The Joy of Community

Many days this summer began with Anna, Joseph and myself tumbling out of our little red Mazda pickup into the field around 7 am, and beginning the morning’s tasks. Soon after, another red truck – this time a 90’s model Tacoma – would drive through the open gate in the deer fence around our field and our flower farmer friend Courtney would emerge. Her business partner Jamie would also often show up within the hour. They would start filling square plastic containers with water from the well, and soon after they’d be filled with cut flowers of all sizes and colors.

Courtney and Jamie own and operate a small business called Flower and Bee. They grow cut flowers for flower shares, weddings, bat mitzvahs and anything else in need of gorgeous arrangements. They grow these flowers on a 1/4 acre plot in the same field where we grow our vegetables. When we of Wild Ridge decided to lease the land and launch our business we knew we’d have more than enough space for Flower and Bee.

Each of our businesses have separate leases with our landlords, but everything else we share is decided upon collectively by ourselves. They share space in our walk-in cooler and the greenhouse, they use the upper part of the barn as a work space for their arrangements and storage of their many vessels. Together we talk out details like who will irrigate at what time of day, and sometimes we make purchases together like compost and drip tape.

There are numerous unforeseen advantages to having another farm business working right along side our own. I love being able to walk through their plot and see all the different types of flowers they cultivate; as a grower and producer I am interested in crops of all kinds. Courtney would show me how they encourage longer stems on each individual bloom, ask whether I thought it was the tarnish plant bug eating the dahlias, point out how many types of ornamental grasses there are to choose from, and patiently name all the flowers I couldn’t identify.

On Fridays Courtney and Jamie would start arranging in the barn around noon, and depending on how many weddings they had that weekend, sometimes it would almost be dark by the time they would finish. After we were done with the days market harvest, wash and pack, Anna and I would grab some wine and head to the barn to see what beautiful bouquets, adorable boutonnieres and fabulous table arrangements were in store for their clients. My skills as a florist have increased tenfold after watching these girls create.

Because I’ve always been a very social person, cultivating a community of farmers is a very important part of the lifestyle for me. Luckily, in our rural area the desire to forge links between each of our small-scale farms runs strong. Many of us make an effort to host potlucks and other gatherings with some frequency, as well as getting together in smaller groups to discuss ways in which our farms can work together.

Farming is unlike any other work in the world and there is no way to truly understand it unless you have participated in every aspect from planning to harvest to putting the farm to sleep for winter. In a profession where the workload can often be overwhelming and the margins slim, I think it’s important to have a strong network of other people who can relate.

Flowers in their own right, and Courtney and Jamie as individuals, brought an element of lightness and artistry that is distinctly different yet completely compatible with our vegetable operation. We have yet to feel certain that there is a way in which we can collaborate in a marketing sense, and it’s possible that we never will. But in an atmospheric and energetic sense, I think the alliance of our on-farm operations results in stronger businesses for all of us. And there is the added bonus of simply having good friends around to share in the successes and challenges of each day.

-Alissa Moore

Looking back on training

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It was clear from the beginning of my farming internship at Chubby Bunny Farm that my boss, Dan Hayhurst, loved the work of growing vegetables. Most mornings I would be lying in bed, just waking up around 6:30 am, and I’d hear his truck roll up to the barn. I’d listen as Dan got out and started hauling sacks of feed out of the barn to drive out to the small flock of chickens and few pigs on pasture. This was my cue to get up and stumble about my trailer, putting on filthy work pants and shirt, probably mildly hungover, quickly frying eggs and making coffee so I could meet him and my co-interns in the greenhouse or at the tailgate of his truck in time for the morning meeting. I knew he’d been up for hours thinking on the farm, planning the most efficient way of doing all the days’ many tasks, and it was barely 7 am.

During the two non-consecutive seasons I spent at Chubby Bunny, Dan was with us each day, all day long. Whether we were hoeing, transplanting, harvesting, pounding posts for tomatoes, laying down mulch or countless other tasks, Dan was working right along side us. He started the days before we did, usually worked through lunch and often stayed in the fields after he’d sent us back to our intern trailers for the day. I am convinced that Dan’s constant presence in the field is a large part of whatever it is that makes me a halfway decent farmer today. If I had a question, and I often did knowing nothing about farming when I started that first season, Dan would gladly talk it all out until I was satisfied. I would learn over the next few years as a farm intern that the love I once witnessed in Dan is integral to the success of farming operations all over the world.

I didn’t know until my second season, on Blue Fox Farm in the Applegate Valley of Southern Oregon, that it can be a little extraordinary to work alongside your farm boss every day, all day long. I remember wondering just exactly what Chris Jagger of Blue Fox and later, David Van Eeckhout of Hog’s Back Farm in Arkansaw, WI, were doing all of those hours when they weren’t in the field working side by side with me. I didn’t yet understand how many emails there were to return, bills to pay, supplies to order, crop records to fill in, newsletters to write. Not to mention tractor work to do that I didn’t yet have the skills to accomplish.

 

Alissa loading melons at Chubby Bunny.

All three of these farmers and their respective operations are known locally for their quality produce, and I am frequently grateful to have participated in their cohesive and very different farm organisms (and for their behind the scenes but equally hard-working wives, Tracy, Melanie and Melinda respectively). I believe learning the production aspect of farming is best done by actually farming. To me it’s the only way to understand all the many parts that must be coordinated and captured and synched together to become a gigantic and often frantic whole.

During the winter of 2012-2013 I enrolled in Farm Beginnings, a farmer training program which focuses entirely on non-production aspects of the business. We met every other weekend at Angelic Organic s Learning Center in Northern IL. The class covered, among other things, budgeting, cash flow, marketing, human resources, legal aspects, business structure, and strategic planning. Many of the presenters were area farmers who used examples from their own farms, the others were professionals working with farmers. I walked away with a much more well-rounded understanding about small farm ownership than I’d had going in. Farm Beginnings originated at the Land Stewardship Project in Minnesota, but today there are nine other programs around the country.

Additionally, the MOSES conference in LaCrosse, WI is the largest organic farming conference in the country, and always full of knowledgeable presenters. But every time I go to the conference I walk away thinking the most important activity is talking to other farmers from all over the country, and reconnecting with those I haven’t seen in a while.

Wisconsin is jammed with organic farmers, and I’ll take any opportunity to talk with them about what equipment they use, what crops they grow and how they approach the challenges we each face. There are many nearby farms to tour (possibly my favorite activity on Earth which I know makes me a huge nerd), farmer friends to call for an opinion, and (more so in the off season) potlucks to attend for celebrations and commiserations. The open exchange of information has always been one of my favorite aspects of sustainable agriculture, and I’m happy to be able to continue to learn from my fellow farmers.

Developing a market for the new farm

Wild Ridge Farm relies on three converging streams of revenue: CSA membership sales, Farmer’s Market sales, and Restaurant sales.

Approximately half of our revenue comes from CSA membership, which provides an essential preseason financial boost allowing us the crucial funds to buy seeds, potting mix, compost, and all the other bits and pieces necessary to get plants started early and ready to transplant as soon as soil and air temperatures allow. This early income also allows us to fire up the greenhouse as early as February.

The radiant-heated greenhouse floors use propane to maintain proper temperature which causes our utility bill to spike despite all of our other utility sacrifices—the farmhouse rarely pushes above a balmy 55 degrees throughout February, March, April, and May.

This first CSA season has been marketed predominately by word-of-mouth recommendations. While there are several publications and expos in the Milwaukee area through which to advertise a CSA membership, word-of-mouth remains our most reliable method to-date. We believe a vegetable farm’s reputation for consistently excellent and bountiful produce sells more shares than any glossy flier or half-day meet-and-greet, and though this is Wild Ridge’s first year of selling CSA subscriptions, Alissa and Anna have been running CSA’s in the immediate vicinity for the past 4 years; thus, their reputation for consistently producing excellent produce precedes us, and many of our current CSA members were Alissa’s and Anna’s members in previous years. These satisfied customers tell their closest veggie-loving friends, and those veggie-loving friends invite all their aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews to the family reunion where our watermelons grace all the picnic tables—voila—we’ve just reached the entire 5-county greater metro Milwaukee population. I exaggerate slightly. But you get the idea. Our satisfied customers are an invaluable salesforce.

The real challenge of relying on word-of-mouth advertising is producing a product which inspires your customers to constantly gush of its merits to everyone and anyone who has five minutes to hear the many benefits of eating local, sustainable fruits and vegetables. At Wild Ridge, we try to attract such enthusiasts by focusing on the details of our Farmer’s Market booth presentation, consistently arranging the most eye-catching displays at both our Fox Point and Thiensville markets. How else can one farm stall stand out among ten other vegetable vendors, but by enticing passers-by with a finely-arranged display? If no one stops to look, who will consider making a purchase? Who will be our next satisfied customer?

We’ve been pleasantly surprised by market sales this year which has helped overcome a slight deficit in projected CSA membership sales. In our first Fox Point market week, we already met our projected weekly sales average and now in our thirteenth week we’ve doubled our projected weekly average for the last four consecutive weeks. This has been a triumph of consistently beautiful displays, consistently high-quality and bountiful produce, and consistent word-of-mouth recommendations from our die-hard market customers.

Most times, our third stream of revenue seems like only a trickle. Currently we have but one loyal restaurant customer on the fashionable east side of Milwaukee: Allium Restaurant and Bar. Owner Stephen Haig Marks texts us his produce order every Friday morning while we’re out in the field harvesting for our Saturday market, and though we might only sell him five pounds of White Russian kale and three pounds of arugula, or ten pounds of heirloom tomatoes and five pounds of Ya-Ya carrots, we love having our “Wild Ridge Farm” moniker up on his prominently displayed chalkboard of local meat and produce suppliers. Maybe we’re being vain. Or maybe we are justified in our pride.

Whatever your opinion, we never want to fall into the easy temptation of disregarding all those hundreds of thousands of people living the urban life, dining out five nights a week, only because we prefer the wide-open spaces of our vast acreage and the simple life of growing and preparing our own breakfasts, lunches, and dinners. In our American culture, the rural does not exist without the urban.

Making the Right Choices on Farm Equipment

If the farmer paused briefly from his ceaseless toil, taking up pen and paper to list the various equipment he relies on continually in his daily labor, an afternoon would surely be lost and the farmer would retire to bed with cramps in his writing hand. Roller tables, harvest crates, wash tubs, pruners, hand hoes, soil knives, drip tape, row cover, lay flat hose, pitch forks, spades, backpack sprayers—hundreds of simple tools and supplies cluttering the dusty corners of barns and sheds. Tractors, rotary tillers, disc harrows, grain drills, box blades, wood chippers, log splitters, cultivators, cultipackers, flatbed trucks, skid loaders—the imposing diesel guzzlers and implements lined up in garages and parkways.

While I can assure you that hundreds of those simple tools and supplies can make as big an economic impact as a single big-ticket items, still, tractors have captured our agricultural imagination and are the heroes of children’s books and the pride of weathered old planters and harvesters. In or last century, the scale of farming in America has been transformed to favor 1000-plus acre plots which necessitate fleets of powerful tractors and mammoth machines.

But I am not against tractors. We at Wild Ridge love our Kubota M6040. An amazing machine, equipped with quick-attach front loader and class 2, three-point hitch, this orange darling does it all.

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Our entire field layout and crop plan is designed with the Kubota in mind and all the beds are calibrated to its wheel width. This is the tractor we wanted. This is the tractor that gets the job done. Unfortunately, profit margins are tight in farming, and oftentimes the ideal piece of equipment exceeds the limited budget, forcing the farmer to improvise with what’s already on hand.

In the spring, Wild Ridge Farm was asked to take over stewardship of a small off-site apple orchard, but the budget had already been fixed the previous fall, and we had virtually no wiggle room to invest in extra equipment on a project with no sure financial return. Nevertheless, I thrilled at the prospect of orcharding. Apples have been a lifelong interest. In one of my earliest childhood memories, my mother, my older brother, and I—a venturesome 4 year-old—hike into our neighbor’s 10-acre field of wild flowers and prairie toward a solitary apple tree, standing tall above the grasses, to pick ripe apples.

Thus, though we had neither the budget, nor the proper equipment, we said yes to stewarding fifty some odd trees on a 3-acre plot.

On a cool early evening in late May, after a full day of work in the field, I courageously filled my little 3-gallon backpack sprayer with water and MicroSulf and began my first orchard task of apple scab prevention. Trudging from tree to tree with 30 pounds of water strapped to my back, I quickly realized I hadn’t the time nor energy to spray even as small an orchard as fifty trees with only a manually pumped backpack sprayer, and so, with much regret, I narrowed my focus to a block of the dozen most promising trees and let the others go natural for the year. But even with less trees to manage, the backpack sprayer fails in another aspect: it doesn’t spray high enough into trees that have been left un-pruned for several years with upper canopies as tall as twenty feet.

Though it causes some embarrassment to show these ridiculous pictures of trees only half-covered in kaolin clay, I felt it an apt illustration of the consequences of using equipment inadequate for the task at hand.

Such goes the season: small victories and small defeats. Patiently we wait for that providential piece of useful equipment—some gift inherited from an older, wiser, or more experienced generation. Patiently we wait for the timely capital which will turn the tide of work in our favor.

A Perspective on Seeds

Our farming livelihood rests on the success of seeds. But how strange to hold something so small in the palm of my hand and realize I’m investing a lion’s share of days, dollars, and ideas in a speck of organic matter that appears so lifeless. And yet, time and time again, the seemingly powerless soon pushes through soil, and the seemingly lifeless yields fruit in its season. If we wish to finish well, we must begin well. If we desire good fruit, we must plant good seeds.

Our farming season begins with seeds. Ordered when the soil lies locked in ice and snow, we wrap ourselves in layers of wool sweaters and dream of August evenings when thousands of seeds planted in February, March, April and May will grace our dinner table with crisp greens in clay bowls, sliced tomatoes on maple cutting boards, purple eggplants, roasted cauliflower, mashed sweet potatoes, and all manner of bounty. In large measure, we choose the seeds and the varieties we, ourselves, will enjoy eating and preparing, because when we are excited about our vegetables, how much easier is it to excite eager market-goers when lines queue up Saturday mornings in Fox Point or Whitefish Bay or Tuesday mornings in Thiensville?

Flavor, however, cannot be our only consideration. With over 75 CSA members already invested in Wild Ridge Farm before even our first head of lettuce matures, we need to know the seeds we plant will deliver the beautiful produce everybody expects. Thus, many of the varieties which have become our mainstays, were first the mainstays of the farmers who taught us. The seeds which we rely on year after year, were first the seeds our mentors relied on year after year. With so many aspects of farming dictated by forces out of human control—rainfall, field conditions, temperatures, disease pressures—we strive to eliminate as many variables as possible; thus, if we know Carmen peppers are consistently beautiful and delicious, Carmen peppers are the peppers we plant.

We source almost all our seeds from either High Mowing Organic Seeds or Johnny’s Selected Seeds. These two companies have been reliable and timely and carry the varieties we like to grow. Since we are not a certified organic farm, we are not strictly limited to organic seeds, but both High Mowing and Johnny’s carry organic seeds and this is our preference. Close to 90% of the varieties we grow are hybrids. We choose to grow hybrids for their reliable germination rates, consistent maturation rates, and dependable yields—in order to serve our CSA customers, our market customers, and our restaurant customers our timing must be impeccable, ensuring weekly quality and quantity of harvests remains sufficient from week to week.

Produce farmers are constantly balancing the scales of quantity and quality, hoping always to have an abundance of both. With this goal in mind, Wild Ridge has the privilege this season of collaborating with several local farmers, chefs, and plant breeders under the direction of Julie Dawson of UW Madison’s Horticulture Department in a project to develop vegetable breeds which optimize both flavor and productivity—seeds which thrive in the growing conditions unique to our Wisconsin landscape. At Julie’s invitation, we’ve selected several varieties of lettuce, carrots, and winter squash seeds to grow specifically for taste trials conducted by a panel of Madison chefs led by Tory Miller of L’Etoile and Graze.

We believe the collaboration of regional farmers, chefs, and plant breeders has great potential to elevate local food cultures and local economies, eliminating over-reliance on long-distance shipping, reducing fuel and energy spent in transport and refrigeration, and enhancing the vitality of our existence on each singular corner of the earth where we’ve planted these tiny seeds and daily work for their growth.