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