Farm History


We get asked that question every year and the answer is always the same: oh, just farming. The truth is that the farm doesn’t stop for national holidays. If we have a CSA delivery to get out, we work – so that would be 20 straight weeks June through October. Vegetables don’t take a vacation day so neither do we. That doesn’t mean we don’t have a little extra fun and show our patriotism in our own farmy way. While most of our CSA members were off  having cookouts and sipping cold beverages on boats, the farm crew was going about our average Tuesday business of harvest, planting, and packing shed work. At the end of the day the crew cracked open a few beers and set off some fireworks to celebrate along with the rest of our compatriots. On the flip side of the no-days-off coin are the winter months. While most of the world is going to work 5 days a week, we have discretion with our schedules. Winter means that the Perkins family holds down the farm in between multi-week vacations while the rest of the farm crew gets 2 months off. Although the vegetable farming schedule is polarized to the extreme, it’s a lifestyle we have come to love.

Jonnah

Sophal and Neing harvesting fennel before the heat sets in.

Tonny, Sophal, worker-share Matt, and Jesse harvesting Swiss Chard.

Yun, Tom, J-Mo, Eric, and Tonny toasting with Budweiser’s “America”  to celebrate the 4th of July (after work!).

Tom setting off some fireworks to celebrate the holiday!

 

As CSA farmers, we could go on and on about the value and importance of the CSA model of farming. Ultimately, our love for community supported agriculture isn’t complete without the community support. The connection with our members is at the foundation of the farm itself. Back in 1994 when Barb and David started this farm, CSA was a relatively new concept. They pounded the pavement with grassroots marketing efforts to educate their members about CSA. They have gained the trust of thousands of families over the years while paving a path for younger farmers to join the movement.

The CSA model is such a brilliant one that national brands have caught on and are borrowing from the wholesome, authentic values and qualities of local family farms. CSA-style box-scheme distribution systems and subscription-based meal services are popping up in every media channel telling us that we can be healthier, save money, be environmentally sustainable, learn how to cook better, and contribute to building a better food system. This marketing language may be appealing to many, but as a farmer, I shudder at the notion that a national distribution of perishable food, packaged into individual servings, from farms coast-to-coast (and internationally!), could be improving our food system.

Last year we invited our CSA members to participate in a survey conducted by FairShare CSA Coalition with researchers from UW-Madison and University of Wisconsin-Extension, funded by a USDA grant. This survey helped us to understand the values and behaviors of our current CSA members. Over 80% of participants indicated that they will continue membership. Members went on to say that the top 5 reasons to do CSA were to eat local, eat fresh, eat healthy, support local farmers, and eat seasonally. These values have a striking resemblance to the mission statements of box-scheme services striving to connect with their potential customers.

One of the leading meal service providers, Blue Apron, makes a powerful statement: We’re eliminating the middleman to deliver fresher food. Actually, that is what CSA is doing, not box-scheme distributors. In fact, their statement is a bold contradiction – they are the middleman. If this is the message that food-conscious consumers what to hear, then CSA farmers need to remind our own communities that CSA is truly the absence of a middleman, farm-to-table at its purest.

Although the CSA movement is going strong, many farms are experiencing a drop in membership across the country. With increasing amounts of purchasing options that seem parallel to CSA, consumers are experimenting with other delivery services for their vegetables. The impact is felt on a community level. If national brands replace local farms, the personal connection to our food production is lost. In the FairShare CSA Coalition network, lower-income families can receive subsidized CSA shares, making it possible to afford organic, locally grown produce. National brands are driven by their bottom line, disregarding socioeconomic disadvantages that local farms care so much about.

Our purchasing choices speak louder than our voices. In the evolving healthy-eating marketplace, we need to have a heightened awareness of what our spending ultimately means. CSA continues to be the most direct line between the farm to the consumer. So long as we care about the food that we put into our bodies, knowing our farmers, and can embrace the joy and challenge of eating seasonally, CSA will thrive in our dedicated communities.

Jonnah

Vermont Valley Community Farm Crew

Over the course of the past 23 years we’ve work hard to develop Vermont Valley Community Farm into a thriving certified organic vegetable farm and CSA. We have learned and grown and changed and consequently have a lot to share. We had the opportunity Wednesday to share our knowledge and experiences with a group of international farmers, representing six countries. Their areas of specialty were diverse and they had many interests and questions in common. We talked about business practices, community building, connecting with CSA members, nutrition, marketing, sustainability, family business, efficiency practices, equipment, financial sustainability, and much more. It was a little over an hour, but could have been a day. This was such a vibrant group of interesting and interested farmers. It was fun and rewarding to pull myself out of my daily grind and share what I do and what I know with this like-minded global community of farmers.

Barb

The Nuffield Scholars from Australia, Ireland, UK, Brazil, New Zealand, Netherlands

Garlic scape harvest. A scape gets snapped off of each garlic plant. This helps the plant put more energy into the bulb and gives us another edible part from the plant.

Kohlrabi harvest. The plant is pulled, the root snipped, the leaves removed. Then we take them to the packing shed to wash.

Salad mix, fennel and kohlrabi. Everything is so lush and beautiful with all of the rain we have had.

Whether this is your first season or your twenty-third, you are what this farm is all about! Twenty-three years ago, before most people knew what CSA was, David and I started this farm. We strongly believed in the concept of CSA and wanted all of the food grown on our farm to go only to our CSA members. We didn’t know if this was possible, but we gave it a try. We didn’t know if it was possible to make a living growing organic vegetables and distributing them through our CSA but we wanted to give it our best. We quickly got our answer as memberships increased each year. We wanted a connection with our members, something people generally don’t have with the person growing their food and with the farm where it is grown. This is why we give you many opportunities to come out to the farm during the season. We hope to meet you for the first time or see you again. We hope you enjoy the food that comes your way. And we always welcome questions or comments along the way. Happy season #23 from Vermont Valley Community Farm!

Barb

Monday morning. Harvesting rhubarb from our quarter acre rhubarb patch. That’s a lot of rhubarb!

Tuesday morning. Harvesting spinach. We pinch off leaf by leaf. Yum.

Tuesday morning. Scallion harvest. My view as I sat on the ground trimming roots.

Early Wednesday morning. Salad mix harvest. The sun is just rising in our valley.

Monday afternoon. Weighing and banding rhubarb.

Wednesday afternoon. Washing and trimming fresh garlic.

Wow, we’ve been growing food for the community for a generation. Our kids are now in their 30’s – we were in our 30’s when we started this farm. Members used to bring their kids out, now their kids bring out their kids! We (David and Barb) started growing organic food when it was a new concept, now organic food can be found in a wide variety of places. This farm has been an integral part of the CSA movement and we have witnessed its growth and acceptance into thousands of households. Twenty three years ago CSA needed lots of explaining, today it is nearly a household word. When we started our farm people would ask us if we thought CSA was a fad. We always emphatically and without hesitation said ‘no’. How can a concept that connects people with the source of their food, the land that it is grown on and the farmer that grows it be a fad?? It all makes too much sense and over the years we have seen how much people have embraced the connection with their food and the land. The C in CSA stands for community and that C becomes more and more important in our fast-paced world. So thanks for embracing Community Supported Agriculture and everything it stands for. We love growing your food and hope to see you on the farm this season!

Barb

First tractor

1994 was a big year for our family. We moved from Madison’s near east side to our farm. Our first tractor and three proud farm kids. Becky, age 9; Jesse, age 13; Eric, age 11.

All in the family: Eric, Jesse, Jonnah (Jesse's wife), Becky, Felix, David and Barb Perkins

The entire family now farming together: Eric, Jesse, Jonnah (Jesse’s wife), Becky, Felix, David and Barb Perkins. Jesse and Jonnah’s children, Paavo and Mischa, are not pictured.

CSA members harvesting their own basil.

CSA members harvesting their own basil.

The last half-century has witnessed a reawakening of the importance of our food; what it means to us and our communities. It started with authors and community activists; it started with all sorts of farmers, some maybe more passionate than productive. It started with a common devotion to something that had been lost, food focused on health, taste and a commitment to the earth that sustains us.

People and communities have responded. There are more and more CSA farms every year. There are farmer’s markets around every corner. Organic produce and product sections are in almost every store.  Stores that support organic food grow and expand. The desire to eat well crosses all boundaries, economic, geographic, social and political.

Health: the universal recommendation is Eat More Fruits and Vegetables. What a litany of woes would be solved if that happened! The reality is, what you get in you CSA box is just a healthy start on your vegetables. Some of us eat enough vegetables, but for most of us, the CSA box can be the learning box, the way to teach ourselves, the way to change our eating habits, in a fun, enjoyable and delicious way.

However, not only the vegetables have sprouted and grown over these many years. The notion of “local” is now THE marketing theme which has or will diminish its meaning to a non-meaning. The biggest corporate names in the food “industry” claim to be what we at Vermont Valley Community Farm are. The marketing companies are good at what they do, they know what you value. Lots of claims are made to dissuade and detract from the efforts and commitment of organic farmers.  The market has been invaded with entities looking to “cash in” on you; the people who care about what they eat. But, all the unsavory developments can readily be composted by simply continuing to get your CSA box and better yet, encouraging family and friends to join you.

Know your Farmer, Know your Food. Joining the farm gives you the opportunity to relate to a set of farmers, the land where your food comes from, and get a sense of how your food is grown. But, does it matter? From the industrial perspective of food as a commodity, it does not matter. How could it? You have scant idea where the food product came from. The industry is afraid of you knowing what is in it, let alone who grew it or how it was grown. The alternative perspective is what you have done by getting food from your CSA. You know exactly who grew the food, where it came from, and thru our stories a little better understanding of what goes into growing your food. We hope how much we care about what we are doing shows. The farm/world is in the internet age, but ultimately, contact with real people in real places is what matters, and in relation to your food, that is what CSA offers you.

Unlike the coming election where you could choose not to vote, you will vote a food choice every day.  So, what’s on your plate? Yes, it comes down to that; simple but quite powerful. You have made the choice to put your CSA on your plate; it most definitely matters. Thank you for allowing us to do what we believe in; and we hope you continue to join us.

David

It was in August of 1994 that David and I started this farm. Jesse, our oldest, was 13, now he has two kids. The passage of time is interesting. But right now I am looking back on this season and all that it brought us. It was in general a challenging growing season. Not that every season doesn’t come with challenges, they do. We accept what comes our way and do the best we can with it. This season was rainy. Rain is good, don’t get me wrong. We need it. We love it and too much of it can cause problems. One good rain will irrigate the whole farm and no rain means up to 40 hours of work for one person running irrigation. This year we got rain and humidity and hot weather all bundled up. Microorganisms love it and it is the perfect host for disease and fungus. We deal with plant disease every year. Mostly it is minor and has very little effect on the final product. When something shows up that we have never seen before we take our plant matter to the UW Plant Diagnostic Lab to find out what it is. We had a new one this year that infected our melons, squashes, cucumbers and pumpkins. Yikes! That’s acres of food. David was able to spray an organically approved material to stop the spread of this disease, although it had done a bit too much damage in a few crops already. We had a very small melon crop and lost our zucchini earlier than usual, thankfully our other summer squash did quite well.  The other effected crops fared well.

Then there are the animals that live all around the farm and love that we plant vegetables for them. Turkeys, Sandhill cranes and deer are a particular nuisance. Deer eat lettuce heads and beans so we put up 8 foot fencing around these crops. It kept the deer out of the lettuce but there were some high jumpers in our bean field. When we realized they were still getting in, we re-worked the fence. They still got in and ate beans. The turkeys pulled up oodles of small beet plants and were responsible for the lack of corn stalks at the pumpkin pick. Pulled up all of the young corn plants two times! And the Sandhill cranes love sweet corn. Their tall height is perfect for walking through sweet corn and pecking the tops of the ears of corn. I think there were three cranes living in our sweet corn this year, because they were always there!

The excess of rain was spectacular. We had a flood like none I or the neighbors had ever seen. It subsided quickly and our wetland did its job by holding water and raising up to look like a lake. Many of the fields were left saturated. The carrots had some tip rot because they didn’t like all of the water. There were times we couldn’t get into the fields with any vehicle but a tractor. This put an interesting twist to harvest since we usually use our 16 foot box trucks and one of our pickup trucks for harvest.  Again, we had to get creative.

The hot days and extended season allowed us to harvest some crops longer than usual. Our first frost didn’t come until last night, weeks later than usual. Tomatoes, peppers and eggplant just kept coming and we harvested nearly every fruit from these plants. The winter squash was possibly our best crop ever. Broccoli had some disease but just kept coming. The sweet potatoes were definitely our best ever.

Each season has its highs and lows, fantastic crop yields and some disappointments. That’s why we grow 50 different vegetables; if one isn’t as great as hoped another is. Thank you to all of you for supporting our farm and eating with the seasons. It’s a fun adventure and we all look forward to whatever next season brings.

Barb

The summer flood that brought a lot of rain to our valley.

The summer flood that brought a lot of rain to our valley.

The tractor in the broccoli field ready for harvest. We couldn’t drive the trucks into the field since they were too wet. Note the dark sky, looks like more rain on it’s way.

The tractor in the broccoli field ready for harvest. We couldn’t drive the trucks into the field since they were too wet. Note the dark sky, looks like more rain on it’s way.

Amazing eggplant!

Amazing eggplant!

Bountiful squash!

Bountiful squash!

Incredible sweet potatoes.

Incredible sweet potatoes.

 

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