News


Each week Mother Nature throws us a new curve ball and we’ve gotten pretty good at keeping our cool when things get wild on the farm. South Central Wisconsin has had it’s share of severe storms and large volumes of rain this summer but last night’s event set itself apart from the rest. At 9:30pm last night the power on the farm went out which was only a minor inconvenience as long as the vegetable coolers stayed shut, which we made sure they did. The grand challenge came when the crew arrived this morning at 6:30am to pack over 800 CSA shares and the box packing room and walk-in coolers were as dark as caves. Out came headlamps and flashlights and luckily the power flickered back on by 7:30 and do we were could now move through the morning at our electricity-supported pace. When the aftermath of the storm settled down we were all able share our stories of downed trees, flooded roads, flooded basements and our exciting nights at home without power. The only frustrating carryover from the eventful storm was the technology fallout. I spent the majority of my morning trying to restore service to our internet and email server. But that is all part of the monumental undertaking of running a business in a rural area. We didn’t become vegetable farmers to seek out a simple way of life, and we sure do take humor in making the most of the endless challenges that the farm life sends our way.

On a lighter note, we got off to a great start with the garlic harvest on Tuesday and Wednesday! Over the coming week we will fit in the rest of the job whenever we can, harvesting a total of about a half acre of garlic. The garlic will be cured and stored in the upstairs of the barn and we will deliver it throughout the rest of the delivery season, saving about 20% back to plant for next year.

~Jonnah

Garlic growing out of straw mulch. The garlic looks beautiful this year!

Jesse and Casey pull garlic out and shake off the dirt from the roots.

Ryna with her garlic. She has been one of the crew members who has spent a lot of time out in the hot sun harvesting!

Yes, it has been a very rainy season. And vegetables are happy and thriving! The rain pattern has been a bit unusual. Small isolated storms have been passing through and popping up. Where they hit and how much rain they drop is extremely variable in a relatively small area. We did not get the 4+ inches of rain Sunday night, as the west side of Madison did. We got less than 2 inches. For that we were thankful. We did get more rain Tuesday night and Wednesday morning.

Vegetables love water. They need water to grow and thrive. We have deep, rich soils on this farm that can absorb lots of water. We have a lovely wetland and stream where excess water finds it way. It is very, very unusual to have standing water in our fields. While the vegetables and weeds are happily growing, the people and mostly the vehicles have a difficult time getting into the fields to work. We do more walking and use vehicles that hopefully won’t get stuck, like tractors. When we aren’t harvesting vegetables we are pulling weeds! Rubber boots and rain pants get lots of use.

Barb

Looking down at my boots as my feet slowly sink into the wet soil; harvesting salad mix.

Salad mix harvest. We waited until Tuesday morning so the ground could firm up a bit. Not only is it hard to walk in such muddy conditions, it is not good for the beds of vegetables.

After lettuce head harvest we turned to next week’s bed to rid it of weeds. Weeds will out-compete the lettuce heads and cause the lettuce to stretch towards the light. Weeds also inhibit air flow, causing rotting leaves at the bottom of the plant. And weeding is so satisfying!

Cabbage harvest. We were able to use the tractor to transport the bins of cabbage. The tractor could easily get through the field after the rains.

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.

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.

 

We have been growing vegetables exclusively for our CSA program for over two decades. With the exception of our seed potato business, our connection with the Willy Street Co-op production kitchen and a few other local businesses, you will not find Vermont Valley produce on restaurant menus, at farmers markets or in stores. We choose to deliver all of our produce to our CSA members, putting all of our time and effort into being the best CSA possible. When we have less than perfect produce or more volume than can be worked into our CSA, we make our produce available to those who need it most.

We bring in thousands of pounds of produce in from the field each week of our growing season. After the vegetables have been washed and sorted, we end up with hundreds of pounds of imperfect produce. We have formed relationships with organizations that will gladly accept our less than perfect vegetables.

This is our 8th year working with the Goodman Community Center. Our produce is channeled through several different programs within the center, and this partnership has been the highlight of our donation activity for the past few years. Through our connection with the center, over 12,000 lbs of our produce has been served and distributed this year to date. Vermont Valley vegetables are incorporated into program meals each week through the Kid’s Cafe Program which connects Madison community centers and local farms, funded by Group Health Cooperative. Jon Lica, Goodman Community Center Fritz Food Pantry Coordinator/Corporate & Events Associate acknowledges our important relationship, Vermont Valley Community Farm has greatly improved our food programs at the Goodman Community Center over the past few years. Youth program participants now receive locally sourced, organic vegetables in their meals during the summer and after school. Even though our Food Pantry is small, it’s very popular because of the terrific assortment or fresh produce clients have to choose from each week. We’re also able to preserve over 3,000 pounds of fresh produce each summer that eventually gets distributed through the food pantry in the winter months. We’re so grateful for this partnership that enables us to provide healthy food options for thousands of children and families in our community.”

Food Procurement Manager, Amy Mach, and her team have processed thousands of pounds of our produce in Goodman’s certified preservation kitchen. We have been known to give the center less than 24 hours to make a plan to prepare, process, and distribute large quantities of vegetables. The staff is incredibly agile and creative with the variety and volume of produce we deliver.

The Goodman Community Center’s Seed to Table Program will be visiting the farm next week to harvest vegetables to bring back to the center. Youth in this program earn high school credit while learning valuable job skills. Over the past 8 years, our partnership with the center has proven to be an amazing outlet for our produce and a source of on-farm experience for Goodman Community Center program participants.

This year our produce also made its way to other events and organizations such as Second Harvest Foodbank of Southern Wisconsin, FairShare CSA Coalition Bike the Barns, and AIDS Network AIDS Ride. 19 schools and organizations featured donated Vermont Valley CSA shares in their fundraising silent auction and raffle events.

In addition to in kind donations, we also make arrangements for CSA shares to be used to the fullest. When CSA members cannot pick up their share for the week, we deliver the excess produce to low income families or place it with local childcare centers. This effort ensures that no shares are wasted while passing along the extra vegetables to families and children.

Part of our community mission is to place as much excess produce into the local food system as possible. So far this year we have put over 24,000 lbs of produce into the greater Madison community. Our relationships with community centers, schools and food pantries continue to strengthen, stretching the reach of Vermont Valley produce further. We are fortunate to have developed partnerships with organizations that share our dedication to improving the local food system by making locally grown, organic produce available to those who otherwise may not have access to this food.

Thanks to all our CSA members who make our efforts possible.

Jonnah

Seed to Table students preparing peppers to make salsa at Goodman Community Center

Seed to Table students preparing peppers to make salsa at Goodman Community Center.

The Second Harvest Food Bank truck getting loaded up with potatoes. So far this year we have donated 12,300 pounds of potatoes to Second Harvest!

The Second Harvest Food Bank truck getting loaded up with potatoes. So far this year we have donated 12,300 pounds of potatoes to Second Harvest!

Stack of vegetable donations ready to be loaded on the delivery truck.

Stack of vegetable donations ready to be loaded on the delivery truck.

End of season gleaning. Jonnah (Vermont Valley Donations Coordinator), Amy Mach (Goodman Food Procurement/Processing Manager), and Keith Pollack (Goodman TEEN Works Manager) out in the field on a trip to the farm to harvest vegetables.

End of season gleaning. Jonnah (Vermont Valley Donations Coordinator), Amy Mach (Goodman Food Procurement/Processing Manager), and Keith Pollack (Goodman TEEN Works Manager) out in the field on a trip to the farm to harvest vegetables.

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