… too young to be old, too old to be young …
I jotted that down on a piece of scrap paper this past August, on my 59th birthday. Because we are in the process of transitioning ownership of our dairy operation to our 26-year-old son, we often ponder our future and wonder how long farming will actively be part of it.
When I saw that the 2018 Wisconsin School for Beginning Market Growers was being held in Madison, I was open to attending. I wondered if some type of market gardening was something an older semi-retired farmer might want to consider. I have always had a large garden and enjoy producing as much food for us as I can despite the demands of summer harvesting for our dairy herd. Because my wife, Wendy, and I enjoy learning about a broad range of topics, we decided to enroll.
The Wisconsin School for Beginning Market Growers has been hosted annually since 1998 by the University of Wisconsin-Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems. That’s a research center at the UW-Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. It was created to build sustainable agricultural-research programs that respond to farmer and citizen needs, and to involve them in setting research agendas. Human relationships are at the core of all they do.
Our classes were taught by four Wisconsin market-garden farmers with many years of experience to share.
John Hendrickson of Reeseville, who also works for the center and organizes the class, has had as many as 3 acres in production in the past. But he now focuses on 1 acre of land, growing garlic and hot peppers for processing and wholesale, and carrots for winter sales. He has been market-gardening since 1999.
Tricia Bross of Rio began Luna Circle Farm in 1990. She plants 3.5 to 4 acres of garden crops per season, using five greenhouses to extend the growing season. She markets her produce at the Dane County Farmers Market and through a market-share Community Supported Agriculture program.
Jenny Bonde and Rink Davee have owned Shooting Star Farm since 1997. Their 40-acre farm is near Mineral Point; they annually grow produce on 2 to 2.5 acres. They have used many outlets for selling their produce – including C Community Supported Agriculture programs, wholesale to retail stores, and sales to restaurants in Madison, Milwaukee and Chicago. They now focus on one farmers market, a local hospital, a few local restaurants and a 60-member choice-style Community Supported Agriculture program. Hoophouses and a greenhouse extend their growing season.
Mike Racette and Patty Wright have been growing vegetables for markets since 1992. They own 80 acres, dedicating 5 acres annually to produce. They focus their sales on a 150-member Community Supported Agriculture, and utilize a 1,000-square-foot greenhouse and four hoophouses to extend their growing season.
Each of the farmer-instructors was able to give advice to the 25 attendees from their own unique perspective, based on years of experience in the business of market-gardening. Their presentations were filled with practical information for students to utilize. Every aspect of market-gardening was covered, from how to present oneself and produce at a farmers market, to different types of tools used in gardening at a larger scale. They addressed the ins and outs of seed selection and germination techniques.
The producers all agreed that some form of irrigation is necessary to be successful in market-gardening. They have grown in their operations to a point where small tractors – 40 horsepower or less – have become part of their inventories. Another recurring theme of the class was an emphasis on using techniques and implements that make the work of gardening easier on the body. That type of farming can take its toll on one physically and it’s valuable for the younger students to be aware of that early in their careers.
As I listened and learned from the perspective of a dairy farmer it became obvious to me that the instructors truly fit the definition of farmers. They are in touch with the soil and the plants that they market. They are farming with their feet on the ground. Their intimate tie to the soil made me realize that the industrial-agricultural model – with its ever-larger use of big horsepower – is distancing many farmers from the land that they farm as we sit high up in our tractor cabs removed from the soil.
Those smaller-scale farmers are their own “middle men” in the soil-to-consumer link. And that’s becoming more important to consumers, who want to know where and how the food they eat is produced. I also came away with the idea that if I were to do any type of market-gardening it would be a less intense form. I would perhaps increase my garden plot and create an honor-system produce shed on my property. In no way does this represent a disappointment on my part. It’s one of the many lessons I took home from the class.
The students enrolled in the class were from diverse backgrounds. Jesse Veek of Edgerton, Wisconsin, is a recent graduate of UW-Platteville in business administration. He and his father, Tom Veek of Evansville, Wisconsin, attended the class together. Tom Veek, who is a recent retiree, describes himself as a lifetime homesteader who has always gardened to produce as much of his food needs as possible. Jesse Veek grew up with gardening as a natural element in his upbringing; he recalls a photo of him with a hoe in his hands when he was 3 years old.
Jesse Veek began gardening more intensively at the age of 11 when he started a project growing and selling garlic. He has extensive experience working for other market-gardeners, including managing a market-garden Community Supported Agriculture. After a brief stint working in the business world he decided to make a go at market-gardening on his own. His farm name is Upbeet Produce. He will be doing Community Supported Agriculture boxes and two farmers markets beginning this spring. His father will help in any way he can, most likely helping with the farmers market in Janesville and one other location that is yet to be determined. Jesse Veek’s produce is grown on 3 acres of land that he rents from a nearby organic-cash-crop farmer located midway between Janesville and Stoughton, Wisconsin.
Namgyal Ponsar enrolled in the class because she heard it was a must-do for any beginning market-gardener. She is a Tibetan who was born and raised in India where her family owned 5 acres of farm land. Her family sold produce from the acreage to the surrounding community; members did their own harvesting. Ponsar said she has always been a big believer in growing her own food. For the past three years she has rented a plot from the Farley Center in Verona, Wisconsin, which is a non-profit organization that trains and leases land to immigrants. The Farley Center Market Stand at St. Mary’s hospital sells produce every Wednesday; all the farmers’ produce is available. It has been a big success, she said.
Ponsar opened a food cart with her brother in 2016, where they serve Tibetan- and Himalayan-style cuisine. To save money she grows as much of her own produce as she can. One of her goals is to grow 100 percent of the food she markets through the food truck. She hopes to open her own farm-to-table Himalayan restaurant within five years. Beyond that she hopes to own land and have a destination farm-to-table restaurant with a community center that will guide and connect people of all faiths. Through the center she hopes to promote peace, harmony and respect for nature. That, she says, is her biggest dream.
I certainly wish Ponsar and the Veeks success in their ventures. I agree the class should be considered necessary for all prospective market-growers. It seems to always be the case that we are impacted in a positive way by the people we meet at events such as that. The instructors were kind enough to share their personal stories of what brought them to where they are today. I was fortunate to hear many of the students share their goals for the future.
It was time away from our dairy farm that was well spent.
Greg and Wendy Galbraith have since 1989 owned a 229-acre grass-based dairy farm in eastern Marathon County, Wisconsin, near the dells of the Eau Claire River. They milk 100 cows and seasonally calve their dairy herd every spring. Their son, David Galbraith, has completed the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship program and is transitioning into ownership of the farm. Visit www.poeticfarmer.com for more information.