Lessons in the Harvest
On Friday last week, the Medford Middle School agriculture class, along with their teacher Lisa Kopp, came to We Grow to assist with the winter squash harvest. We knew in August that there was going to be a glut of fruit in this particular crop and Kopp has been asking for an opportunity to get her students involved in We Grow since we connected in her classroom last spring.
The students arrived first thing in the morning and we were fortunate to have a very light dew and sunny skies. Armed with branch cutters and crates, the kids began searching through the sprawling, tangled mess of squash vines to find the famed fruits. Students shuttled crates full back to the landing where we had large bins waiting, one for each variety. Several students cleaned the dirt and sorted them while the others continued to harvest. The fun is in finding the squash and not knowing how big and small or what color and shape you would find next. Hoots and hollars were heard when someone found their excitement.
With only one hour in the schedule for actual harvesting, things were happening as rapidly as possible. But lessons were learned in covering a harvest area, taking fewer steps, lifting with the knees, handling produce in general and most importantly working together. Students also got a peak at what we do here. As usual, the animals were the greatest attraction.
The lessons will continue back at school. The class took a box of squash back to the classroom where they will learn how to cook it. And with such a bountiful harvest, we have agreed to donate enough spaghetti squash to the school for the cafeteria to serve it at lunch.
We set a goal two years ago to grow enough of something to be able to donate it to the schools. We hope this is only the beginning. The nutrition of our youth needs to be top notch, free from harmful chemicals and made of whole ingredients, not processed, if we expect them to learn and grow and address childhood illness and obesity. Getting kids involved in the farm might not be the fastest route to healthy eating, but it will have long term effects when these kids learn how to grow their own food.
Week Seventeen Newsletter
Small Farm Landscape
Weather is often talked about in our newsletters as it dictates everything we do on the farm. But weather is getting more attention the past couple weeks for the disastrous results of some powerful storms doing serious damage, even taking lives. In watching the news reports on television, we can only imagine what these folks are experiencing and feeling fortunate to live where we do and only have to worry about floods and tornadoes, and not hurricanes and earthquakes as well.
In the wake of the damage, a reporter was speaking with a restaurant owner in Florida who had ridden out the storm. A portion of her business was badly damaged, but the restaurant was largely in tact and she was feeding the rescue workers as it was the only food establishment left in the area. The trouble was no deliveries could get into the area leaving only local producers to provide food for these people. Though I would assume some folks were planning ahead and had local stores put away for just this situation. But surely not enough for the entire community.
The entire situation brings to mind the flooding in northern Wisconsin last year when our farming friends near Marengo made their CSA delivery when all other traffic was prevented from entering the area due to washed out roads. They were able to get their produce into Ashland to local grocery stores when trucks from out of the area could not.
This is cause for us to think about the value of having small farms spread out across the landscape to meet the needs of their own community no matter what else is happening far away. By shifting our consumerism to corporate farms, we have eliminated much of our local food sources that were commonplace before the invention of refrigeration. But at what cost have we created this “convenient” and “inexpensive” food system? With catastrophic drought then heavy rain cycles in the western states, corporate agriculture has made a major shift to the Midwest the past ten years. A place where weather hasn’t made farming boom or bust. But how long will we be able to keep up until “natural” disaster strikes here too?
Feeling like fortunate midwesterners,
Week Sixteen Newsletter
Another Farm Season
Behold the beginning of winter squash season. If you are not already, it is time to become a fan of winter squash. It can easily be considered a superhero in the CSA share for its nutrient overdose and health food classification, but also in the field when it’s not even being consumed by humans.
Every year, we learn more about the food we grow. We have learned in the past about the way our ancestors stored winter squash and ate it in copious amounts during the cold winter months. The fiber in squash consumed in large amounts has a natural ability to cleanse our digestive system and prevent polyps. But this week, we learned that winter squash also cleanses our soil. On farms where chemicals have been used in the past, a crop of squash will take up a lengthy list of unwanted contaminants from the soil so they can be discarded. The absorption of chemicals in squash, which is four times that of other vegetables such as tomato, broccoli or beans, is another reason to make sure it is grown organically if it will be hitting your table.
This year is shaping up to be a bountiful year of winter squash at We Grow. The varieties planted this season include spaghetti, white acorn, butternut, red kuri, blue “winter sweet” kobocha, gold nugget and delicata. Each has a slightly different flavor and texture. The only one that we have a limited amount of is butternut – our favorite! For some reason the deer preferred this over the others and it did not grow well while being heavily browsed.
Nearly all winter squash benefit from time in storage. They achieve their peak sweetness some time in the winter months. The exception to this is delicata and acorn. These two are better in the first two months. The squash you are getting have been cured on our farm. They must be stored at 80ºF for about two weeks to season or harden the skins before going into 45-50º basement or cool storage. Be mindful to check your winter squash every week for blemishes turning into rot. If you catch it early, a rotting spot can easily be removed and the squash still utilized. With everything it has going for it, why would we want to waste a bite?
Ready for the new season,
Week Fifteen Newsletter
Fall Harvest is Upon Us
One might assume that things get slower and easier on a CSA farm in the fall, but this is when we do a lot of heavy lifting. Our average first frost is the second week in September and while some crops are sweetened and improved by light frost, others are killed and damaged.
All those summer treats are coming to an end and we must get as much as possible to our customers before first frost. Tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, beans, sweet corn, fragile herbs, and more. Then we can focus on the end of season harvest-all-we-can. The farmers market are busting at the seams!
To start, we must get all the onions out of the ground and cured in the hot sun for a day, then trimmed and put into storage. The potatoes need to be dug before the weather gets cold enough to penetrate the skin and cause brown spots inside the tubers. They will store, but the brown stripes are unpleasant. The rutabagas, turnips and radishes stay in the ground until the last harvest day before deep cold. In theory carrots can actually be left in the ground overwinter, but we will harvest the entire lot that remains. Simply not washing them and putting in bags in the cooler will allow storage carrots last for months. On a small scale, we have also had great success with utilizing wet sand as a storage medium for carrots. The brussel sprouts stay out well into the cool frosty season. Finally, the winter squash. This storage giant must be cured in the greenhouse at 80ºF for 10-14 days before going into a cool, humid, well-ventilated space for winter. In storage, winter squash will ripen and sweeten sort of like a banana until it can’t get any sweeter. Then it starts to rot. Properly stored winter vegetables will last well into spring, so it is worth knowing proper techniques. We have prepared a complete list sorted by veggie type on our website. Check it out.
This time of year we are weeding our fall greens, radishes, and those salad turnips and baby beets for the final boxes. We have pie pumpkins turning orange and kale turning lovely purples. The monarchs are flying home and our students and teachers are enjoying their final days at We Grow before returning to school. All signs of the rest that comes at the end of the final harvest. Only six share weeks left!
Week Fourteen Newsletter
A Growing Passion
Hello, We Growians! Intern Racheal Here!
As I am packing up my bags and getting ready to make the lengthy haul to the UW-River Falls campus for the school year, I am becoming a bit sappy knowing my days at We Grow are soon coming to an end. When Rebecca and Eric approached me in January about a potential internship on their CSA farm, I never could have imagined that leaving this farm, come August, would be so hard!
Rebecca and Eric told me that they wanted me to learn as much as I possibly could while I was on their farm. Well, they definitely held up their end of our bargain. I can now impress members with memorization of the MANY varieties of kale and heirloom tomatoes, capture a swarm of honey bees, and grow my own vegetables in my own garden.
However, these are not the only things that I was taught this summer. I was also taught the importance of taking pride in a job well done, how to endow my passion for agriculture unto others, and how to value a homegrown meal. From planting my very first seeds, in the end of May, to harvesting my first heads of cauliflower this week, I’ve really come to take pride in completing a job from start to finish. It is very refreshing to look down rows upon rows of fresh transplants, knowing that I will help fill shares for an upcoming week. As I continue to personally meet more and more members, I learn that you too, have a pride in the work that we do on the farm. Having this sense of pride is important as it fuels our passion. I’ve also experienced the passion that the Zuleger’s have, it’s contagious to say the least. It’s the kind of passion that sends you home, building up a raised bed garden with a future harvest in mind. I know that their passion has spread to me as I too have put in a garden to make my first homegrown meals with produce that I grew.
Thank you for your support and for the unforgettable summer.
Racheal Krug, 2017 Intern
Week Thirteen Newsletter
In discussing employees with our fellow CSA farmers this week, we realized that we an amazing crew at We Grow. Growing food for people is not a glorious job. Farming is often romanticized by media, but when it gets right down to it, we are mucking through the dirt and busting our rears for several months straight. This work can wear a person out physically and mentally unless they can keep a positive attitude.
Positive attitudes and energy at a workplace can make even the worst jobs fun. Both our employees and volunteers have been a huge source of positive energy for us to gain our motivation even when something isn’t going our way or we experience a failure. When asked what motivates our volunteers to be here, you might expect the response to be “for the vegetables” or “to get exercise and fresh air,” but the response was “because we want you to succeed.” Our volunteers and workers believe in what we are doing. What a humbling concept!
Both of our employees are bright young women who did not have gardens of their own when they started at We Grow. With a little encouragement, both have installed raised beds and are raising their own crops to feed their families. Last week, Racheal brought her beans in to show us how proud she is of growing such a bountiful crop. It brought joy to our hearts to see her success. Susan has winter squash leaping out of her beds and taking over her yard. We love it! You can’t eat that grass this winter, let ‘em grow. They both alert us to each “first-harvest” in their gardens.
All of our workers take pride in successful crops on our farm. This is exactly what it takes to keep doing what we do. Working alongside someone who appreciates each beautiful bright pink potato or perfectly round radish is a mental diversion from physical labor. Stopping to taste test the first red fruits and think of creative names for trial varieties makes each day in the field a new experience. The enthusiasm and positive energy is contagious. Please keep it coming!
Week Twelve Newsletter
How different would life be without clocks and the keeping of accurate time? We watched a public television program about the origins of the clock and it turns out that people had no reason to keep track of what time it was until maps of the seas began being used for navigation. Before the industrial revolution, most people worked with the rhythm of the sunrise and sunset and did more work on sunny summer days than in the winter. This was also a time when a majority of people were farmers. When nearly every family had a large garden for growing their own food and at least a few animals for milk, butchering or to sell and earn income for materials goods.
Oftentimes, we hear of people seeking a simpler way of life in which they give up the watches and clocks in their life. This seems nearly impossible with today’s technology, but just imagine relying on life’s natural rhythms. One would think this would lead to a healthier way of living, one that could provide relief from my temple-throbbing, blood-pressure-ratcheting, compulsive need to monitor every minute of every unfolding day. Unfortunately most of us would be late for work, but for a farm there is some flexibility.
We’ve acquired more livestock over the past few months than we’ve ever had at We Grow. Our mornings start with chores, feeding and watering all the livestock. Then we all converge for breakfast. The complexity of breakfast is based on whether our work crew is showing up at 8:00 or 9:00 or at all, then we get started harvesting or doing field work until our stomachs tell us it is time for lunch. We get a nice break and then head back out until the evening sun is starting to let up and the sweat is no longer beading on our brows. We usually pick out veggies to go with supper, make this meal as a family and then go out and do evening chores as a team. While we probably can’t give up the clock, we do live a bit more by the natural rhythms of the farm. Don’t worry, the animals let us know when we are behind schedule and with east facing windows, there is no sleeping in.
Enjoying every moment,
Week Eleven Newsletter
There is hope for a good bean crop yet! Better late than never. In years past, we’ve loathed bean picking season. As we were out in the field this spring planting 1,000 row feet more than we’ve ever planted, our workers were joking about calling in sick on bean picking days for it is a laborious, back-breaking task. When the cold wet spring forced replanting, we knew the beans would be behind. Then the deer started jumping the fence and browsing at will we started to really wonder if we would have any at all. Now other farms have had beans for a couple weeks and we feel the pressure to put such a seemingly simple to grow item on your plates. Tiny beans are starting to appear among the pink and white blossoms. So if nothing else goes awry, we will see bean season finally begin in week eleven.
Despite being in our third season growing produce, we struggle to get large enough quantities to meet customer demand. Every year we grow more and every year we have more people want more. Growing organically places high demands on the soil. To properly prepare, we should rotate cover crops with specific goals in mind for each crop for at least three seasons before planting a single vegetable. The soil should be in peak condition with high levels of organic matter, good drainage and maximum nutrients for optimal plant health. Unfortunately, we don’t always get the cart in front of the horse as demand coerces expansion.
As we expand, we continue to chunk off sections of formerly worn out hay land and this in itself creates problems. This season we moved into a new three-acre area following only one season of winter rye. It isn’t optimal, but we understand what needs to be done to make it better and feel we are on the right path to grow more simply by improving conditions for next season. We are talking about this now, because this month is the last opportunity to plant a cover crop and get idle spaces ready for next season. The investments we make now will be paid back, but planning so far in advance is an intricate task.
Excited to be half way,
Week Ten Newsletter
Overfed But Starving
A quote by Daniel Vitalis came up that read “our people are overfed, but they are also starving to death.” It fits we into our topic of nutrition in relation to agriculture this week.
It’s hard to imagine, but we went well over a week without any precipitation here at We Grow and found ourselves watering in the field. Watering is one of the few opportunities we have to add more nutrients to our soil and plants mid-season. Oftentimes we are looking at a blend of organic fertilizer with the big three, nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium and some have added magnesium, calcium, sulfur and boron micronutrients to really give plants a boost. But what about the remaining nutrients? Why don’t we talk about all the other elements of the periodic table? Because we don’t yet know their function within the plant, nor do we fully understand the importance of these trace minerals in the human body.
People are growing increasingly concerned about wearing out our agricultural land and depleting the nutrients. The science is contradictory on this subject, but we see an overwhelming amount of research showing that growing with the most biologically balanced soil – or making sure all the major and micro nutrients are present – results in optimal growth. The good news for our customers is that the side effect of biological based production (growing organically) is nutrient dense vegetables and protein (livestock fed with organic feed). Tissue samples show that you get more nutrition, flavinoids and in each bite. Thanks to Tom T., we have started utilizing Sea Crop with 90 different trace minerals to boost soil and plant health in 2017.
And at a time when most Americans don’t eat the recommended servings of fruits and vegetables, perhaps the most important step is to simply add them to your diet. But there are potential health benefits as well, at least when it comes to maximizing the nutrients you get from foods.
Week Nine Newsletter
For Love of Tomatoes
A new season started this week at We Grow, tomato season. We will pick these delicious, versatile fruits every three days, now through first frost. Some days we will harvest upwards of one thousand pounds. It seems like a lot, but imagine everything we can make with tomatoes besides simply eating them fresh – pasta sauce, soup, ketchup, enchilada/taco sauce, juice, steak sauce, salsa, and the list goes on! If you find yourself with an over abundance of tomatoes, just toss them in the freezer whole and raw. When you get them back out, run them under warm water to remove the peeling if your recipe requires such and you are ready to cook with them. No more blanching! This technique has been invaluable to us as we freeze a small amount each week and then process them when the days get cooler.
We are growing 37 different varieties of heirloom and open pollinated tomatoes in 2017. Plus, we have ten varieties in the UW Madison Seed to Kitchen trials and five in the Organic Seed Alliance trials. Heirlooms come in many colors from pink and red to yellow or even indigo. Rather than rely on color to determine ripeness, simply squeeze the tomato for firmness. When they start to soften, they are at maximum flavor.
Our flavorful blend of heirloom tomatoes makes amazing recipes and are available to members first, so please let us know how many pounds you would like, what you need them for (juice or sauce), and when you would like them. We can deliver with your share or at market, or you can get them on the farm any day of the week. Make your requests now so you get on our picking calendar. We do not offer tomatoes by the bushel as we have found this is very inconsistent amounts. Bushels of tomatoes all weigh different amounts based on their variety, the size of the tomato, and who is packing the box. We simply offer them by the pound. For recipes, figure a bushel is about 50 lbs. Farm members pay $1.00 per lb when you take $25 lb minimum. All non-members must have 50 lb minimum for this rate.
Rolling into some new crops,
Week Eight Newsletter
The Face of Your Food
As we get ready to harvest for week seven, we are also busy making preparations for our first dinner that is actually on our farm. Cleaning up things that haven’t been touched in years to try and make this place look presentable. Everyone should have a gathering at least once a year to get things into shape. Wow are things getting done! We met with our chef earlier in the week and chose the items for the menu right from our fields. The Idaho Pasture hogs are butchered and curing in preparation for a slow two-day smoking process. Desserts have been sampled, a few times. The pack shed is even getting sinks and counter tops installed at the last minute in an effort to set up a makeshift kitchen for this event. We are planning on making the farm dinner an annual event, so it will only get easier after we get this first one under our belt.
There has been a obvious decline in the local farmers market the last two weeks. We lost two vendors from the Medford markets in large part for lack of produce. Some vendors buy much of their produce at the weekly auction in Withee and resell at the farmers market. With the poor spring, auction prices are high and vendors are not able to resell as they have in the past. Those of us remaining at market are offering less than normal and customers are getting discouraged.
Produce resale has been a point of conflict in years past at the Medford Farmers Market. Most consumers are completely unaware if their items are coming from a different region, lack freshness and contain unwanted inputs. In our experience, consumers shopping at a farmers market make the general assumption that those farmers grew the food they are selling.
This is a form of deceit, particularly if products go unlabeled as such. Our best advice is to talk with the farmer and ask them straight out if they grew what you are buying. Most aren’t afraid to tell you where it is from. Obvious things like melons or sweet corn in mid-July are cause for question. Others aren’t so obvious. Just ask when in doubt. Or better yet, join them for dinner and visit your food in their fields.
Excited to share our farm,
Week Seven Newsletter
Our appreciation goes out to all members who adjusted their schedules so we could skip coming into Medford on the Fourth of July. We thought things would be hectic picking everyone’s produce in half the time, but we ended up having so many volunteers that everything was ready in record time. We were done so fast that everyone headed into the high tunnel to start to clear the way for the farm dinner. Where carrots and scallions once grew, we will soon be enjoying a meal with friends.
The We Grow family did enjoy the holiday to the full extent. We did morning chores, rotated chickens, raked hay, and tucked a wagon load of hay bales away for the winter. Then we headed to Perkinstown to volunteer at the annual celebration and enjoy lunch and the parade. Back home to bale the last 160 bales of hay and water animals and then on to Jump River for a cookout with friends and dutch oven baking by the camp fire. And of course a late night of spectacular fireworks. Every place we stopped, we found CSA members, We Grow customers and volunteers. The network continues to grow.
When each of you signed up for our farm share program, you became part of the community supported agriculture (CSA) movement. A change in the way that we think about food. We meet with you face-to-face and learn about one another. Research shows that consumers who get their food from a farmers market have ten times more conversation than those who shop at a supermarket. You are no longer considered a consumer in the CSA system, you are considered a participant.
As we develop these relationships with our members, we learn more about the skills and goods our neighbors offer. We have made connections with photographers, contractors, artists, store owners and more. Being in a CSA is about consciously making an effort to create a better way of life with a sense of contribution to the lives of those around us. As CSA farmers, we are not striving to reach international markets or seeking to dominate the food system. We simply want to give you better food, food with a connection to the place it is grown and a better community to live in.
Week Six Newsletter
While we’d love to dwell on the overwhelming amount of precipitation we’ve been hammered with this month and the oddly cold weather we’ve been experiencing, we are focusing on the positive. That said, you should be made aware that there are some crops that are not exactly growing as well as normal and we are feeling a bit pinched as we roll into week five. Thank you for bearing with us as we stumble through some of the strangest weather we’ve ever had to deal with as farmers. Keep your expectations in check when it comes to heat-loving crops like sweet corn and watermelons. They probably aren’t going to come to fruition in 2017 at We Grow with this cool June.
Most of you know that we keep bees at our farm and this week we experienced our first swarm of the season. While it was a pretty standard swarm that was identified, captured and transported without incident, the fact that our intern Racheal got to assist on the capture made it quite exciting. Giving someone a tour of a beehive humbly reminds us of the complex biology of honeybees and how fortunate we are to have them helping us pollinate our crops. Especially with summer squash and cucumbers in blossom right now.
Every week, we open the hives and look over every frame to check for the various stages of larvae or new queen cells. We also monitor for problems like mites or foul brood. We decide if the bees need more space and we add colony boxes or super boxes depending on what the bees are doing inside. Each year, our overwintering success improves. This spring we came thru with a little better than half of our hives surviving, which is an improvement but it could be better. Just maybe, the changes on our farm are helping.
Planting the seed of information about the struggle for today’s pollinators is important and significant. It isn’t just the non-native honeybee that is having a hard time surviving in modern times. Aside from the obvious lawn and garden chemicals, crop monocultures and mites, pollinators are struggling with reduced gene pools and climate inconsistency. Mason bees, bumble bees, hover flies and many more count on us humans to make bee-friendly decisions. Education is key. Learn more at xerces.org.
Learning every day,
Week Five Newsletter
The Growing Gap
“To eat well is to eat in a world where everyone is able to eat well.” A line penned by our farming friend, Tony Schultz several years ago in response to “What does it mean to eat well?” Since starting We Grow, we often contemplate how we eat as a society and what influences us to eat this way. We look at other family’s grocery orders and sometimes question what nutrition these people are even surviving on?
The elephant in the room is the amount of sugar the kids are given at everything they do outside our home. They are rewarded with sugar at school for their achievements, fed candy at church for a snack, have it thrown at them in disturbing amounts at every parade, and bring it home from each of their friends for every holiday. Beating sugar feels like a losing battle.
While we tend to focus on the sugar overload, especially compared to just a generation ago, we lose site of what they aren’t eating. The lack of fresh vegetables and fruits in schools and senior sites is discouraging. Especially when specific vegetables are available locally in season! It is not in the budget to eat well, so we all lose two-fold. Our farmers don’t profit from the direct-to-consumer income and people don’t eat as well as they should.
Food inequality goes well beyond institutions. Take a look at the price of real food in the grocery store. Processed, pre-packaged meals loaded with unpronounceable ingredients and preservatives cost far less than the raw products if you were to actually cook the meal. Microwaves dinners were on sale 10 for $10 last month! Take it a step further and consider eating entirely organic. The price of organic groceries is nearly double conventional and financially out-of-reach for many.
Our broken food system is a small part of things going awry on a national level. Supporting local producers is a small step toward changing people’s interpretation of what it means to eat well. Consider the value you place on every person’s right to eat well, not just those who can afford it and how to get people to demand better food, for all.
Week Four Newsletter
When you own a farm, the work never ends. There is always something to do. An eighty hour work week is an easy feat because we live at our job. We can work for an hour before breakfast and two after supper and get a few more hours in after the boys go to bed. As long as there is light to work by, the only thing stopping a farmer is his or her own will. That voice in your head that tells you it is time to rest. And when you’re behind, that voice tells you to keep going. But too much work can break a person down and wreak havoc on your health and family life.
Our boys, Gus and Dene are nine and seven years old and home from school for the summer. They have household duties much like we did as children. At times we ask them to work with us on the farm so that we can spend time together, but it can be stressful if they don’t do a good job or want to quit. As parents, we struggle with wanting the boys to learn the value of hard work through active participation in the family farm versus having pieces of a “normal” off-farm childhood. But today’s normal childhood includes parents constantly running for their kids.
So into our lives steps baseball. “We can try it – sure. Let’s just see how it goes.” Well, now we have committed four nights a week to the sport. Surprisingly, it has been a good change. Other than speeding up meal time, we are forced to drop farm work and leave. At times only one parent, but nonetheless, we have to sit down, rest in the evening sun, and watch the boys play ball. They have our full attention as we practice catch over lunch break or toss a few pitches in hopes to improve their batting skills. Neither of us is any good at baseball nor are we qualified to teach it, so the boys aren’t exactly destined for the majors. But for now, they learn that we can stop working to find a balance with family. And we continue to entrust grandparents to play a huge role in making sure there are camping trips, swimming and visits to the zoo to keep things “normal.”
We just hope that one day they understand the dynamics of having a farm and livestock and the limitations it brings. Those Sunday afternoon fishing trips are at the cost of an unweeded patch of potatoes or an unpicked bed of cukes. Time away comes at a real price, but at the same time is priceless.
Until next time,
Week Three Newsletter