Farm Tours

Along with my new job came the opportunity last month to visit a few of the local farms that supply produce to Willy Street Co-op. Over the course of five gorgeous autumn days we visited eight local farms.

Our first stop was Troy Community Farm, a small 5 acre urban farm on Madison's North Side. Claire, the farmer, had most of her fields planted in cover crops like the rye grass in the picture above. All of the farms that we visited were organic and all use cover crops to some degree. It was impressive to see how much the farmers depend on this green manure, which builds their soil and lessens their reliance on other fertility inputs.

A neat and tidy stand of Brussels sprouts and kale at Troy.

As we walked around we noticed two sandhill cranes browsing in one of the fields at the edge of the farm. What a wonderful oasis for them in the middle of the city! They let us get surprisingly close before they finally flew away.

Herbs are one of the things that Troy grows for the Co-op. They were dwindling a little with the season when we visited, but it was still impressive to see the large beds of chives, sage, oregano, and mint.

Next was West Star Farm, a short drive South of Madison. This is a 40 acre farm, and about exactly what I would want if I owned a farm.... not too big, not too small, just right.

Kohlrabi at West Star. I have to admit that this is not one of my favorite vegetables - it's pretty much just like broccoli stems, but more expensive. It is a beautiful plant though, I have to admit.

For whatever reason numerous farms had a good butternut squash year. George at West Star had one of his greenhouses just packed with bins of it. It made a beautiful scene with his popcorn hanging from the ceiling curing.

Speaking of bumper butternut crops, this is the scene that awaited us at Yesteryear Farm, the farm we visited the following morning.

Henry, the farmer at Yesteryear, turned out to be Henry Bunn, who was a professor of mine at UW in my days as an anthropology student. He is a preeminent scholar in the world of paleoanthropology, and also a farmer of pumpkins, squash, and heirloom tomatoes. Small world.

This beautiful old barn is where Henry was storing his pie pumpkins and butternut squash. His priority was to get them out of here and into more insulated storage before the hard frosts come.

We took a walk out to Henry's heirloom tomato field, which at that point was not much to see. Frost had hit the tomatoes and the plants were brown and withered. We did see this cool solar powered irrigation system. The panel hooked up to two large batteries that power a well and pump water to the field.

Next up was Garden to Be, grower of microgreens, and other specialty crops. Besides the Co-op, Garden to Be markets to many upscale restaurants. This is the view inside the greenhouse where they had their microgreens, which are basically sprouts that are grown in soil.

One of the cool things (literary!) at Garden to Be was this cooler, made from straw bales. Scott, the farmer, told us that it insulates really well..... very cool.

Baby bok choy at Garden to Be. This farm had by far the most beautifully tended and immaculate fields.

Next up was Vermont Valley, a larger farm that any we had visited thus far. They are known mostly for their CSA, which has somewhere around 2,000 members. We were shown around by Jesse, the son of the owners, and his wife Jonnah, who coincidentally, I had gone to high school, and been in show choir with. Again, small world.

They were planting garlic on the day we were there. This is one of the crops that Vermont Valley grows for the Co-op, and there was a lot of it in the field. We were surprised to learn that they don't even mulch their garlic - they said that it overwinters for them just fine without any cover.... I'd bet the heavy snow cover that we've gotten the last few years has helped.

Before we left for the day, Jesse took us to their potato field a few miles away from their main farm. Potatoes are the other crop that Vermont Valley grows for the Co-op, and they grow a lot of them. This land is very close to the Wisconsin River - flat, sandy, and just perfect for potatoes. Jesse proudly showed us their brand-new irrigation system. It has it's own transformer and is totally computerized. Quite a contrast from the small solar irrigation system we had seen earlier in the day!

Our next excursion was to Tipi Produce, about 40 minutes South of Madison. Tipi is famous for their carrots, and we were delighted to see the whole process. First, Steve, the farmer, took us into one of their barns to see this machine that washes the carrots. It was a neat old contraption that reminded me of something from a Doctor Seuss story. One one end, a worker shoveled carrots onto a conveyor, and they slowly made their way to the other side of the machine where they were loaded into bins for storage.

We then took a walk around the entire farm. Many of the carrots (like these ones), were still in the field in long beautiful rows.

We were also treated to a demonstration of the carrot harvesting machine that Steve and his crew use. This thing literally lifted the carrots out of the ground, cut their tops off, and brought them to a waiting worker who loaded them into crates on a wagon. Again, and old machine, but one that does it's job well.

Steve is a masterfull farmer, and we learned a ton from him as we walked the fields. Beets...


Nappa Cabbage.... At one point we walked very close to the property that neighbors Tipi - a conventional farm that monocrops corn. Steve described how the people who own the land very rarely come there, they pay someone to plant and harvest for them using GPS to guide the tractor. There was a marked difference between the soil on Steve's side of the property line and the conventionally farmed soil. It was sandier and thinner than Steve's beautiful dark rich dirt, and large gullies had formed where topsoil easily ran off during rainstorms. It was a good lesson on why we support organic farmers. Steve cares for his soil almost more than he cares for his plants. He understands that you can't have healthy plants without first ensuring healthy dirt. The conventional world seems to have no concept of that.

Tipi turnips....

Here's the crew from Willy Street. It was so good for these people to get out of the store and see where our food comes from. The whole experience provided a much needed breath of fresh air (literally) to this crew of hard working produce people!

The next day we drove two hours West of Madison to visit Keewaydin Organics. Keewaydin is a group of farms, mostly Amish, that are coordinated by Rufus, a non-Amish farmer who grew up in the area. First we toured Rufus's farm, which is perched high on a ridge overlooking the beautiful countryside. The greenhouses are works in progress, built overtop crops that will soon need the plastic covers that Rufus plans to put up in the next few weeks.

This is Wisconsin's Driftless Region, the part of the state where the glaciers never got to, and steep hills dominate the scenery. After touring Rufus's farm, we ate a wonderful early lunch that his wife prepared for us, and then headed off into the countryside to visit a few of the farms that Rufus works with. Because they were Amish, we couldn't take pictures, which was a shame.

We saw a lot that day - four different Amish farms who grow vegetables for Keewaydin, and also CROP, Organic Valley's produce division. We were astounded by the amount of work the Rufus and the people who work for him have to do to coordinate the farms. The Amish don't use email or phone, so a representative from Keewaydin must drive from farm to farm every day to find out what's available from each farm, deliver orders to the farmers, and finally pick up the produce from them. It was fascinating to meet the Amish farmers and get a brief glimpse of their way of life, so different from ours.

The last farm Rufus took us to was one of the non-Amish farms that supply Keewaydin. This particular farm grows almost all of the local chard that's sold at the Co-op, as well as some of the cilantro. We were surprised and delighted when the farmers, Jason and Janelle, presented us with a beautiful early supper of produce from their farm and mutton from a sheep that Jason had recently slaughtered. It was a beautiful gesture, and a wonderful meal.

Our last farm was the biggest and most well known of Wisconsin produce farms: Harmony Valley. Harmony is also in the Driftless Region, but a little farther West than Keewaydin, closer to the Mississippi. Since our tour of Keewaydin was a long day unto itself, we drove back to Madison and then drove out two and a half hours in the same direction the next day to get to Harmony. A lot of driving, but totally worth it.

Richard De Wilde has been farming successfully at Harmony for a long long time, and it shows. They have over 50 employees, and lots of new, very professional equipment to process the root crops and salad greens that they specialize in. Andrea, Richard's partner gave us a tour of the packing buildings - impressive indeed. I should have gotten pictures!

Then Richard took us on a tour of their many fields - the picture above is the Willy Street crew picking scarlet turnips with him. We ended our day by feasting on an amazing lunch prepared by the farm chef who cooks daily for the workers. Lucky them!

Happy pigs sleeping in the October sun at Harmony Valley. They keep just a few for meat for themselves and their farm workers. I just had to take a picture because I had never seen pigs with such distinct smiles on their faces.

The hustle and bustle of the crew at Harmony was unrivaled by any of the other farms we met. It was a fitting end to our tours - we had started at a small urban farm in Madison, and ended at a large farm way out in the country. What a diverse food landscape we live in!

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1 comment:

  1. I always enjoy your posts - thank you for sharing these inspiring photos! It's encouraging to see so many thriving organic farms within an accessible area around where you live and work.


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