Yea, spring finally came, and along with it the needed warmth for vegetables to grow. We’ve had a lot of fun harvesting greens from the hoophouses. This year we are growing more than twice as much food in those hoophouses and needed to be creative about how to squeeze it all in. We decided to make the paths between the beds of greens a bit narrower. Weeding and harvesting and maneuvering in a 12 inch row is not the easiest thing to do, and all without stepping on the crop that’s flowing into the row. For the past three days, with sore backs and lots of laughs, we harvested our way through beds and beds of greens. The sunshine makes the houses warm and when it’s raining outside somehow the rain manages to leak in, creating a slick muddy walkway. A balancing act all around.

Welcome to the Spring Season!

Barb

Sauté Mix harvest in those 12 inch rows! Note how we need to balance the crates on a bucket since there is not enough room in the row to place the crate. Casey and Yun harvesting arugula. Sophon, Ryna and Neing harvesting different beds of kale and mustard greens.

Ryna, Yun, Casey harvesting spinach. We pinch off one leaf at a time. This way we can leave the smaller leaves on the plant to grow bigger for next week.

The hoophouse a couple of weeks ago. The red lettuce in the foreground is what was delivered this week. It even looked like this when there were piles of snow outside. A lovely place to be.

Wednesday night after all of the employees had gone home Eric, Barb, Jonnah, Jesse and David (all with the last name Perkins) rallied for another hour to get every little bit done. We were all on our 11th hour, ready to be done yet still having fun! Balancing a phone on a sawhorse was the only way to capture the moment. Thanks for giving us the opportunity to grow your food.

The thermometer reads 70 degrees Tuesday and there are still a few piles of snow strategically distributed around the farm, lest we forget we had a blizzard only a few days ago.

The crew is planting onions this week; the onions that were diligently cared for as they patiently waited to be planted. For the past 2 weeks, on each day that was above freezing, we would carry them into an unheated plastic structure to get hardened off (toughened up) and then carry them back into the heated greenhouse each night. This went on until last Friday when we decided they could stay out all night, along with their friends spinach, lettuce, dandelion greens, sauté mix and scallions: 36,800 cells total. That night the temperature dropped lower than expected. At 10 pm it was 32 degrees and I knew I wouldn’t sleep until we somehow protected those plants. David and I decided to double row cover them and put a space heater below the draped row cover. It looked so cozy when we were finished I thought I could just crawl under and fall asleep. I resisted and slept well in my own bed, knowing the plants were going to make it through the low evening temperatures. They did.

The other vegetables that made it through less than ideal conditions were the lettuce heads and spinach transplants which were planted into the field just days before the first snow fall. We studied the weather predictions and figured they would be protected under a blanket of snow until it melted. We also knew if we didn’t plant them before the snow came, it would be way too many days before we could get them out into the fields. We weren’t too crazy about the ice that accumulated prior to the snow storm, but plants are tough. The snow from the first storm hadn’t even melted off before the next storm hit. Now they were really covered, and hopefully as cozy as a lettuce plant under a blanket of snow can be. The snow has melted and the plants look fine! They didn’t do too much growing under the snow, but now they can get serious about that. Happy Spring!

Barb

Planting onions on Tuesday, that gorgeous 70 degree day. Sophon and Ryna in foreground.

Walking down to the greenhouse on April 19. Yes, the greenhouse is bursting with life inside.

Here we are inside the greenhouse. Quite a contrast from the snowy day outside.

All of the plants that were moved into an unheated structure to ‘harden off’ or get tough and strong before being transplanted into the field.

At 11pm last Friday night David and I were out in that hardening off area double row covering the plants and placing a space heater beneath the covered plants. The temperatures were dipping more quickly than expected.

The survivors. Here are the lettuce and spinach plants that weathered 2 snow storms! We knew they could do it!

Here comes the garlic! Planted last October. So much to look forward to!

Spring Season plants growing happily in the hoophouse. If you haven’t signed up for the Spring Season yet, you still have time.

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