This season Alissa, a friend and CSA member, is interviewing members of our CSA community for our newsletters. This week, if you are new to Three Sisters, you get an overview of the farm as Alissa chats it up with Farmer Jeff.
ALISSA Tell us about your journey to becoming a farmer…
JEFF I was not at all into farming until after college, when I went travelling and ran out of money. I started to work on organic farms in Australia and NZ and Europe. That was called WOOFing. I found that I just really enjoyed the work and thought “That would be neat if I could somehow figure out how to do that.” But upon returning home, I couldn’t really figure out for a couple of years how one would go about working on farms and being a farmer. After going to grad school, for English, I learned that you could intern on farms and I started to do that. And kind of worked my way up from there. I think I first interned on a farm in 2005.
What farm was that?
That was at a farm in Upstate NY - more of a market farm, and they had chickens. It didn’t go well. I had a bad experience with the farmer and ended up leaving mid-season.
You recovered from that experience…
Yes. I wasn’t sure if I was going to continue in farming, I thought, “Maybe I'm not really cut out for this.” Then the next summer I was in Rochester, NY and learned of a CSA there called Peacework Farm and I thought I’d go see what it was about. It was a much different place, a very positive place. I decided to quit my job as a Community College English teacher and intern there for a summer. Which went really well - so well that I made the decision to not go back into teaching and to continue on farming.
How did Three Sisters come into being?
Three Sisters came into being because I was managing at Wellspring, I think I was there for four years, and we (Kelly and I, who I met at Wellspring) decided we were going to start our own farm. With hardly any resources we decided to move to Kelly’s mom’s basement and start a farm. That was 2011.
Tell us a bit about those early years…
So the basement situation was a little rough, but that only lasted a few months. And then we jumped through all the hoops of the FSA financing, which took 6-8 months. And were approved to get a loan to purchase the property next door to Kelly’s mom's house. Which was not the ideal farm that I had in mind - it wasn’t the perfect 40 acres. But as it became clear that we couldn't afford 40 acres and we just needed to get started, that property made a lot of sense.
We moved in to the place we are currently...first we rented it for a winter and moved in the winter of 2011-2012. So we must have been at Kelly’s moms for 2011, and then we didn’t close until 2012. But we lived here over the winter.
What was the farm like in the early years?
2012 was a real drought year in the Midwest, and so the low area at our farm - kind of a low marshy area - was totally dry and I worked it all up. I spent countless hours making garden beds in this area, which we haven’t been able to go into since, because it’s actually just a marshland.
I think we started putting up a high tunnel around that time - that took a couple years. We really didn’t have many resources so we started small, everything took a long time, we were working other jobs. I worked at Peter Seely’s farm (Springdale Farm in Plymouth) for a season, and the bowling alley in town flipping burgers. And I did teach again for a couple semesters, some English classes. And I think we stopped working other jobs maybe in 2014 or so. Which was also when we got married, on the farm.
Regular season members may remember Kelly’s interview, in which she told the story of how the two of you got together. What’s your version?
So we met while working at Outpost, where I was in the Produce Department. She just seemed like a pretty neat person, so I knew that she was going to work on a farm in NY. And I was just there for the winter at Outpost, but I was going to be going back to managing at Wellspring. And so I gave her a call in the winter and asked if she’d want to come as an intern. And she did!
And then what happened?
Well, I think she came maybe the beginning of June. She came a little later in the season that the other interns, we had a couple of other interns that year. It was a good season, and we started to kind of hit it off.
That’s all you're going to give us huh?
Ok fine. Please explain the division of labor on Three Sisters Farm…
I think because I had managed at Wellspring, and Kelly was an intern then became something like an Assistant Manager - though not in title - Three Sisters sort of started with me designing the systems and presenting the way that we were going to grow things and that sort of worked for a while. Kelly and I were working together, doing basically “my ideas.”
But eventually and thankfully, Kelly decided she actually had some really good ideas of her own. And we began to try and figure out a way that we could maybe divide our duties so that all the ideas weren’t just coming from me - which they were not always the best ideas. No one person should have all the ideas on a farm.
So it took us a while, and we still occasionally struggle with it. But in the past few years we’ve kind of settled into this division of crops where Kelly focuses on the more tender crops, and the greenhouse, and the hoop house crops like lettuce and radishes. And I do more of the broader scale field crops like squash and broccoli. We say she does the intensive system, and I do the extensive system.
When we were goring in WB these things were all together in one system. But we’ve found that it makes sense to have more crops done more intensively. Now Kelly just designs her system and does what she wants and it’s been great. She just really rocked all the lettuce and tomatoes this year were amazing. So I think it’s been a really good division of labor.
Do you then each oversee those crops from seed to harvest?
By the time we get to harvest it gets a little more integrated, because we often have the same group of people harvesting and its such a big job. So we do that together. Though we sometimes have a big difference in opinion on harvesting techniques too.
Very recently I had an idea for carrots and Kelly had a better idea. The other day we had an argument and we did it Kelly’s way and it worked out really well.
Kelly could be perceived as the more customer-facing member of Three Sisters. We know her smiling face, her bubbly persona. What should we know about Farmer Jeff?
In past years, going back to Wellspring days, I used to write a lot of weekly newsletters...putting to good use my English Degrees. And I really enjoyed that. For some reason in the last couple years I’ve been on kind of a hiatus from writing a lot. I’m hoping to get back into it a bit, although I much preferred the interviews that you did this year to my ramblings. I think they’ve been really awesome and a great way to see how everybody is taking control of their food choices and taking responsibility for their food choices. It’s really inspiring to hear everyone’s food stories.
Three Sisters Farm uses Biodynamic growing practices. Can you explain to the members a bit about what that is?
There’s no one way to do Biodynamics, and I even heard it said recently, “Is there such a thing as a biodynamic farm?” because it’s really more of a process that you engage in. You’re never going to get to the end of that process - it’s constantly evolving. But the goal would be to have a farm that’s just a little more holistic, a little more healthy. It’s not so dependent on outside inputs.
I don't think a lot people realize the challenge of fertility on the farm, to vegetable growers especially. You just need really fertile soils for vegetable growing, and there are “industry standard” ways of growing. Many of which rely on inputs from questionable sources (in my opinion) like conventional chicken operations. But you still have to do something to build the fertility of the soil - you can’t do nothing. That’s a constant question we deal with - how are we going to build our soils? It’s challenging without animals. A real, holistic farm would probably have some animals on it. Most biodynamic farms have an animal component. But we’ve found that that’s too much for us to try and be doing on our own right now. So we do rely on some off-farm fertility inputs, but also try to have good rotations of cover crops to help build the soil that way also.
But none of that is necessarily biodynamics. There's the farming aspect of biodynamics, which is a lifelong challenge, a wonderful challenge, which is how to figure out how to have a healthier, more holistic farm.
But I think there is a social element to biodynamic farming that has always appealed to me. Many of the first CSA’s were biodynamic farms. And so I would say I'm inspired by biodynamic social ideas and their connection to farming.
We’ve heard a bit from Kelly about the monarchs. How has the experience of the new land been for you?
Well, to be honest it was kind of a humbling year over there. As I explained, I kind of focus on these extensive crops and those are primarily grown on this new land, while Kelly grows the intensive crops at our small home farm. So this was our first year growing over there.
There was a lot of really nice alfalfa there from the previous farmer and I didn't want to just plow it all up Because it’s building soil, and the land is kind of on a slope and we’d be worried about erosion if it was bare soil. I had this idea last winter of working up these strips and growing crops in between the strips of alfalfa. It seems like a good idea last winter, but there were a lot of unanticipated things that happened with that system. For one I had a really difficult time making the strips in the spring - killing the alfalfa was really hard. I have a newfound respect for alfalfa. It was difficult then to make a stirp and make a nice planting surface - something we could easily seed a small seed like carrots into.
I struggled with that all year. Then everything was so spread out because it was these strips, so my attention was sort of dispersed over the whole of this twenty acres. I lost a lot of weight walking around that site. And the weeding was made more challenging - we have a cultivating tractor to weed these crops and the alfalfa kind of crept back into the beds which made it difficult to cultivate. And I was spending a lot more time mowing the alfalfa than I wanted.
Then in the fall we had all this moisture, and I think because of the alfalfa the slugs just came out in numbers that we’d never seen before. So we lost a lot of crops to slugs. I wouldn't have thought the slugs would ever be so bad, but I kind of created the perfect habitat for them.
So there’s going to be some changes over there next year...
But otherwise - we planted all of these trees over there and that’s really exciting. The overall goals of the land are exciting too - having more space designated for habitat, production doesn't need to be the overriding goal all the time. I think that’s going to be the future of farms - a little more balanced with nature.
What’s been the best thing about the 2019 Season?
We had, as a goal for ourselves this season, to try to get a lot of the infrastructure and the capacity that we’ll need to increase our scale and have more people working with us. And we did that at the same time that we did more shares than we have ever done. Which, I’m not sure why we did that...it made for a pretty exhausting year. I think we accomplished a lot - not everything we wanted to but we are in really good shape to take it to another level. I didn’t anticipate that it would take us several years, it’s been super difficult to make some of those changes while also farming.
But we had a lot of help from our contractor friend Joseph and all of our worker shares. We had employees that helped out a lot, especially in Kelly’s garden.
What’s been the hardest thing about this season?
I think what I was describing, the challenges of growing on the new land. We spent a lot of years and a lot of effort building the soil up in West Bend and hadn’t come to take it for granted necessarily but had come to rely on the nice fertility that was there. And moving on to what had been conventionally farmed field and try to plant as we normally would was a pretty humbling experience. It showed that we have a lot of work to do to build up the soil at the new site. But it’s a really nice sort of base soil to start with, so it’s a good place to start from.
What are you looking forward to for 2020?
I’ve been, just in the last few days starting to prep the fields at the new site, a little bit better than they were. Not in strip fashion anymore. That’s been exciting, just to see how I can improve my growing over there, how we can start to grow things a little more intensively over there so we can focus on building our fertility in areas rather than being so spread out. It’s exciting to think about growing again there and watching the trees grow.
It’s a great opportunity, that site. I’m hoping we can involve more people in the site, that more and more people will come out to work with us. It’s a very positive site, lots of good momentum and energy there.
Why do you get up every day and do the challenging work that you do?
I feel like growing food directly for people is just a really important thing to do right now. To have a direct connection with the people that we grow for. It’s pretty challenging financially, but it just feels like the right kind of work to be doing right now. In a time when so many things are not fostering direct connections.
It's an exciting time to be farming on a small scale too - there are just so many changes in the farming world right now, it’s happening so rapidly. It’s just exciting to be a part of it. I’m not really sure the direction things are going, but it’s exciting nonetheless.
What new innovations are you working on at Three Sisters?
Well, I said that I was prepping the field here for next year, and I now I'm borrowing, this new fangled piece of equipment which I can't believe I haven't used, sort of like “Where has this been my whole farming career?” And it’s a simple two-bottom moldboard plow. I’ve been trying to use a rototiller, but if you’re trying to till alfalfa, it just beats up the soil. This just flips the alfalfa and the top layer of soil over - it’s really just a pleasure to use. (The moldboard plow) gets a bad rap but I think a plow is less aggressive than a rototiller. I don’t have that big of a tractor. I’m kind of a big fan of it now even though it’s sort of been much maligned in the organic farming world. I think used correctly and minimally it could be a really nice tool.
What’s the most delicious meal you have had recently?
Pretty much any time Kelly cooks, it’s the most delicious meal. Even for lunch today we had delicata squash baked with some other root vegetables and we just threw that on some noodles. Best ever.
What kind of noodles?
We’ve had these go-to noodles this season - these millet and rice noodles from Outpost like ramen noodles.
What is your favorite place to have a meal?
I would say in the past five or so years, we’ve been kind of exclusively fixated on going out to eat at Il Ritrovo in Sheboygan. Which is mostly because every time I say “Are we going to go out to eat?” Kelly will say “Only if we go to Il Ritrovo.” But it is a really nice place to eat, so I would say recently that’s a really nice place to have a meal.
What is one thing that is bringing joy into your life these days?
Seeing everybody who gets excited about the farm or what we’re doing. Be they worker shares or reading these interviews - it’s just been really nice to hear that and see that and learn how much people enjoy what we are doing and like being a part of it.
Sometimes it can be kind of isolating - more so for me because Kelly does a lot of the customer service stuff. So I don’t really see a lot of the emails or anything like that. It’s nice to hear from people. These interviews have been really nice. And it sounds like Kelly sees a bunch of people on her route, and I know she’s more personable and cuter than me, but I just don’t see a lot of people on my route.
What is one thing that is giving you pause, or reason for concern?
I heard this farm consultant recently who is a respected figure. He was saying that he would guess probably in about ten years most food is going to be grown with robots, basically. That’s really soon! So that means in the next ten years there’s going to be crazy changes in the farming world, and people are going to have to decide if that’s OK for them. If they want their food grown by robots, which is going to eliminate all small scale farmers, basically. But it sort of like - now is the time - many things are already produced that way and people don’t know it.
That’s just a real question that’s out there for me now. Farmers are not immune to this large push to get more mechanized, there’s all these new gadgets. At what point do we say “This is an ok scale. This is an ok way to do this task, even if it's not the most efficient way?”
Leeks or Shallots?
(Heavy sigh.) I’m going to say shallots. Just because there is something about leeks that, I’m not the biggest fan. A leek, now and again - a couple times a year is OK. But shallots, you can have shallots around all winter. They are a little more versatile, they store better.
We grew this white onion last year from Turtle Tree Seeds and it was just a thing onto itself. It was just crisp and juicy, like if you were having a burger you just wanted a slice of this onion. And we saved some seed from it, and I think we’ll have more next year. So that one over leeks or shallots. Just to be difficult.
What do you think is the most important thing for people to understand about your farm?
That our supporters, our members, have a direct connection with the people who actually grow their food. And it’s so rare nowadays. If people want to call us up or email us, and ask us about any aspect of how their food is grown, we’d be happy to talk to them.
After being asked by several neighborhood kids for food on the CSA delivery route we decided to reach out to find a partner who could help us turn our raw ingredients into something that could be eaten by kids looking for a meal. Eventually we stumbled upon Tricklebee Cafe. In the age of Sysco, we feel really glad to have found a community partner that isn't intimidated by putting fresh CSA veggies to use. In 2018 we consistently donated produce that was leftover after the CSA pack out each week to the cafe. This year we have donated at least one 3/4 bushel of produce each week and have been really excited to see members also sending there boxes to Tricklebee Cafe if they will be out of town. If you have never been to the cafe it is worth the trip. It is warm, lively, friendly and always smells amazing.
What is Tricklebee Cafe?
We are a Pay-What-You-Can Community Cafe. We’re the first one in WI and so far the only one. One is starting to pop up in Madison called Little John’s, but they don’t have a brick and mortar space yet. We were established in 2016, and we’re part of the One World Everybody Eats Network it is a network of 50 cafes that offer pay-what-you-can, healthy food options.
If I walked in the door with a dollar…
Yes, exactly. We say, “if your pockets are full” you can pay a bit more, “if your pockets are light” you pay less, and “if your pockets are empty” you can pay nothing and get a meal and perhaps work a little bit in the cafe.
Is there a recommended amount?
No, because the IRS does not allow us to do that. We have a note on the wall with the calculated price range of what it takes to make a meal. We factor in produce we are gifted, and some grant funding we have. We say it costs about $7-9 to make a meal, because some people have no idea what to give you.
We have a lot of regulars who get the system. But occasionally people are super flabbergasted in a good way, and sometimes people are just overwhelmed and crabby like “What do you mean there’s no price?”
Tell us a bit about the food you cook…
We are plant-based - not that we’ve never used an animal product. We’ve served meat 3 times in the 3 years since we’ve been open. We like offering super healthy meals and we know some of our neighbors might eat not be eating like that very often. We offer:
Soup every day, even in summer.
Some kind of main entree, might be a sandwich.
Some kind of salad and a baked good.
We also offer a beverage.
It’s different every day, we never serve the same thing twice, because it’s based on what we have here. So if Three SIsters brings us a box of kale and potatoes we serve kale and potatoes.
Explain how your relationship with 3 Sisters works.
One day Kelly just kind of popped in with some boxes and said, “Would you want free produce when we have it?” I said, “Of course!”
It’s not a guarantee because we don’t know when people won't come for their boxes. Every day she pops in with at least box, sometimes up to 3 boxes. We’re really grateful. We’ve not yet been to the farm but we’d love to go check it out. We’d love to bring our regulars and staff out there.
At some level we are sort of helping the farm because they don’t want to be sitting around with boxes of rotting produce.
Is it tricky from the restaurant’s perspective when you get one box with like, two eggplant in it?
Yeah, you know those shares are really meant for a family and we feed like 60 lunches a day. So we just throw the veggies into the soup - we joke that we’re like the show “Chopped” I’ve never actually seen it but we just get the box. We never really know, day to day or week to week, what we’re going to have, so I send our chefs a list at night with our ingredients and then they somehow get our menu ready to go!
Do they employees get paid the same as they would at another restaurant?
Yes - that’s one of the hallmarks of the Pay What You Can Network - we vow to pay everyone a living wage. We all make $14.60 an hour, we’re working up towards $15. Every year we do a cost of living raise.
Why did you start Tricklebee?
It’s funny because it’s not my background at all. I’m not a chef, I don’t have restaurant management training. I’m an artist and a pastor in the Moravian Church - a minister. We had a food ministry we were running in LA - we would rescue food from a grocery store and Cuban bakery. It was still edible, but not saleable. We would pick it up every week and come back to the church and put together these beautiful meals. We called it Open Table and we’d all come together over a meal. One day I realized this was my true calling - to keep food out of the waste stream and also build community.
The Moravian Church?
It’s the oldest Protestant denomination, we’re like Lutherans, just smaller and less well-known. We are about a 100 years older than the first Protestants, and stood up against the Catholic Church in the same way Luther did, but the leader was burned at the stake. We are known for a very simple theology - we believe in following the way of Jesus which means including outsiders, feeding people, lifting up the lowly. If we're known around the world it’s because we start clinics in places, we are quietly progressive, not out to convert anyone. There’s some old church furniture in the cafe, and the place where people order is a pulpit. So I joke that I'm still in the pulpit every day. But the cafe is considered an official ministry of the Moravian church. This is the first time they’ve done something like this (opened a restaurant) and they kind of went out on a limb with it. But they don’t regret it.
Why did you end up in Milwaukee?
I’m from the woods in northern Iowa, like no neighbors. I went to college and grad school out east. My first work was in LA, and that was a major difference from where I grew up. I’ve liked all those experiences but I knew I wanted to come back to the midwest. I think my heart is here. When we wanted to do this cafe I wanted to do it in an urban setting because I didn't think it would work in a rural setting. We just kind of looked around at some cities - the Twin Cities, Milwaukee - everything about MIlwaukee just lined up. It just felt like we were meant to do this.
Just looking at the logistics of the city too, there are a lot of grossly underserved areas here. We felt like we should go to an area that really needed healthy food options. We found an area that I think is really kind of neglected by the city, we don’t have a lot of food options. We just popped down right in the middle of it.
Where are you located?
Sherman Park, on 45th and North.
What would you like people to know about food insecurity that you think is not obvious?
I think the thing I see all the time is this sheltered view of neighborhoods like this one. People from neighborhoods where there are grocery stores think the corner store has groceries. Well, yes, you can buy “food” there but it’s nothing healthy. There is meat but it’s gray, and I’m not a meat eater but I don’t think meat should be gray. Then there are some coolers with produce but it’s all rotting. Rotten iceberg lettuce and rotten tomatoes. The passerby might think “That’s not a food dessert, there’s food right there”. Or at the Family Dollar.
We’ve done this thing where we’re bringing people who aren’t as close to this reality, and we give them a dollar and we tell them to buy themselves lunch at the Family Dollar. So they pool their money and they buy a bag of frozen corn and some hotdogs and maybe a chocolate bar. Then we cook the food and eat it together and we talk about how it makes them feel. Oftentimes people say that it feels kind of empty - it feels like it’s not giving them any nutritional value. So that’s the kind of “food” that’s available here. And that’s what I want people to know.
What are the most surprising things you’ve learned?
One of our board members was leery of us becoming an exclusively vegan restaurant. We were going to be a vegetarian restaurant with vegan offerings. This board member said people weren’t going to go for it. But it turns out that people love it.
Our baked goods are made from low glycemic sugars too, so diabetics can usually eat them..
People are delighted, they love it. Some come almost every day. About 50% of our customers come from the neighborhood and 50% come from outside it becuase they are curious or like what we’re about.
I have a friend who is a vegan activist, I think is how she would self-define. She’s very much out there putting up posters of bloody animals. That’s not where I'm at, not my message. At Tricklebee we have more of an inviting attitude, like, “Why don’t you try it?” I think it’s more of a welcoming experience and people are grateful for that.
How can people support your work?
Donations of fresh things any time of year is always a big blessing for us.
Along with volunteering - if people have a free day, it doesn't have to be consistent but if someone wanted to come work in the cafe, we’re very much volunteer driven. We can’t function without volunteers.
And of course patronizing the cafe, and especially using the Pay-It-Forward model. Every day we have a couple people - usually kids from the neighborhood who don’t have any money. So it really is a blessing to help cover those costs.
When are you open?
We serve lunch Wednesday through Saturday from 11-2.
On Thursday nights we serve dinner at 6 pm. It’s a buffet, everybody loads up their plate and eats together. That starts right at 6 pm and there is no real end time.
On Wednesdays we gather for creativity night but there is not a meal - it’s a gathering of artists and people bring their own projects to work on and we have some limited supplies.
Our customers are very diverse. I’m here all the time so I don't notice it as much. But people come in from outside and say they don’t see people in the city from such diverse backgrounds interacting.
What kind of art do you make?
Mostly beadwork, but other things too - often out of found materials.
I build small scale furniture, shelves and tables out of found materials.
What is the most delicious meal you have had recently?
The funny thing is that every day here I say to our cook “This is the best meal I’ve ever had”.
I just went to this Wild Edibles Harvest event in Prairie du Chien, it was all these experts coming together. They had this chef there, Allen Bergo “The Forager Chef”, and he cooked all wild foods. He made a wild mushroom conserve with hen of the woods, lobster mushroom and chicken of the woods. Just in this vinegary thing with fresh herbs. I probably had five servings of it in one meal.
What is your favorite place to have a meal?
With my family at home at the table. Or wherever they are. It’s one of the most fun times of the day - there are five of us. We have 3 under the age of 7 and we share what we’re grateful for from the day and then we just enjoy each other. I feel like when we eat in a spirit of gratitude the food tastes a little bit better.
What is bringing you a lot of joy?
I’m still reeling in that wild edibles conference. I used to just know maybe 10 things walking around and now I know at least 20 more and I feel comfortable cooking them. At the restaurant level it’s great because it’s free, it’s nature. I think it’s getting back to where our ancestors were, like when you walk outside that’s your grocery store.
We have some exciting stuff coming up in the next few months here in terms of how we are occupying the building. We are looking to expand and grow in the near future.
After all these years we are still not sure if Susan is really human. We rather suspect that she is super-human. She cannot technically call herself a workershare since she has always paid full price for her share and still shows up to work 2 shifts every single week at the farm. Susan is more reliable and determined that anyone I have ever met. She shows up on the worst imaginable days when the weather is so crummy that I don't even want to be out there. She has put up with our marginal 3-season set up and froze her but off right along side us as we pack late season shares--and I can't remember her ever complaining about it. For as far as we have come at Three Sisters, we still have a long way to go. Susan has always believed in us even when we have doubted ourselves at times that things will work out. We are extraordinarily thankful for everything she has done and to know her and her family.
How long have you been a member with Three Sisters CSA Community Farm?
In anticipation of talking to you, Kelly and I brainstormed how long I’ve been there. I believe I started at the beginning of the 2014 season.
And you are a worker share, correct? Kelly told me you’ve “basically been keeping the farm running.”
I retired in may of 2012. I’ve always wanted to be part of a CSA, but there’s really only me in the house that would eat CSA kind of things. I live with my brother who hasn’t touched a vegetable since my mom fed him from the Gerber baby food jar. I also live with my 34 year old son who is profoundly disabled. So any vegetables I make for him must be mush. He loves potatoes and carrots and pasta sauce from tomatoes.
When I was working I couldn't imagine being able to cook enough to get through an entire box. Plus I was scared of getting things I didn’t recognize as vegetables and didn't know what to do with. So when I saw Three Sisters had the “choose your own” I thought it was great.
I signed up online and sent an email, and I’m sure they thought I was a complete lunatic. I said “I’m going to come work at your place.” Not “Can I volunteer? or “Can we talk about this?” Jeff very kindly excused how weird I was and said that the one thing they need help with was packing boxes on Thursdays.
So I’ve been doing that for coming up on my 6th season. I’m at the head of the line so I put in all the heaviest stuff. The watermelon and carrots and zucchini/cucumbers and squash. I love doing that, but I wanted to be more involved in part of the whole farm process. So one day I started asking about helping in the fields and I went one afternoon a week, Tuesdays, weeding and harvesting in addition to Thursday morning box packing. But I am just getting too old to work in the field, I just felt silly next to all the 20-somethings that actually work on the farm and can actually do the four hours and I’m just figuring out how to get on my knees.
So I asked if there was something else I could do, so now I go out on Wednesday afternoon and help bag the produce. Anything in rubberbands is done in the fields, but anything in bags is usually done by me and Kelly’s mom, Renee. We have a lot of fun, and now we’ll have somewhere warm to work to pack the fall shares. (Because of the newly insulated barn!)
What part of Southeastern WI do you live in?
Mequon (Susan takes her share home with her after helping out on packing morning.)
You must have gotten to know Jeff and Kelly pretty well by this point. Is there anything you want to say about the two of them?
When I first met them they weren’t married yet, so when they decided to get married, I was really happy for them.
I think they are so brave for what they do. It’s hard to struggle the way that they have and to keep moving forward and to realize they are going to get to an end result that’s going to work for them. I know they are still struggling so it makes me feel good to help out. It’s not easy what they do and they’re really making a lot of sacrifices. They’re both very educated and very smart, they could make a lot more money doing something other than what they do but they are doing something they believe in for a lot less money and that’s just tremendous.
I’ve met Kelly’s mom who lives next door and Kelly’s sisters who come to stay. And I’ve been sort of in on the conversations about what’s going on next and what the plans are. I’m very honored to be a sounding board for some of those discussions sometimes. They are great people.
How would you describe the experience of being connected to the seasons through being intimately connected to the farm?
It’s really fun to celebrate when new things appear on the packing line, but at the same time it’s really sad to see things go away.
For example at the very beginning of this season we had microgreens and I was so excited and they were so yummy, but they were only there for two weeks. They are so labor intensive so I’m not sure we’ll have them again. I was so excited to see them but it was such a short time.
My favorite recipe can be made pretty much solely from things from Three Sisters for one week a year. It has so many vegetables in it and they don’t come together at the same time. So I have to go to Outpost until Three Sisters has their version come in. So it’s really fun, sort of like having a solar eclipse and lunar eclipse all at once. That happened a couple of weeks ago where I had everything I needed and I only put Three Sisters produce in.
Now my summer is planned around when certain vegetables are going to be in my box from Three Sisters and know what I’m going to eat and what I will share. I share my box with a few very good friends.
When you’re on the packing line are there things you ever get sick of seeing?
I have to be careful, I’ve been putting watermelons in boxes for four weeks I think. And Jeff is considerably younger, taller and stronger than I am so he fills the crates full of watermelons and stacks them very high. So I have to always remind him that I need things lower to the ground. I always have to be thinking about how I move heavy things.
What’s really fun is when the really aromatic herbs come, or fennel, I’ll get a whiff of anise and I’ll know someone is putting fennel in a box. Or basil, every time Kelly picks up the basil to put it in the box I can smell it, even though she’s like three people down the line from me. It’s so fun.
You only get that level of scent with the fresh food…
Yes and the dill, and even the carrot tops. Some things are really auromatic and wonderful and you never know when they are going to come.
What do you tell people about your experience working on the farm and being a CSA member?
A lot of the people I talk to about Three Sisters are in CSA’s themselves. They’re not local to here - I have a lot of friends on the East Coast where I grew up. When we get together, we talk about food and it comes up. It’s interesting to hear how their CSA is different from Three Sisters. I think people are kind of amazed that I get to go grocery shopping every week with my CSA and I can do it on a computer. I don’t think many CSA’s are doing the customization that Three Sisters does.
We share recipes on Facebook - I remember one of my friends posting kohlrabi and somebody saying “I get kohlrabi and I don't know what to do with it,” so I posted a bunch of ideas. Renee, Kelly’s mom, has tons of recipes. It’s fun to be able to share that in common with friends from high school - I never would have imagined that.
The people I share the box with are people that live in Milwaukee’s inner city. They go to the Fondy Market which is great, but normally they just shop at the grocery store. They are always totally amazed at how good the food is.
What is your favorite CSA food item?
Probably tomatoes. Just because they are so versatile. When I was growing up my dad always had a patch of tomatoes in the backyard. Some of my most vivid memories are going in the backyard picking tomatoes for dinner. We cut the tomatoes in half and put some cheddar cheese on top and put them under the broiler. Tomatoes are also one of the things my son can eat and really enjoys.
Also, Kelly grabbed a bunch of green tomatoes for me last week, and one of my friends I share with is from Mississippi and has a family recipe for fried green tomatoes. Oh, they are so good!
What is your favorite thing about being a member of Three Sisters Community Farm?
I enjoy the process of being able to go out and see things that have just been put in the ground, then weed the things that are grown, then harvest those things and eventually put them in the box. There aren’t that many people that have that experience, especially with the variety of food. I used to have a small garden when I lived on the east side, but most people who have their own gardens can’t grow you know, the amount of varieties they grow.
It was really spectacular when they were in West Bend - Jeff and Kelly worked really really hard to improve that soil out there. They made compost with materials they had brought on, and to see how it changed the soil from season to season and how it changed the vegetables that grew in that soil was just amazing. We just don’t see that on most farms. It was really remarkable. It was amazing to see that process and watch Jeff and Kelly learn how to do it and make it work with very few resources and limited equipment.
What’s the most delicious meal you have had recently?
I love to go out to eat...that’s in part because when I was growing up we went out to eat exactly one time a year when my Grandpa would take us out. My parents couldn’t afford to take us out to eat, ever.
I have always loved to eat at restaurants every since I’ve been on my own. I have a lot of favorite restaurants in Milwaukee. One of my favorite chefs is Tory Miller (in Madison) and I just had a great meal at Graze recently. A friend and I drove to Madison on a Wednesday during the last week his restaurant Sujeo was open, and I did get to eat this magnificent bowl of Korean yumminess one last time. He opened Sujeo to make food he really loved to eat. It was his heart and soul in that restaurant, so it was really sad to see it close.
What’s the strangest thing you have ever eaten?
I eat a lot of what people might consider strange food. I took a sabbatical from Three Sisters last fall and went on the trip of a lifetime with my son. We took a 60-day cruise, round trip out of LA., and mostly to Asia. We got to eat a lot of really interesting Asain food. My favorite place was in Seoul, South Korea, we went on a tour of their version of “Old World Wisconsin” to show how Korean people used to live. We were served a traditional Korean lunch at a restaurant that was there. Bulgogi beef, you cooked yourself, rice, a big bowl of kimchi, other nibbles like pickled vegetables. I was in heaven.
What is one thing that is bringing joy into your life these days?
This is my favorite season - the fall. To be able to have the windows open, and it’s beautiful during the day. I have a bike that I ride with my son with a wheelchair on the front. He and this bike together weighs about 130 pounds, so I can't do it when it’s hot, but this is our primo riding time. I can bundle him up if it’s not raining and we can ride and I’m not sweating and we’re both really enjoying it.
What is one thing that is giving you pause, or reason for concern?
We’re maybe going to finally get rid of this disaster in the White House. Maybe it will work. I lived through the impeachment of Richard Nixon and I hope it doesn’t tear the country even more apart. It’s just so scary. This is the time, you know, if you’re living in pre-nazi Germany and you see what’s coming - what are you willing to stand up and do? We have to figure out what we’re each willing to do. I’m not going to live in a place where women don’t have rights and there are guns everywhere. I think it’s a very scary time.
Well, in that case - Onion or Garlic?
That’s not fair, they go together… Probably onions, just because I also view onions and scallions and leeks. So we have onions all season long pretty much and that’s fantastic because I put onions in everything. I couldn't live without onions, plus they last a long time. I can stockpile onions in my basement and be able to eat Three Sisters onions all winter long.
Is there anything you would like to share about seasonal eating, local food, CSA membership or anything else related to these topics that you have never had the chance to say?
I’m just really excited that the farm will be going to ten months. It’s such a huge undertaking and I'm going to try any way I can to make it work. That’s just going to be the best things ever. I could never live in a place like FL because I could never do the climate. But I’m really jealous of people that can eat fresh food in their gardens all year round. This is going to be almost the same. Everybody needs to support a ten month CSA.
Susan's Recommended Recipe
Adapted from Moosewood Cookbook by Mollie Katzen
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
4 cups tomato juice
1/2 cup finely minced onion
1 medium clove garlic, crushed
1 medium bell pepper, minced
1 teaspoon light honey or sugar
1 medium cucumber (peeled, seeded, minced)
2 scallions, minced
Juice of 1/2 lemon
Juice of 1 lime
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon dried basil
1 teaspoon dried tarragon
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 cup minced parsley
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 cups diced fresh, ripe tomatoes (peeled, seeded)
Salt, pepper, cayenne to taste
Purée all ingredients in blender. Chill overnight. Serve cold.
farming can be hard at times, like when you work really hard and then something out of your control destroys much of what you have done. a letter to our CSA members.
As I drove away from the farm today to deliver shares, the closer I got to Milwaukee the more normal the day seemed. It has been a tumultuous week at the farm. We experience extreme flooding at our home farm on Tuesday. The scattered storms hit Campbellsport with hard and sustained with heavy rainfall. We were basically in heavy storms for 7 hours, and this after the soil and water table was already saturated from previous rains. I cannot find any accurate rainfall totals for Campbellsport, but our neighboring community, Lomira is reporting 6 inches. I will say that a 5 gallon bucket left outside was full except for 2 inches at the top!
The garden at our home farm was completely covered in at least a foot of water that was damned up by the road with a culvert completely inadequate to move the runoff from the storm through to the other side of the road to allow it to move into the Milwaukee river. Subsequently our new hoophouse also had 1 foot of standing water. The water has finally drained away through the culvert, but we have lost most of the crops at the home farm including parsley, arugula, hon sai tai (the asian green trial for the year) radishes, lettuce mix, broccoli, and some fall carrots. They sort of looked ok for half the day(despite being covered in soil) but now they are wilting and dying.
This photo below was taken at the break in the rain on Tuesday from about 2-6pm. This is also when I scrambled to harvest the kale, fennel, and chard for shares this week from the portion that wasn't yet flooded. After this picture was taken we received another 2-3 inches of rain that night, completely covering the crops you can see in the picture in water. I have honestly never seen anything like this. Carrots completely under water! The second round of storms later that evening subsumed our basement sump pump as well. We were able to keep the water to about 1 foot level with supplementary pumps and fortunately only our water heater was damaged as other other things are on blocks.
Our other land that Jeff manages is slightly better situated, but upon visiting it for the first time when I got back from deliveries I was dismayed to see the heavy clay soil holding water around all the crops despite the sight being on a slope and quite high in elevation. This can be bad news for root veggies and the site is home to a large quantity of carrots, potatoes, leeks, parsnips, and beets that admittedly I am worried about. The site is far to wet to drive any equipment on so any harvesting in an attempt to save these crops will have to be done by hand.
THE GOOD NEWS!
First of all, I want to thank the our worker shares and employees for providing emotional support on Tuesday when this was happening via text message. We are lucky to have people who care working with us. It is not easy to lose so much especially when your livelihood depends on it! And also on a more practical note It looks as though the crops in the our larger hoophouse will be ok which we are delighted about, but there are still set backs as the soil is very very wet even in the hoophouse. We also have squash, onions, garlic, shallots, cabbage already in for the season. So basically with a few deliveries left for some of you and a fall/winter share yet to come I write to let you know that there is a chance that what we had planned for to be an abundance will really be a bit less variety and abundance. Hopefully you understand--seeing now what we are dealing with here-- and hopefully I'm over-reacting and all root crops from the more well-drained land will end up being ok as we scramble to harvest them so they don't rot in the ground. So will do our best to make it a great rest of the season, and just want to let you know that the fact that you are a part of our CSA and support us when @#$% happens makes all the difference in the world. Heck, you could just go to the grocery store--they don't complain about floods there--you just get what you need and get out of there....right?
Jeff Schreiber has been farming organically for 10 years. In 2011 he started Three Sisters Community Farm with his wife, Kelly.