Three Sisters Turns 10!
The 2021 season is off and running, but before things get too crazy we thought we'd pause to celebrate Three Sisters' 10th anniversary. Enjoy this pictorial stroll through the years...
In 2011 we left the farm-based non-profit Wellspring (where we'd been managing the CSA program) and struck out on our own. With few resources, we crashed in Kelly's mom's basement, worked other jobs, and started Three Sisters' Farm on Kelly's family's land.
Kelly's neighbor took a liking to our project and, because she was ready to move, offered to sell her property to us. It wasn't the picturesque 40 acre parcel we had imagined (it is actually 3.8 acres, the majority of which is kind of swampy), but we needed a homebase and couldn't afford to be too picky. Working with the USDA, we secured a beginning farmer loan and got to work establishing some veggie growing infrastructure.
During these years we expanded a bit each season and tried to get creative with the CSA concept. In 2014 we set up an online ecommerce site that allowed members to choose the contents of their weekly box -- it was a hit. Having maxed out our 3.8 acres, we looked elsewhere for additional land to rent and learned a secret of growing tasty, nutritious veggies: make and apply lots of quality compost!
As any small, values-driven business owner knows (especially farmers!), it is sometimes easy to focus on what's going wrong, on what's lacking. When the dust settled after our initial farm-building push and a couple challenging years, it was apparent we needed to make some changes. But it was also apparent that we had it pretty good -- that we were blessed with wonderful friends and family, an amazing group of supporters, and a beautiful small farm. Renewed by this realization, we set to work to take Three Sisters to the next level, one -- especially -- in which Farmers Jeff and Kelly would not be responsible for all the work!
Serendipitously, a friend connected us to a group of ecologically-minded investors who were looking to support organic farmers and build pollinator habitat. With this group we worked to purchase a 29-acre parcel about 5 minutes from our home farm. Three Sisters has a long-term lease to farm this property. We organically certified it in 2019, planted about 500 fruit trees, and are in the process of establishing habitat for pollinators -- especially monarch butterflies -- on a large portion.
With this important piece of the puzzle in place (stable land access is a serious hurdle for beginning farmers) we felt confident to reinvest in our equipment and infrastructure. We asked our members for a loan and they responded enthusiastically. With this capital infusion we initiated a carefully-planned 3-year Community Loan expansion project, which we've documented on this site.
While a lot of detail work remains, over the past three years we've managed (while growing the CSA every year to meet unprecedented demand) to get the infrastructural "bones" of a new, larger farm in place -- a farm capable of equitably supporting more farmers and of meeting the needs of more eaters. We've had some amazing part-time employees the past two years but now (one of our biggest feats yet!) we would like to, in addition, bring on another full-time farmer.
To help achieve that goal, Kelly dove headlong this winter and spring into the writing of a USDA grant that would help support the salary of an additional farmer for a year until we ramp up production to support them on our own. This was an epic task -- such grants are not particularly "farmer friendly!" We find out in September if we received it.
Even if we don't, we'll still move forward with our plan -- because we've got someone in mind: our friend Adrian Lee. Adrian's been a wonderful presence in our world -- and in the larger sustainable ag world of SE Wisconsin -- since he interned at Wellspring in 2009 when Kelly and Jeff were managing. He is a highly skilled, versatile farmer and orchardist with tons of experience on farms of various sizes and scope. Most of the fruit trees we planted in 2019 were from his nursery; to really thrive and come to "fruition" they need the focus and expertise of someone of Adrian's caliber -- we're hoping he'll take on the challenge as well as contribute to the functioning of a larger, broader, more holistic farm.
"Broader" because we've just wrapped up a trial run (for a small number of brave members) of a "Spring Share." This share mirrors our Fall Share, started in March and included lots of overwintered roots, frost-sweetened spinach (you can't get that from California!), squash and much else. It went pretty well but we'd like to fine-tune it before rolling it out on a larger scale next Spring.
Here's to a happy, healthy and abundant 2021 season, and beyond! -- Farmer Jeff
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