September 2016 News
Greetings from a lovely – if a little wet – fall at Three Sisters Farm! The excessive rain we’ve received made it difficult to establish and manage some of our fall crops this season. But, despite those challenges, we seem set for an abundant fall: The broccoli and other cole crops look great, and are already producing well. The sweet peppers continue their amazing run deep into the season. The butternut squash, just gathered up the other day, are very nice, and very abundant.
This tasty fall abundance should translate into a first-rate Fall Holiday Share. We still have some spots available for this popular option – see more details and sign up at our website.
The growing season is typically a bit of a whirlwind for us local small farmers, but by September the dust starts to settle and we can begin to take stock of the season and start to look ahead. This has been an interesting year, especially for those connected to the CSA movement. While it is difficult to say just yet, something is definitely happening with CSA. For a couple years now, occasional stories of struggling CSA farmers have appeared in the national media and on Facebook feeds. The stories are pretty much the same: small – sometimes younger – farmers just can’t make it work financially; they’re burned out and sick of being “martyrs” for a cause.
This season the trend has struck a little closer to home. Some Milwaukee-area CSAs – operated by farmers I know to be incredibly skilled and experienced – were unable to fill their quotas this spring. There is, I’d say, a general uneasiness among local CSA farmers. Will this trend continue, they wonder? Will we fill up next spring? What can we do about it?
The reasons for this state of affairs are complex and multifaceted. Small farmers rely on direct sales to consumers, and direct sales outlets (like farmers’ markets and CSA) are feeling the squeeze as larger, more efficient local (sometimes loosely defined) farms get their products into local retail spaces. In recent years, the CSA model has been co-opted a bit by companies that buy products from numerous farms (not all of whom are local) and package them together in a box. These companies – there are a few in Milwaukee – have also put pressure on small farms that, following the original CSA model, try to grow most everything they offer themselves. Finally, some say that the CSA market may be too saturated – a tough argument, to me, to make, since CSA currently serves such a small portion of the overall population.
Farmer Kelly harvesting kale in the rain. Our chickens and ducks enjoyed the abundance of cherry tomatoes this season too!
How are Kelly and I faring? Because we are a small farm (with no employees) and, perhaps, because we’ve pushed the boundaries of CSA a little by letting our members choose the contents of their share, we’ve been able to fill our quotas the past couple years. This year we seem on course to meet the goals of our projected budget (we shared this in a newsletter last winter – let us know if you’d like to see it again). But as that budget shows, we live quite frugally. We’d love to have a more stable and secure income, and some savings. Probably, we’re not unlike the 42% of Wisconsinites who, according to a recent poll from the United Way, struggle to make ends meet. Still, we’re getting by and are extremely grateful to be able to do the work we do.
While there are plenty of challenges in the current local food and CSA scene, it’s also an exciting time. We are heartened by all the support and encouragement we receive from family, friends and members. As we consider our next steps, we like to focus on the positive things small CSA farmers like us can accomplish, on the things that set us apart. For instance:
Unlike at the grocery store, with CSAs like Three Sisters you have a direct connection to the people who grow your food. Kelly and I seed or transplant, weed, fertilize, pick, wash and even deliver your veggies, so we can answer any questions you might have about any stage of the process. We’re always happy to chat if you have any questions, concerns, requests or comments.
With this direct connection comes a real perk: you can come out and actually take part in the growing of your food. We actually encourage you to come see the fields, pull some weeds, help pack boxes and talk to your farmers. Since we’re a working farm and have a tight schedule to manage, we prefer if you come at certain times. But, we’re flexible – let us know if you’re interested.
We’re committed to transparency and openness. We want you to see our budget, and to see how a small farm like ours works, weeds and all. We’re not hiding anything – there’s no greenwashing here!
The logistics of a retail interaction simply don’t allow for the kind of freshness you can get with a CSA. When you receive our veggies they are typically only a day or two out of the soil – about as close as you can get without growing them yourself! With freshness comes quality, nutrition and taste.
The Guardian reported this summer that Americans throw out half! of all produce grown. Often this waste comes from the “unyielding cosmetic standards” of the retail industry. Most CSAs are not nearly so wasteful – we’ll include the occasional crooked carrot or oblong tomato in your box. Because we cut out the middleman, we can also cut down on much of the packaging used in food production and distribution. At Three Sisters we re-use our boxes and are always looking for good ideas on how to cut down on plastic use.
What we’re most excited about, however, is how CSA has the potential to do things that the marketplace can’t. CSA was conceived as a way for farmers and eaters to join together in the nurturance of values other than those that the market presents. So, for instance, through the support of our larger community we were able to put in motion a farm-scale composting program that yields vibrant veggies while at the same time building the soil. This kind of stewardship is not necessarily efficient – there is a reason why most farms (especially those larger than ours) don’t compost. But it is the right thing to do. And it is just the tip of the iceberg: Kelly and I are actively taking steps toward the creation of a unified farm that would support more farmers and more diverse enterprises (like meat, fruit and grains). Such holistic farms – they are exceedingly rare nowadays! – can be real beacons of health and wholeness in a time when the market pushes with ever-greater insistency toward specialization and efficiency. We’ll be sure to let you know more about this exciting project as it progresses.