As we wrap up the 2017 season – our 7th – we’re already thinking of our next steps and 2018. Before considering where we’re going however, it might be helpful to see how we got here – especially for those members who have joined us more recently.
Some brief business, first: Another plug for Sauve Terre grass-fed and finished beef – it’s the best! They are preparing to take in more animals for processing on November 7th. Meat will be available around or soon after Thanksgiving.
20 lb box for home delivery (10 lbs ground beef, 6 lbs roasts, 4 lbs steaks) $200
1/4 animal (about 80 lbs of finished beef) Approximately $725 for hanging weight and processing. See our website for more details.
If you let them know soon enough they may be able to customize your order.
The Three Sisters Story
Kelly and I met while working at the Outpost Food Coop in Wauwatosa. I was there for some winter supplementary income to my main job as farm manager at Wellspring, a non-profit CSA farm in Newburg. I must have been convincing enough in this capacity, for Kelly agreed to join me at Wellspring – as an intern – for the 2008 season.
Kelly stayed on after that season, taking on an educational coordinator role while also becoming, eventually, something of a co-manager of the farm and CSA. After the 2010 season we decided to start our own farm business, and moved to Kelly’s mom’s land in Campbellsport – where Kelly had grown up – to get started. In 2011 we had 6 CSA members and attended the Wauwatosa Farmers’ Market. All while working jobs on other farms and living in Kelly’s mom’s basement.
That first year was tough, but through it we somehow managed to navigate the red tape of the USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) to get approved for a farm loan. Kelly’s neighbor had taken an interest in our endeavors and, because she was planning on moving, agreed to work with us and the FSA (a lengthy process) to sell us her small farmstead. At roughly 4 acres, this property was not really big enough for our needs, but we figured it would give us an affordable homebase from which to operate and get started. Surrounded by farmland, we also figured we’d be able to find some nearby land to rent when it became necessary.
2012 was a drought year – we had no rain for 60 days! – and we only managed to get through it because we were very small and our county was declared a disaster area, allowing us to defer our loan payment. Many other farms were not so lucky….
By 2014 we were getting on firmer footing: Some basic infrastructure was up. We gave up our off-farm jobs to focus solely on Three Sisters. Each week we packed about 100 boxes (for 150+ families), which is about what we’ve done each year since then. We were trialing our customizable boxes, and getting good feedback. Unable to find any land to rent near us, we began what’s been a great tenure as renters of 5 acres at Sauve Terre Farm, just outside of West Bend (about 20 minutes from us). In the fall of 2014 we got married in the garden of our home farm; the reception was in our hoophouse. We like to think a little of the joy of that event goes in your box with each week’s harvest!
The hoophouse ready for our wedding guests. This year's early pea crop was grown just under that line of chairs.
Our honeymoon afforded us a break – we hadn’t had much of one since starting the farm – to take a deep breath and get the “lay of the land.” Things were going well, but there were a few nagging concerns. Our commute, for one, created many challenges: sometimes, for instance, we’d go to West Bend to harvest something, have to bring it back to get it washed and in the cooler, and then have to go back down to meet worker share members in the afternoon. The irrigation set-up in West Bend was (and still is) not the best, and since we still remembered 2012 this caused us much anxiety. Some of our initial business goals – such as creating a more holistic farm, with animals and fruit trees – seemed harder to manifest. We were operating at the maximum scale Kelly and I could do on our own (with the help of worker shares and volunteers), and it was really too much – we needed more help. To hire employees, though, would necessitate a significant increase in scale, and much investment in new equipment and infrastructure. We were hesitant to make this choice for several reasons, foremost being that we enjoyed being farmers, not managers of employees.
Some friends of ours with a small CSA near Ripon were at a similar point in their farming career. We began to consider what it might mean for us to join forces, for us to work together to address the challenges we both were experiencing. Starting in the summer of 2015 we pursued this possibility in earnest, devoting an immense amount of time and energy into exploring and then planning a joint farm business – all while continuing to operate our respective CSAs and farms. We hired a consultant to guide us through the initial visioning process. We researched and utilized numerous resources to begin crafting a business plan of incredible complexity and detail, with 30-odd farm “programs” (like “Chickens” and “Greenhouse Management”). We hired a lawyer to help us draft the necessary legal documents for our new business. We developed our own group holistic decision making process. Our friends were able, through a relationship with a local benevolent landowner to purchase 70 acres of farm land (just outside Ripon) at its agricultural use value – an exceedingly rare and amazing opportunity.
But, as we got closer to “walking down the aisle” (this really did feel like a marriage of sorts!), Kelly and I started to have some reservations. For one, while we initially felt ok about relocating (about an hour west of us), moving away from family, friends, Milwaukee, and all the wonderful people who have supported us through the years began to seem like the wrong move. In May of this year – just as the season was ramping up – we told our friends we didn’t think we’d be able to continue with the project.
The Next 7 Years
2017 was our hardest season yet. It was – thankfully! – a great growing year. But we were so mentally and spiritually exhausted from the past few years, and the busy-ness of the season does not afford much opportunity for reflection and rejuvenation. Uncertain about our future path, Kelly and I mulled over our options, seeming to come up with some new idea each week. At several stressful points, we considered stopping farming altogether. Uncertainty in the larger CSA movement – we know several CSA farmers who have recently decided to quit – further complicated our discussions. Also unhelpful: we’ve been patching together the equipment and infrastructure from our initial capitalization, thinking that – with the move and new farm – we would soon be revamping our systems and re-investing in more suitable and effective “stuff” to do our work. For example: though we long ago outgrew it, we’re still using the small seedling greenhouse we cobbled together when we started. Clearly, if we are to continue farming, some changes are necessary.
As we’ve neared the end of the season however, we’ve been heartened by the help and kind words of many of our volunteers and supporters. “If you stop farming,” one of them said, “where will I get good vegetables?” Such support has contributed to a renewed sense of purpose and direction, a re-commitment to the values we identified when we started. While there is much work to do this winter, some clarity is emerging – the steps we need to take to manifest this next, more mature, stage of our business are coming into focus. We’re excited to share this process with you, and are excited about what the future holds in store. In a few weeks, in our November newsletter, we’ll continue the discussion – stay tuned!