By Alissa of Wild Ridge Farm
It was clear from the beginning of my farming internship at Chubby Bunny Farm that my boss, Dan Hayhurst, loved the work of growing vegetables. Most mornings I would be lying in bed, just waking up around 6:30 am, and I’d hear his truck roll up to the barn. I’d listen as Dan got out and started hauling sacks of feed out of the barn to drive out to the small flock of chickens and few pigs on pasture. This was my cue to get up and stumble about my trailer, putting on filthy work pants and shirt, probably mildly hungover, quickly frying eggs and making coffee so I could meet him and my co-interns in the greenhouse or at the tailgate of his truck in time for the morning meeting. I knew he’d been up for hours thinking on the farm, planning the most efficient way of doing all the days’ many tasks, and it was barely 7 am.
During the two non-consecutive seasons I spent at Chubby Bunny, Dan was with us each day, all day long. Whether we were hoeing, transplanting, harvesting, pounding posts for tomatoes, laying down mulch or countless other tasks, Dan was working right along side us. He started the days before we did, usually worked through lunch and often stayed in the fields after he’d sent us back to our intern trailers for the day. I am convinced that Dan’s constant presence in the field is a large part of whatever it is that makes me a halfway decent farmer today. If I had a question, and I often did knowing nothing about farming when I started that first season, Dan would gladly talk it all out until I was satisfied. I would learn over the next few years as a farm intern that the love I once witnessed in Dan is integral to the success of farming operations all over the world.
I didn’t know until my second season, on Blue Fox Farm in the Applegate Valley of Southern Oregon, that it can be a little extraordinary to work alongside your farm boss every day, all day long. I remember wondering just exactly what Chris Jagger of Blue Fox and later, David Van Eeckhout of Hog’s Back Farm in Arkansaw, WI, were doing all of those hours when they weren’t in the field working side by side with me. I didn’t yet understand how many emails there were to return, bills to pay, supplies to order, crop records to fill in, newsletters to write. Not to mention tractor work to do that I didn’t yet have the skills to accomplish.
All three of these farmers and their respective operations are known locally for their quality produce, and I am frequently grateful to have participated in their cohesive and very different farm organisms (and for their behind the scenes but equally hard-working wives, Tracy, Melanie and Melinda respectively). I believe learning the production aspect of farming is best done by actually farming. To me it’s the only way to understand all the many parts that must be coordinated and captured and synched together to become a gigantic and often frantic whole.
During the winter of 2012-2013 I enrolled in Farm Beginnings, a farmer training program which focuses entirely on non-production aspects of the business. We met every other weekend at Angelic Organic s Learning Center in Northern IL. The class covered, among other things, budgeting, cash flow, marketing, human resources, legal aspects, business structure, and strategic planning. Many of the presenters were area farmers who used examples from their own farms, the others were professionals working with farmers. I walked away with a much more well-rounded understanding about small farm ownership than I’d had going in. Farm Beginnings originated at the Land Stewardship Project in Minnesota, but today there are nine other programs around the country.
Additionally, the MOSES conference in LaCrosse, WI is the largest organic farming conference in the country, and always full of knowledgeable presenters. But every time I go to the conference I walk away thinking the most important activity is talking to other farmers from all over the country, and reconnecting with those I haven’t seen in a while.
Wisconsin is jammed with organic farmers, and I’ll take any opportunity to talk with them about what equipment they use, what crops they grow and how they approach the challenges we each face. There are many nearby farms to tour (possibly my favorite activity on Earth which I know makes me a huge nerd), farmer friends to call for an opinion, and (more so in the off season) potlucks to attend for celebrations and commiserations. The open exchange of information has always been one of my favorite aspects of sustainable agriculture, and I’m happy to be able to continue to learn from my fellow farmers.
By Joseph Dittman of Wild Ridge Farm
If the farmer paused briefly from his ceaseless toil, taking up pen and paper to list the various equipment he relies on continually in his daily labor, an afternoon would surely be lost and the farmer would retire to bed with cramps in his writing hand. Roller tables, harvest crates, wash tubs, pruners, hand hoes, soil knives, drip tape, row cover, lay flat hose, pitch forks, spades, backpack sprayers—hundreds of simple tools and supplies cluttering the dusty corners of barns and sheds. Tractors, rotary tillers, disc harrows, grain drills, box blades, wood chippers, log splitters, cultivators, cultipackers, flatbed trucks, skid loaders—the imposing diesel guzzlers and implements lined up in garages and parkways.
While I can assure you that hundreds of those simple tools and supplies can make as big an economic impact as a single big-ticket items, still, tractors have captured our agricultural imagination and are the heroes of children’s books and the pride of weathered old planters and harvesters. In or last century, the scale of farming in America has been transformed to favor 1000-plus acre plots which necessitate fleets of powerful tractors and mammoth machines.
But I am not against tractors. We at Wild Ridge love our Kubota M6040. An amazing machine, equipped with quick-attach front loader and class 2, three-point hitch, this orange darling does it all.
Our entire field layout and crop plan is designed with the Kubota in mind and all the beds are calibrated to its wheel width. This is the tractor we wanted. This is the tractor that gets the job done. Unfortunately, profit margins are tight in farming, and oftentimes the ideal piece of equipment exceeds the limited budget, forcing the farmer to improvise with what’s already on hand.
In the spring, Wild Ridge Farm was asked to take over stewardship of a small off-site apple orchard, but the budget had already been fixed the previous fall, and we had virtually no wiggle room to invest in extra equipment on a project with no sure financial return. Nevertheless, I thrilled at the prospect of orcharding. Apples have been a lifelong interest. In one of my earliest childhood memories, my mother, my older brother, and I—a venturesome 4 year-old—hike into our neighbor’s 10-acre field of wild flowers and prairie toward a solitary apple tree, standing tall above the grasses, to pick ripe apples. Thus, though we had neither the budget, nor the proper equipment, we said yes to stewarding fifty some odd trees on a 3-acre plot.
On a cool early evening in late May, after a full day of work in the field, I courageously filled my little 3-gallon backpack sprayer with water and MicroSulf and began my first orchard task of apple scab prevention. Trudging from tree to tree with 30 pounds of water strapped to my back, I quickly realized I hadn’t the time nor energy to spray even as small an orchard as fifty trees with only a manually pumped backpack sprayer, and so, with much regret, I narrowed my focus to a block of the dozen most promising trees and let the others go natural for the year. But even with less trees to manage, the backpack sprayer fails in another aspect: it doesn’t spray high enough into trees that have been left un-pruned for several years with upper canopies as tall as twenty feet.
Though it causes some embarrassment to show these ridiculous pictures of trees only half-covered in kaolin clay, I felt it an apt illustration of the consequences of using equipment inadequate for the task at hand.
Such goes the season: small victories and small defeats. Patiently we wait for that providential piece of useful equipment—some gift inherited from an older, wiser, or more experienced generation. Patiently we wait for the timely capital which will turn the tide of work in our favor.
By Joseph Dittman of Wild Ridge Farm
Our farming livelihood rests on the success of seeds. But how strange to hold something so small in the palm of my hand and realize I’m investing a lion’s share of days, dollars, and ideas in a speck of organic matter that appears so lifeless. And yet, time and time again, the seemingly powerless soon pushes through soil, and the seemingly lifeless yields fruit in its season. If we wish to finish well, we must begin well. If we desire good fruit, we must plant good seeds.
Our farming season begins with seeds. Ordered when the soil lies locked in ice and snow, we wrap ourselves in layers of wool sweaters and dream of August evenings when thousands of seeds planted in February, March, April and May will grace our dinner table with crisp greens in clay bowls, sliced tomatoes on maple cutting boards, purple eggplants, roasted cauliflower, mashed sweet potatoes, and all manner of bounty. In large measure, we choose the seeds and the varieties we, ourselves, will enjoy eating and preparing, because when we are excited about our vegetables, how much easier it is to excite eager market-goers when lines queue up Saturday mornings in Fox Point or Whitefish Bay or Tuesday mornings in Thiensville
Flavor, however, cannot be our only consideration. With over 75 CSA members already invested in Wild Ridge Farm before even our first head of lettuce matures, we need to know the seeds we plant will deliver the beautiful produce everybody expects. Thus, many of the varieties which have become our mainstays, were first the mainstays of the farmers who taught us. The seeds which we rely on year after year, were first the seeds our mentors relied on year after year. With so many aspects of farming dictated by forces out of human control—rainfall, field conditions, temperatures, disease pressures—we strive to eliminate as many variables as possible; thus, if we know Carmen peppers are consistently beautiful and delicious, Carmen peppers are the peppers we plant.
We source almost all our seeds from either High Mowing Organic Seeds or Johnny’s Selected Seeds. These two companies have been reliable and timely and carry the varieties we like to grow. Since we are not a certified organic farm, we are not strictly limited to organic seeds, but both High Mowing and Johnny’s carry organic seeds and this is our preference. Close to 90% of the varieties we grow are hybrids. We choose to grow hybrids for their reliable germination rates, consistent maturation rates, and dependable yields—in order to serve our CSA customers, our market customers, and our restaurant customers our timing must be impeccable, ensuring weekly quality and quantity of harvests remains sufficient from week to week.
Produce farmers are constantly balancing the scales of quantity and quality, hoping always to have an abundance of both. With this goal in mind, Wild Ridge has the privilege this season of collaborating with several local farmers, chefs, and plant breeders under the direction of Julie Dawson of UW Madison’s Horticulture Department in a project to develop vegetable breeds which optimize both flavor and productivity—seeds which thrive in the growing conditions unique to our Wisconsin landscape. At Julie’s invitation, we’ve selected several varieties of lettuce, carrots, and winter squash seeds to grow specifically for taste trials conducted by a panel of Madison chefs led by Tory Miller of L’Etoile and Graze.
We believe the collaboration of regional farmers, chefs, and plant breeders has great potential to elevate local food cultures and local economies, eliminating over-reliance on long-distance shipping, reducing fuel and energy spent in transport and refrigeration, and enhancing the vitality of our existence on each singular corner of the earth where we’ve planted these tiny seeds and daily work for their growth.
By Alissa of Wild Ridge Farm
I am a farmer because of the way it makes me feel at the end of the day. The physical exhaustion that my muscles carry into sleep, the weary contentment of finished labor lulling my brain to stillness. Some days I farm solely for the satisfaction that weeding can bring. I farm because I’ve never been very good at sitting still and because I’ve always been a morning person. I farm because I love feeding people, I delight in seeing the joy that can result from something as simple as a head of butter lettuce.
If you had told me 10 years ago that by the time I was 30 I would want to live on a farm in the middle of relative nowhere and spend nearly all of my time covered in dirt doing manual labor and growing vegetables, including something called celeriac, I would not have believed you. And I would guess that most folks who knew me when I was in my early 20’s wouldn’t have either. But in a way I have been transformed – I farm because I can’t imagine doing anything else.
I am a farmer because ever since the early days of my first internship on a small-scale vegetable operation, the act of growing food has resonated with me in a way that nothing else ever has. On the second week of that internship, I was hoeing rows and rows of peas in the May sunshine and after a couple of hours I thought, “I cannot believe how much I love this, I wish this was my real life.” Momentarily forgetting that two weeks prior I had quit my job, broken my lease, packed everything I owned into my ’91 Toyota Camry and driven from Duluth, MN to Falls Village, CT to work on a CSA vegetable farm.
I now know that two weeks on a farm is not nearly long enough to decide whether you should spend the rest of your days as a farmer. But over the course of that season I continued to feel like my place in the world was suddenly making sense. Like I’d discovered something I didn’t know I’d been looking for, something that clarified what I truly wanted for and from my life. I’d I guess you could say I found my calling.
Often people tell me how important this job of growing food is, or what a noble profession I have. I am very grateful for those sentiments, it’s easy to feel under-appreciated in this line of work. But the truth is that for me, farming is almost entirely a selfishly motivated act. I do take great pleasure in providing people with produce, but I am a farmer because most of the time it’s all I want to do.
Sure, there days when I wonder why, of all the things to do with one’s life, I chose to be a vegetable farmer. Days when I wonder why I can’t be content with a “normal” job like so many other people. But those days are rare, and they always pass. I think a lot of people go through life and never get to find out what it is that makes them truly, purely, completely happy. And even if they do, they may not have the opportunity to carry out that love. So each day, no matter how much work there is to get done or how frustrating that work becomes, I try to be grateful.
Now I, along with my co-farmers Anna and Joseph, have this new adventure which is Wild Ridge Farm and which has come with it’s own set of triumphs and challenges. We farm this particular land in part because of the support we get from the community we have found and created here, and the encouragement from all of those who love us. We undertake our adventure and our craft with reverence, and are honored to continue the culture of agriculture here in the state of Wisconsin.