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.