October 2011

Time is one of those strange things.  Where does it go?  Why does it sometimes go fast and sometimes to slow?  How can we run out of time, have too much time or not enough time?  How does time fly?  As far as I know time is quite consistent, so could it be me?  As I reflect on the season it seems like it flew, but in August when the temperatures were over 100 degrees I thought the season may never end, that I may not even make it through the day.  People often ask, “How was your season?”  And I have to answer, “Full of extremes.”  During this season we experienced many extremes.  We had one of the coldest springs.  This impacted the growing conditions of some of the spring planted crops.  Most sadly, the peas.  And happily the salad mix and lettuce heads.  The broccoli was happy until the temperatures hit extreme highs, then it began to mature way too quickly.  I do recall one emergency Saturday harvest.  The extreme heat put a quick close to the cool loving crops and speeded up the heat loving crops-tomatoes, melons, peppers.  This was a fantastic year for those crops and we have the heat to thank.  And then…..the earliest frost this farm has ever had.  And that was it for tomatoes and peppers.  I wanted to curl up in a ball and cry.  There were so many thousands of tomatoes and peppers that would have matured, had that cold night in mid-September not come.  But then this fall has been very warm and dry.  The fall crops have loved it and responded well.  The humans have also appreciated it.  We like to feel our fingers and toes while we work.  Tuesday of this week has been the only day this season that we had to wait until 10:30 to go harvest because we had to wait for the kale to thaw.  We have seen some of the most beautiful colors splashed on the hillsides and had a bumper pumpkin crop.  Our festivals were very well attended; the weather was perfect for all of them.  Many of the share boxes were so full I don’t think another leaf of lettuce could have fit.  The packing of the last share box is always bitter-sweet.  We are sad to see it all end (how did it go so fast?) and happy to be able to slow down a bit, reflect on what we learned, take time for friends and family and gear up for another season.  I have a feeling winter will go too fast.

The 2011 Vermont Valley full time crew in the brussels sprout patch. Left to right: Jesse Perkins, David Perkins, Chad Chriestenson, Chris Klaeser, Eric Perkins, Cari Stebbins (cook), Barb Perkins, Jonnah Perkins

Pumpkin Pick

Chris cleaning leeks

Onions curing in the greenhouse

Packing the share boxes

Jesse loading a truck on delivery day


What do we do with all of the imperfect and excess food?  At the peak of the season there are tons and tons of food coming into the packing shed.  We wash and inspect all of it.  If it has a blemish we put in into the ‘seconds’ crate.  Some weeks there were many hundreds, if not thousands of pounds of ‘seconds’.  We donated weekly to Badger Camp, a summer camp for people with developmental disabilities; to the Goodman Community Center and Lussier Community Center Kid’s Café programs; to many food pantries: Middleton Outreach Ministry, Verona Food Pantry, First United Methodist Church and Second Harvest Foodbank of Southern WI.  In August we began working with the Mt Horeb School district school lunch program.  They have a very dedicated food service coordinator and support staff that are willing and excited to use hundreds of pounds of our excess and less-than-perfect food each week.  This is a huge effort on their part to begin to change the food system and the way the students are fed.  We are proud to be part of that change!!

The Second Harvest truck pulling out with 1200# of dontated potatoes

The Mt Horeb school district loading up with tomatoes, peppers and melons

Artwork made by Mt Horeb School district students thanking us for the produce donations

Late August brings the beginning of potato harvest in Wisconsin.  Potatoes are mostly planted in late April to early May and need five to six month to fully mature .  You received ‘new potatoes’, fresh dug immature potatoes, early in the season which is strictly a CSA member treat (or if you grow your own); you will not see those in any grocery.   Potatoes do store well so you also got them in your early season CSA deliveries, those potatoes were from last year’s harvest.  But since the “real” potato harvest has happened, you are now getting a bounty of this season’s harvest.

The main harvest involves a fair bit of equipment.  We use a Scottish built 2 row harvester; which digs the potatoes, shakes the dirt from them, pulls out the weeds and remaining potato vines, and deposits the potatoes into a potato wagon.  Four people ride on a picking table in the rear of the machine; they pick out bad potatoes and dirt that gets through the machine.  Our setup is a miniature version of what you would see if you traveled in the central sands area of the State this time of year (Stevens Point area).  Their machines harvest 16 rows at a time.  But then they are harvesting hundreds of acres and we are harvesting six acres.  The potatoes are then deposited into 1,000 lb. bulk bins and transported to our potato cooler at the farm.  The bins are stacked four high and the temperature and humidity is controlled.  Later the potatoes are sized and once again culled for bad potatoes.  Before they are bagged for you, they are washed and once again culled for bad potatoes; so if you get a bad potato from us it wasn’t because we didn’t try to get rid of it.

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Besides growing potatoes for you, we also grow seed potatoes that we sell to other organic growers in the Midwest.  In fact, we are the only organic certified seed grower in the Midwest.  Certified seed potato growers are regulated under the State Seed Potato law.  There are certain production and storage practices that must be met to be able to sell the potato as Certified Seed.  Seed growers in Wisconsin have the fields inspected twice during the growing season.  If the field is new to seed production, it is inspected during the harvest.  The seed is then inspected in storage.  All potatoes planted to produce seed must meet strict standards; this is called a “foundation seed” standard.  Every “lot” of seed is monitored separately; a “lot” being separate varieties and a variety may be several lots if it was first planted in different years.  Samples of all lots are grown out in Florida in the winter to test for disease.  Fees are charged for all these activities to pay for all the State’s costs.

There are regulations that can apply to all potato growers, such as the ability of the State to order the destruction of your crop if it is contaminated with Late Blight, famously known for the Irish famine of the 1800’s.   There are also industry “self” regulation standards.  These standards are related to size of the potato, visual appearance and processing traits.  Interestingly to us, there is no standard for eating quality; our primary concern is the eating experience; big, small, round, square…who cares, is it good?  The number one consumed potato, the commercial Russet, is the worst tasting of all potatoes; we do not grow those varieties.  The commercial potato growers I know compare its eating quality to cardboard.

The difference between a Certified Seed Potato and other potatoes is the level of potato disease organisms in the potato, primarily viral diseases.  Potatoes are produced by cutting up a potato into 2 ounce pieces and planting it; these are called seed pieces.  All potatoes will build up their level of disease as they are replanted year after year.  The entire purpose of a Certified Seed Potato is to have no or extremely low disease in the seed piece.  A potato seed piece with a high level of disease will have a lower yield and will be a source of disease inoculum for other potatoes.  Many diseases are spread by insects feeding on one potato plant and then moving to the next.  So the basic strategy is: no inoculum in your seed means no disease in the potatoes you harvest.  Historically, the single biggest improvement in potato yield came with the creation of the concept of Certified Seed.  Again, if the Irish had certified seed, there would be a lot more people living in Ireland today.

We also sell potatoes to Willy Street Coop throughout the fall and have for many years now.

The yield on the six acres of potatoes we grow varies between 120,000 to 200,000 lbs. of potatoes.  The yield changes significantly with the weather.  Two years ago was a great year for all the growers in the State, we had our best crop ever by far.  This year many of the growers will have a bad year because of weather, our year is a little below average.   We grow 14 different varieties, some of which are only grown because our seed customers ask us to.  Of these varieties, we give you variety as well as what we think is the best eating.