We got more than we expected when my wife Pam and I set off for the Soil Sisters farm tour in Southwestern Wisconsin. From Chicago we drove out past Rockford and then up into the charming town square of Monroe, WI, where we enjoyed small glasses of New Glarus beer and good Wisconsin cheese. Then we set off to our AirBnB rental at Dorothy’s Grange, a small pig farm and restored prairie near Blanchardville, whose proprietress April Prusia had hosted a Soil Sisters session earlier that day, Fermenting 101.
Soil Sisters was founded in 2011 to focus on the fastest growing segment of the farm industry: women farmers. The areas around Monroe and Brodhead, WI, are filled with these entrepreneurial women, and this year 15 farms opened their gates to provide workshops, tours and sales of produce picked from the same fields that you could walk through (Meet the 2016 farmers).
We liked it. Over seven hours on a beautiful Sunday, we crisscrossed the winding roads of Green and Rock Counties, visiting five of the eight farms on this year’s tour. Katy Dickson was first, greeting us at Christenson Farm in Browntown, where her family has been farming for three generations. The fields were overflowing with August produce – okra, tomatoes, cukes, peppers – all splayed out in small plots around the farmhouse and barn. The hoophouse, with fans blowing, was laden with tomatoes and eggplant, which Katy said would be torn out early to make way for fall crops: kale, chard, carrots, head lettuce and spinach. Husband Mark told us how they had purchased that hoophouse used, fixed it up, and added a woodstove for winter heat. It was a good investment that helped the farm’s CSA program grow from 30 households to 100.
Workshops on the following day will include an introduction to the agritourism industry by Mallory Krieger, farmer training program manager for The Land Connection, and Curt Bedei, director of the Ottawa Visitors Center, followed by discussions of legal issues, marketing, social media, risk management and business development. Scott Struchen of Tangled Roots Brewing Co. and Lone Buffalo Restaurant in Ottawa will talk about opportunities to use local grains and fields for agritourism, farm-to-table dinners and local brewing.
By Kriss Marion, Circle M Market Farm, Blanchardville, WI
Even though I’m one of those first-generation “niche” farmers, I always vowed I’d never do a farmers market. I got into farming because I like playing in the dirt and listening to frogs and crickets while I work. My dream revolved around shepherding animals, growing plants, shaping the landscape and healing a piece of land – all projects with no end point, no closure, no down time. So leaving my farm to sit behind a table for hours a week during the cool of the day seemed like the worst sort of time-wasting torture. And don’t get me started on the horrifying prospect of watching produce wilt on a table or be mauled by a clueless public.
So I built a CSA operation on my 20 acres in Driftless Wisconsin and grew the membership over eight years to 150 families, the majority of whom lived in the closest city, 45 minutes away. I enjoyed exposing my urban customers to amazing food, healthy recipes, pastured livestock and a taste of farm life. I loved connecting people to earth and nature and open spaces.
But over the years, my heart began to shift. I got better at farming, I got great at marketing and I spent less time in a panic with my head down and my hands occupied from dawn ’til dusk. I looked up and around. I occasionally visited the library, the café, the post office, the bars. I got to know my neighbors, and not just the farmers (who I needed to teach me about tractors and castration and government programs). Before I realized what was happening, I fell in love all over again – not just with my farm, but with my whole community, and my tiny town.
Angelic Organics Learning Center (AOLC) is now accepting applications for Stateline Farm Beginnings®, its yearlong program that has trained more than 250 sustainable farmers in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin since 2005.
The course attracts rural and urban participants, with students hailing from Chicago, Rockford, Milwaukee, Madison and surrounding communities. Applications for the 2016-17 course are available through October 1, 2016.
Stateline Farm Beginnings is part of the Farm Beginnings Collaborative, a national network that trains new farmers using the Farm Beginnings® training model and curriculum. The course is farmer-led, community-based and focused on sustainable agriculture. Unique to Farm Beginnings is the opportunity for students to join a farmer network right away. While taking classes, students form relationships with farmers in the same community where they often launch their farming business.
“I cannot conceive of Hazzard Free Farm being where it is today without Farm Beginnings and AOLC,” said Andy Hazzard of Hazzard Free Farm Grains & Beans in Pecatonica, IL, just outside of Rockford. Hazzard started her farm in 2007 and completed Stateline Farm Beginnings in 2008. She was a young, single woman who wanted to continue her family lineage of farming. She now operates a thriving sustainable farm business – growing, processing and distributing non-GMO and chemical-free whole grain products to restaurants and kitchens across the Midwest. Continue reading “Stateline Farm Beginnings seeks future farmers”→
The wheat was waist high in late June when the father-and-daughter team of John and Molly Breslin hosted 30 visitors on their 100-acre farm near Ottawa, IL. After leading the group past crops of cannellini and painted pony beans, garlic and a first-year experiment with an heirloom corn from Mexico, John and Molly step right into the wheat and continue their dialog with the crowd, gently touching the waving grains as they speak.
“It’s two or three weeks from harvest,” said John of the hard red winter wheat, which after drying and cleaning is sold to Pleasant House Bread in Chicago, where it is milled.
“We put it in cold storage after it’s cleaned,” says Molly, “so that Pleasant House can mill it as needed.” The cold keeps the kernels fresh, she says, and discourages bugs.
I’ve been trying to write this piece for a couple of months now, and while some of the delay is just from traveling or being busy with other things on the farm, a lot of it is because this is a delicate issue. It’s the elephant in the room, or rather at the farmers market. Some call it fraud, some call it re-selling, some cynically call it farming and for some it’s viewed as necessary—a temporary means to a worthy end. It’s selling what you don’t produce on a local farm.
Regardless of how one feels about it, I think the key component here is honesty. People come to a farmers market to purchase products in a place that provides a different experience, a different relationship with one’s food and those who produce it, and for what people trust to be qualitatively different and better products. Though it has been discussed in some forums, I think that most people don’t realize how pervasive is the reselling of produce bought in bulk from wholesalers – and just how often they’re being lied to.
Why does it matter? For one, it matters because many farmers at a given market are not there because it is a hobby or a side gig after their day job.
On the contrary, these farmers are trying to make farming their livelihood, and selling at the market is a way for them to get their farm into the local scene, meet people and get customers eating their products and, ideally, coming back for more. Continue reading “How to spot ‘farmers market fraud’”→
Last week I went to the first Chicago screening of the newest farm-focused film, “At The Fork.” As an advocate of better farm and food policies, I wasn’t unfamiliar with the film’s big ideas, but the interviews with livestock farmers reminded me that many of these issues have largely gone ignored by the general public.
The film makes an emotional appeal by following the personal journey of our narrator-couple (a man and his vegetarian wife who wants him to consider what’s behind every slice of meat he consumes). You see factory farmers open their doors to the public and unapologetically showcase how their operations work, explaining it all away as the dominion of man over animal.
Pigs sit in metal crates, unable to move, growing until they achieve market weight. Chickens run over each other, with chemical burns and mutations from the unsanitary, crowded and chemical-controlled environments. You hear the evolution of the farmed chicken, being bred to market maturity by six months (as opposed to years). Continue reading “Review: You had me “At the Fork””→
The July issue of Natural Awakenings Chicago features three stories that document the impact of women farmers in the greater Chicago region. The free monthly publication that focuses on healthy and sustainable living always covers food issues, but this month goes deeper with stories about the Soil Sisters tour in Wisconsin, profiles of two women farmers and the historic role of women in American farm life.
Women Farmers: Stepping Up to the Plow
Readers learn the back stories of Renee Randall and Jen Rosenthal in a piece by Kathleen Bolin, who traces Randall’s contributions back to 1974 when she founded the Sweet Earth Organic Farm (now Willow Creek Organic Farm) in Wauzeka, WI. Now a grandmother, Randall is both concerned and hopeful. “We need more education and consumer support to grow sustainable and organic farming,” Randall says. “Big agriculture is taking more and more land for single crop, large production farming. It’s destroying our soil and pumping pesticides into our air and food supply. Women are nurturers by nature. If more of us had a seat at the table, I think you would see real, positive change.”
There’s been good discussion about “farm to table” for years, but things heated up in April when the Tampa Bay Times published its Farm to Fable investigation, which found that some “local food” claims were . . . exaggerated, to say the least.
As a counterpoint, Family Farmed has launched a series of articles about how chefs, farmers and restaurant owners grapple with this challenge, especially in parts of the country where even the best season-extension techniques can’t bridge the hard winter months.
Family Farmed: About seasonality. You have a sophisticated customer base. Do they comprehend that it’s going to be hard to get a lot of things on the menu, or do they just expect that you’re going to have some things year-round?
Anderes: I think the expectations here at least are that we’re going to make the right decisions with purchasing… We do cater to that hyper-foodie as well, especially when you dig kind of deep into our purchasing and what we’re actually trying to accomplish, which is what I get excited about. Your average customer might not get excited about committing to buy 10,000 pounds of Sockeye salmon from Bristol Bay, Alaska, but I’m excited about that. Continue reading “Farm to table? Series delves into challenges”→
With another farm site coming on line this year in Chicago’s Englewood community, the City of Chicago is signaling its ongoing commitment to agricultural development on vacant city land.
A former industrial site at 70th and Princeton Street, now called the Eat to Live Englewood Incubator Farm, is the latest of seven sites the city has developed for farm use. This one, on 0.7 acres just east of the Rock Island railroad viaduct, will be managed by Angelic Organics Learning Center and worked by two fledgling farmers.
Other city-sponsored farms are the Honore Street Farm, managed by the employment training organization Growing Home, Inc., just north of 59th Street; the Perry Avenue Farm at 58th and Perry, managed by the Sweet Water Foundation; and Chicago FarmWorks, a two-parcel site totaling 2.6 acres between Kedzie and Whipple south of Franklin Boulevard, run by Heartland Alliance as a job-training and food-production site.