary, as is a place where we can build our costlier, less-movable infrastructure like a greenhouse and hoophouse, and our packing area and coolers. These items, currently at our Campbellsport location, have been in need of some serious updating as we’ve been waiting to see if we would be moving. Now, though (at least for the next few years), we’re excited about staying put and re-investing in our infrastructure and old farm house. With our focus mostly elsewhere the past few years, we’ve neglected these things and the small garden there (which is too small for all we grow). We plan to put up another hoophouse, and to expand the fertile garden space so that Kelly can focus more on intensively managing it to provide a continuous supply of high quality salad greens for CSA members. In West Bend, I will focus more on less-finicky, “tractor-scale” crops like potatoes, onions or squash which require more space (and investment in the appropriate equipment). We’ll thus be continuing to shuttle back-and-forth between these two properties (they’re about 25 minutes apart) but will hopefully do it in a more focused and efficient way than we have.
As Kelly and I divide and try to focus our labor, we’re also forced to confront the fact that there is just too much for us to continue to do ourselves. We have always been passionate about involving worker share members on the farm – those who come out to volunteer their time for four hours each week and receive, if they want, a share of vegetables. We love worker shares not because they are “free labor” but because it is a great way for eaters and farmers to connect for a short time while tackling some of the more labor-intensive tasks associated with growing and distributing food. Substantive change in our food system and larger society will not come if such disparate groups don’t talk with each other and try to understand their unique human needs and circumstances. The worker share arrangement provides an opportunity to do this; those who take part invariably describe it as a tremendously positive – and fun! – experience. We hope to double or triple our worker share program, but realize that we’ll need to put a lot more effort into connecting with potential helpers. We greatly value any ideas you might have along these lines: perhaps, for instance, you know of a specific group of people who might be interested in this arrangement.
Employees bring many more – and different – expectations than do worker shares, and we’ve largely tried to avoid having them on the farm. This hesitation comes from being one-time farm laborers ourselves, and from the seemingly constant challenges that paying people for their labor seems to bring to other farmers we know. Still, we are game to try hiring the right people to take our farm to a level where the work load is sustainable, the atmosphere positive, and where all are compensated fairly. This will necessitate a corresponding increase in scale and scope. We’re mindful, though, of the wisdom of elder farmers like our dairy farmer friend: he got through the 80s crisis by, in part, identifying clear goals for himself and staying small. We’ll be getting larger, but will do so carefully and slowly, and not if our other values and goals – like maintaining a direct connection to you, our members – are compromised.
Recent developments in the local and/or organic food world have had many CSA farmers worried and scrambling to respond. Meal kit delivery services like “Blue Apron,” and the many other services that buy produce from various sources and deliver it in a CSA-like box, have led some local farmers to attempt the same strategies. In the coming years you’ll no doubt increasingly see farmers offering pay-as-you-go options; many too have already begun mimicking the box services by buying and distributing produce grown by other farmers – often not transparently. Such efforts are not really in line with the original impulse of CSA, which was an attempt to address the fact that the business of producing food is fundamentally different than the business of marketing or distributing it – in the event of a loss or shortage, farmers cannot call up their supplier and order more. They are the supplier. You won’t see us moving in this direction, though we’re not averse to working fairly and transparently with local farmers we know and trust.
It is anyone’s guess what impact the Amazon/Whole Foods merger will have on small-scale, localized CSA farming. For now, we’re just focusing on the things such lumbering behemoths can’t possibly do: You’ll never, for instance, be able to call Amazon and talk directly to the farmer who grew your food and who can tell you how it was grown. You can’t visit the farms that sell to Whole Foods, nor take part in the harvest of your food. Amazon’s logistics are impressive, but they can’t deliver to you produce that was hand-picked-to-order the day before you receive it. Our guiding values are not profit and efficiency but sound stewardship of the land, the production of high quality and nutritious food, and maintaining a direct, transparent and human relationship with our supporters. Still, some humility is in order here: when we deliver to our member’s homes we’re playing the same game as Amazon (a fact brought home by the fact that we are often placing your box of produce right next to an Amazon package!), and it’s a game in which we’re hopelessly outmatched. This winter we hope to review and update our home delivery program. We will continue to offer this service, but it no longer seems tenable that the same people who grow your food will also deliver it to your house. Uber drivers? Worker share delivery driver trades? Let us know if you have any ideas.
We pioneered the “choice” CSA in SE Wisconsin, and the idea is catching on. There are a number of farms trying to figure out how to offer this option, and a new CSA software program will soon be available to facilitate the process. We’re always looking ahead however, and are currently excited about a further innovation – one which takes the CSA impulse and philosophy to its logical end point: take-what-you-need shares. No one in our area is doing this that we know; we’re inspired in this direction by farms on the east coast (essexfarmcsa.com in NY is one). We don’t plan on doing away with our normal share box, for those who like limits. But we do hope to explore the take-what-you-need concept more this winter, and would love to do so with the feedback and input of interested members. Additionally, we continue to be interested in expanding our season and offerings into the spring and winter – we miss you all from December ‘til June! Let us know if you’d like to lend your voice or ideas to these exciting new developments.
Kelly and I are, as always, grateful for the opportunity to grow good food for you and your family, and we’re excited about what the future holds in store for Three Sisters Community Farm. We wish you health and happiness this winter, and look forward to seeing you in the new year!