Bikers gathering around to each lunch at Vermont Valley during a previous bike tour.

Some would say that September is the best month for local vegetables in Wisconsin. And it’s undeniable that September is the the best month for being outside enjoying the cooler temperatures and high likelihood of dry, sunny weather. This time of year we are still getting mountains of tomatoes and other summer vegetables and are welcoming in the fall crops that warm our bellies like winter squash and leafy greens.

This month we are donating our vegetables to two great events that will tie together local food with outdoor recreation in a community adventure setting. FairShare CSA Coalition’s 11th Annual Bike the Barns event and Ice Age Trail Alliance Hike and Farm-to-Table Dinner are coming up on back-to-back weekends. Both events feature locally produced food prepared by top Madison Chefs in a beautiful natural settings.

Bike the Barns – September 17
Registration/Tickets and Information
All ages welcome
This is an opportunity to tour several Dane County Farms (not Vermont Valley this year) on your bike while sampling the best that the season has to offer. The best part is that the proceeds go to the Partner Shares Program, which subsidizes CSA shares for lower-income families. In addition to the bike tour, FairShare has also organized a bus tour. So you can participate in the entire experience without committing to the miles on the bike.

Bike Tour:

  • Short Route: ~28 miles; Short route riders start at 11 AM
  • Medium Route: ~58 miles; Medium route riders start at 10 AM
  • Long Route: ~78 miles; Long route riders start at 9 AM
  • Bus Option: Depart Lake Farm Park at 10 AM & return ~ 4 PM

Bus Tour:
Join us for this unique, first-time event! Registration for this interactive bus tour includes all meals, farm tours and activities at three farms, and bus transportation. Tour Itinerary (*exact farm times subject to change, but start and end times are finalized)

  • 9:30 am: Meet at Lake Farm Park in Madison
  • 10 am: Depart for bus tour!
  • 10:30 am: Winterfell Acres – Local snack, farm tour & demo
  • 12 pm: Raleigh’s Hillside Farm – Farm to table lunch, interactive activities & tour
  • 2:15 pm: Vitruvian Farms – Local snack, tour & foodie activities
  • 3:30 pm: Enjoy the After Party at Lake Farm Park

Both bike and bus tours include fun food & farm-related workshops and activities.

  • A crash course in making farm-fresh cocktails with J. Henry & Sons Bourbon
  • Cider press demonstration, courtesy of Brix Cider, at Winterfell Acres
  • Smoothie-making with a bike blender
  • Veggie-themed mural painting at Raleigh’s Hillside Farm
  • Taste of organic presentation by Purple Cow Organics
  • Behind-the-scenes tours of several community supported agriculture (CSA) farms

Beautiful wooded trails and wide open prairie will be the backdrop for a lovely September farm-to-table dinner

Ice Age Trail Alliance Hike and Farm-to-Table Dinner – September 23
Women and girls of all ages welcome
Ice Age Trail Alliance teamed up with REI to present a series for events throughout the year focused on empowering women on the trail through the REI Force of Nature campaign. The kick-off dinner, on September 23rd, will be a great time to learn about the Ice Age Trail and meet other women who are passionate about outdoor recreation. The group of women and girls will hike a 2 mile section of the Ice Age Trail Table Bluff Segment in Cross Plains to get to the beautiful event location. Executive sous chef, Jamie Hoang of Sujeo, will be preparing a post-hike dinner with produce from Vermont Valley and meat sourced from StoneHaus Farm.
  • 3:00 p.m. Arrive & Check-in
  • 3:30 p.m. Hike beautiful Table Bluff Segment (guided hike)
  • 5:00 p.m. Welcome and introduction of Chef and farm-to-table partners
  • 5:30 p.m. Dinner
  • 6:00 p.m. A brief introduction to the Ice Age Trail & upcoming Trailtessa events
  • 7:30 p.m. Evening wraps up
We hope you come out to celebrate these wonderful events alongside the local producers and national partners that make them possible. September is a time for soaking in all that season has to offer before the growing season tapers off while experiencing our farms and natural areas in one of the best times of the year.
Jonnah

Each year, since the farm began in 1995, we have hosted a Corn Boil. The tradition goes back even further. In 1981, David and I were living on a farm in Helenville, Jefferson Co. We hosted a Corn Boil for all of our friends and neighbors during our 3 year duration on that farm. Then we had a 10 year stint living on the Isthmus so we were excited to bring back the Corn Boil. Our first years on this farm had fewer CSA members so the Corn Boil was a combination of members, neighbors, friends and family. Each year has its own special memories. But each year I have the chance to connect with and talk with our members, many whom I now consider friends.

Barb

Corn Boil 2017

Corn Boil 1995

We have a pattern and routine this time of year. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning we start out harvesting tomatoes in the hoophouse, harvesting zucchini and yellow squashes, followed by cucumbers and outside tomatoes. There is also a crew that heads out to broccoli on those mornings. The same people harvest the same crops. This allows each person to get to know the crops and observe the changes in size and quality each time they harvest. We wish each harvest could be totally straight forward, but that’s not possible. There are variables like how hot it is, how much rain has fallen, what the temperatures will be between now and the next harvest, is tomorrow a delivery day or is it a Friday when there will be two days between harvests, etc. Harvesting vegetables is a combination of art and science. When someone is new to a crop they will ask, how long should the zucchini be? and I follow up with a whole explanation of it depends on…

We are ever so grateful for our dedicated crew. Bending over for hours in scratchy plants isn’t exactly the definition of fun, but it is rewarding.

Barb

Cucumber harvest. A new patch with lush foliage.

Zucchini Harvest. The plants are getting old and tired, but still keep producing.

First pepper harvest.

Part of our crew heading back to the farm after a harvest. (Neing, Ryna, Phearo, Tonny, Tom, Sophal). They are in the back of a box truck. We use our box trucks for harvest and delivery.

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

Garlic is unique in that we plant it in the fall for harvest the following year. We form raised beds which are covered with a very thin layer of plastic mulch. Holes are punched into the plastic and each garlic clove is planted by hand. The best garlic bulbs from the prior year are saved for planting. The bulb is broken apart into its individual cloves. Each clove is planted separately, which becomes next year’s garlic plant. The whole field is then covered with a protective layer of straw mulch for the winter.

Planting garlic last October. Each clove is a seed.

Planting garlic last October. Each clove is a seed.

In the spring, garlic is the very first plant out of the ground, poking thru the straw mulch.  Garlic has shallow roots so it needs lots of water; which we provide with a drip irrigation system that is installed in each raised bed. Any extra needed fertility is added in the fall when the beds are made. A few weeds make their way thru the mulch systems which we then pull by hand.  In early June the garlic sends up its seed heads, called garlic scapes. The scapes are harvested and delivered to you. If the scapes are left on the plant, the garlic bulb will be much smaller because the plant is putting its energy into producing the seed head, which it sees as its way of reproducing itself. It has no idea we are going to do that for the garlic, as described above. So why not plant the seeds from the seed head you may ask. You can, but the result will be very small garlic bulbs.

Tonny in the garlic during the scape harvest.

Tonny in the garlic during the scape harvest.

Mid July is garlic harvest season. Garlic is harvested all at once, making the job a big deal on the farm.  The garlic bulbs mature to a certain point, after which they will begin to lose all their protective layers of “skin” and become undeliverable to you. So all the garlic comes out of the ground; it is placed in a dry place with fans blowing air over the moist bulbs, thereby curing the garlic for long-term storage.

All hands on deck for garlic harvest.

All hands on deck for garlic harvest.

Garlic harvest, like many tasks on the farm, is tedious and slow. Each garlic bulb is hand harvested, the dirt must be removed from the roots, and the outer skin is removed to make the garlic pretty and clean.  Sometimes the soil is a bit too wet and sometimes a bit too dry, each condition giving the harvest crew extra work; but occasionally the soil is just right making the job a little easier. The garlic first has its tops  mowed off to make harvest and curing easier. The garlic beds are then undercut with a tractor operated lifter which loosens the garlic for pulling. Then the hand harvest begins.

David undercutting the garlic to make it easier to harvest.

David undercutting the garlic to make it easier to harvest.

Garlic, like our potatoes, is a seed crop for us. In addition to delivering garlic to you, we sell garlic to other organic farmers for them to plant. So we grow lots of garlic and several varieties. We have experimented over the years with many varieties. We start with a small amount of garlic, and if we like it, we “grow it out”; meaning we keep all the garlic to replant over several years until we have enough to deliver to you and sell to other farms. This year we will be delivering four varieties, Musik, German, Italian Red and Chesnok Red. Each garlic variety has subtle differences in flavor and cooking qualities; all of them are great. We will be including garlic in your share thru the end of the season. Enjoy.

David