Cooking Tips from a CSA Farmer

As we gear up for our seventh season of CSA starting next month, I thought I’d share some tips I’ve learned over the years for how I approach enjoying the many fruits and veggies that we grow here on the farm. 

Cast iron cooking with a view

Cast iron cooking with a view

Kitchen Staples

I’m not big on kitchen gadgets and am certainly not advocating for buying lots of gear. That said, I do want to mention there are a handful of items that I personally use regularly in the kitchen which I think make cooking from scratch easy and enjoyable. So for what it’s worth, these are my farm kitchen MVPs:

  1. Immersion blender: This is so handy for making soups (like our fall staple butternut squash soup), my lazy tomato sauce, and fruit smoothies (which I enjoy year round using frozen berries). You can always transfer whatever you’re cooking into a blender in batches, but I find it way easier (and it involves fewer dishes) to just use a stick blender.

  2. Cast iron pans: Largely due to health concerns, we’ve tried to purge Teflon and nonstick coatings from our lives. That means an arsenal of cast iron, aluminum, and ceramic cookware. We love our cast iron pans – which you can often get used (pre-seasoned!) by the way. They’re sturdy, can transfer from stove top to oven, and if properly cared for and seasoned are not hard to clean. We never use soap in them – we have a dedicated no-soap sponge that we use to wipe the food out, then heat them on the stove and rub a little olive oil in.

  3. Sharp knives: There’s nothing more infuriating than trying to use a dull knife to slice a tomato (or more dangerous than using a dull knife to slice a huge winter squash). It seems counter-intuitive, but sharp knives are way safer than dull knives. Scott can vouch for the fact that I’m not always what one would describe as “careful” when wielding sharp objects (for some reason he disapproves of my “air cutting” when I’m too lazy to get out a cutting board…), so it’s best not to have to hack at my veggies with a dull blade. Even having one go-to sharp knife will make a huge difference in all the cutting you’ll be doing with your CSA produce.

  4. Big cutting board: And along those lines, it’s also super helpful to have at least one large cutting board. I’ve watched people cut veggies on a tiny board, being super careful that the veggies don’t all fly off once chopped, and to me it looks slow and tedious. If you have a big board, you can have plenty of space to quickly do your thing. (Also, it means fewer band-aids than “air cutting” – see above.) Personally we like bamboo boards and we care for them by rubbing a little mineral oil in.

  5. Salad spinner: A key tool in the first greens-heavy weeks of the CSA featuring lots of lettuce, spinach, greens mix, and arugula. It’s the best way to get your greens clean and dry. No one wants a soggy salad.

  6. Salad dressing container or mason jars: Also helpful for salad season is a container for making homemade dressing. You can of course buy your favorite type from the store instead, but it’s pretty easy to whip up a simple vinaigrette or other favorite staple dressing, and they’ll generally keep in the fridge for a week. Just shake and enjoy.

  7. Ziplock freezer bags: No matter how many fruits and veggies you eat, sometimes you might still feel overwhelmed with produce in a given CSA week. Luckily there are many ways to preserve the bounty, and I think the easiest is freezing. It’s important to have a container that will prevent freezer burn. Our go-to is freezer bags, which we wash and reuse multiple times as long as there are no holes in them. For things like soups we also reuse yogurt quart containers.

  8. Compost bin: For any peels, tops, stems, etc. that you don’t want to eat. Composting extra organic matter keeps these food scraps out of the landfill and means food “waste” is going back into the food cycle.

Sharp knives!

Sharp knives!

Cooking Hacks

I also want to share a few of my favorite tricks…

I love cooking with ginger, but I never seem to have fresh ginger lying around. Since we’re 20+ minutes from the nearest grocery store, we rarely just run out to get a missing ingredient. One hack I’ve figured out is to freeze cubes of ginger! Basically I buy a bunch in bulk, peel it, cut it into chunks, and throw it in the Cuisinart with a little water. Then I freeze it in an ice tray, pop out the frozen cubes, and store in a freezer bag. That way when a recipe calls for a little ginger I can just pull a cube out and I’m ready to go! (Note: you can freeze other items in cubes such as herbs in oil or water, tomato paste, or vegetable stock.) 

In fact, you can freeze almost anything. I think the easiest thing to freeze and use later are peppers. Just slice or dice, throw in a freezer bag, and you’re done – no blanching necessary. Same goes for fruit like cantaloupe or berries, which we enjoy pulling out of the freezer in the winter and adding to yogurt for delicious smoothies. I also enjoy freezing greens – especially kale, collards, and spinach. These do require a few minutes of blanching, but it goes pretty quickly in batches and there’s nothing like pulling out a bag of ready-to-go greens to throw into a sauté or soup later on.

A freezer full of farm goodies to enjoy all year long

A freezer full of farm goodies to enjoy all year long

You don’t always have to come up with a unique and creative way to cook your produce. When in doubt, I just sauté veggies and throw them over a grain like rice or quinoa. Add a sauce – store bought (like Teriyaki or Yellow Curry) or homemade – or not. Throw in a protein like some tofu or meat, or don’t (Americans eat too much protein anyway, and you’ll get some from the veggies and even more if you use a grain like quinoa). Or, my favorite when we have an abundance of eggs – throw a bunch of chopped veggies in a frittata.

My Inspiration

I have a number of go-to cookbooks and blogs that are great for plant-based/veggie-heavy diets and well suited to cooking CSA veggies.

Some of my cooking inspiration on the shelf

Some of my cooking inspiration on the shelf

My favorite cookbooks are:

  • Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian: This is hands down the cookbook I pull off the shelf most frequently. I’ve discovered fun favorites like mung bean pancakes (a great use for shredded carrots!), solid recipes for pizza dough (which I then top with homemade tomato sauce and lots of fresh veggies), and ways to cook practically every vegetable. What I love about this book is that the flexible recipes often include a base recipe and then list a number of variations so you can use what you have on hand and adjust to taste.

  • The Vegetarian Flavor Bible: This is a fantastic resource for improvising. I’ll be honest – I just wing it waaaay more often than I look up a recipe and stick to it. This is a really helpful book for cooks who have some sense of what they want to make but could use some help with the specifics. For example, if you know you want to make a butternut squash soup but aren’t sure what other veggies or herbs play nice with the squash, just look up butternut squash and there’s a whole list of complimentary flavors. It’s a great guide for people who want to be creative and not stick to a recipe but get some suggestions. I’m a big fan of making substitutions in recipes, especially since I’m usually trying to cook with just what I have on hand since I’d rather use my freshly grown veggies than make a trek to the grocery store. I usually use recipes just when I’m learning something new; after that I improvise, and this book is a good tool for that.

  • FairShare CSA Coalition’s two cookbooks: From Asparagus to Zucchini and Farm-Fresh and Fast. With recipes contributed by many CSA farmers, these books are really helpful for using CSA veggies. They’re developed knowing the types of seasonal produce you’ll be working with if you subscribe to a CSA here in Wisconsin. One of my favorite spring recipes is for lettuce cups that use fresh snap peas, lettuce, kohlrabi, and a ground meat if you’d like.

SK’s spaghetti squash tacos

SK’s spaghetti squash tacos

And some of my favorite blogs include:

  • Wisconsin From Scratch: We are lucky to count blogger Sarah as a CSA member, so she’s experimenting with all the same veggies you get every week, and documenting them. Her website is a good archive, though these days she shares more about her weekly cooking ventures through her Instagram stories. Sarah also does a great job scouring the internet for awesome recipes; she introduced me to two of my favorites: okonomiyaki (such a great way to use lots of cabbage in a savory dish) and fried greens meatlessballs (the best way to turn a million greens into a hearty main course). 

  • Smitten Kitchen: I haven’t met a SK recipe that I’ve tried and didn’t like. I love her original cookbook, but she has tons more recipes on the blog too. I tend to avoid recipes that involve long ingredient lists; mostly hers are simple but I will say even the ones that are slightly longer I’ve always found to be worth the effort. I love her spaghetti squash tacos, ratatouille, and bran muffins.

  • New York Times Cooking: This is a great searchable database (it does require a subscription however). If you’re looking for something to do with the beets and carrots in your box one week, type those two ingredients in the search box and you’ll find dozens of recipes that use both. You can also save recipes (from the New York Times or anywhere else on the internet) to Your Recipe Box, and organize them into folders, which makes finding favorites easy.

  • Bon Appétit magazine: Lots of creative new recipes I would never come up with on my own. I also like that they often have fun sauces and dressings. Sometimes recipes call for less common ingredients, but I usually just sub for something similar.

SK’s bran muffins - here with blueberries and cantaloupe

SK’s bran muffins - here with blueberries and cantaloupe

I hope you find some of these tips and resources useful as you prepare for the CSA season! We’re looking forward to sharing lots of locally and lovingly grown fruits and veggies with our members soon.

Everyday is Earth Day on Plowshares & Prairie Farm

The name of our farm, Plowshares & Prairie, reflects our commitment to pairing sustainable food production with strong land stewardship. Caring for this beautiful Driftless land, our environment, and our community is embedded in everything we do on our farm.

Sunset on the farm

Sunset on the farm

Like all CSAs endorsed by the FairShare CSA Coalition, our fruits and veggies are certified organic. We also manage our fields using many techniques like crop rotation, cover cropping, and mulching to build up and maintain the healthy soils that lead to healthy plants and a cleaner environment while protecting our water.

While we grow produce for our CSA on just 2 acres, we take a holistic approach to caring for our 75-acre property that is a patchwork of produce fields, prairie, oak savanna, wetland, pond, stream, and woods. Much of this land is enrolled in conservation programs. We work hard to restore the land by planting native species and doing controlled burns and extensive brush removal to manage invasive species. We devote particular attention to a unique prairie remnant on our property that has never been plowed and contains an exceptionally diverse community of native plants, including some rare species.

Chelsea conducting a controlled burn

Chelsea conducting a controlled burn

The mulch and cover crops mentioned previously, as well as grass waterways around our fields, help reduce erosion and prevent runoff. When we provide nutrients to our fruits and veggies, we want them to stay in our fields and not pollute our stream, so when and how we put them on and how we manage our soil are all focused on minimizing nutrient loss as well as maximizing plant health. Our wetland helps filter any runoff that does occur from our fields before the water flows into the stream on our farm, and it also helps absorb water during floods.

Looking back at the field and barn from the prairie

Looking back at the field and barn from the prairie

Two years ago, we dug a pond at the edge of our wetland. We’re happy to see both local and migrating waterfowl discovering this inviting new habitat this spring. We enjoy the wildlife that the farm supports – from the spotted fawns to the coyotes that help keep rodents and rabbits at bay. Each spring, we take the time on a few evenings to enjoy the sky dance performed by our wood cocks (see the chapter by the same name in Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac for an excellent description).

The scrape (pond) next to the wetland

The scrape (pond) next to the wetland

We also constantly look for opportunities to support pollinators. We received a grant to plant a pollinator plot near one of our produce fields, and our prairies provide food and habitat for native pollinators throughout the season. We also host three bee hives near our main produce field. It’s a win-win: the bees pollinate our crops and in exchange we enjoy their delicious honey, which looks and tastes different as bees feed on different flowers throughout the season.

Prairie flowers like these shooting stars attract native pollinators

Prairie flowers like these shooting stars attract native pollinators

Our environmental stewardship efforts extend beyond the way we manage our land. In 2014, we installed a 24-panel, 6 kW solar photovoltaic system on our barn as part of a group buy orchestrated by FairShare. Just as our produce sources its energy from the sun, we are pleased to do the same for a large portion of the electricity that we use in the barn and in our home.  We have also upgraded our home lighting and appliances to be more efficient, insulated our farm house, and heat and cool the house with a geothermal system that we installed last year.

Our 6 kW solar system on the barn roof

Our 6 kW solar system on the barn roof

And like many farmers, we cure, can, freeze, and dry enough produce to sustain our veggie and berry eating through the winter. We minimize our meat consumption, but Scott’s fall hunting generally allows us to put away some venison for the winter, and we also enjoy the eggs from our flock of laying hens. Generally speaking, we take Michael Pollan’s advice to heart: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly Plants.”

Enjoying the summer’s bounty all year long

Enjoying the summer’s bounty all year long

We both have backgrounds in science and environmental policy, and in addition to running our farm, we work part-time at environmental nonprofits. Chelsea’s work focuses on energy and climate change, exploring local solutions across Wisconsin for reversing global warming. Scott’s focus is on protecting Wisconsin’s water resources, working with fellow farmers and state and local governments to examine policies and practices that address our water pollution problems. We enjoy working towards these longer-term solutions as well as the more immediate and tangible reward that comes from caring for our farm and sharing healthy food with our community. Not just on Earth Day, but every day, we try to do what we can to make a positive impact on our environment, and to take care of this beautiful place for future generations.

A version of this post first appeared on the FairShare CSA Coalition website in April 2018.

Birth and Rebirth on the Farm

As an odd winter – of early warm and then (way below) freezing temps, a late abundance of snow and ice, cancellations and snow days, and now flooding – draws to a close, we’re excited to transition to a new chapter. With spring approaching and some exciting new developments in our lives, it seems appropriate to write about birth and rebirth on the farm.

Birth

The most exciting recent news on the farm is that our baby girl Maya was born on Valentine’s Day! She is just perfect, with a full head of hair, adorable expressions that my dad refers to as “a parade of faces,” and a fun personality already showing through. As our first child, she is teaching us what it is to be parents, and to love a little person so fully.

Proud parents welcoming Maya to the world

Proud parents welcoming Maya to the world

We are quite smitten with our little Valentine. We’re adjusting to sleeping in spurts, spending a lot of time feeding her (she was thankfully healthy but small at birth, so we’ve been putting a lot of effort into chunking her up), and trying to get things done while babywearing (I’ve upped my Moby tying game from a D to a B+; still room for improvement).

The only bunny these farmers like

The only bunny these farmers like

We’ll be making some adjustments this season as we learn about the realities of integrating newborn care into our farm routine. We plan to move forward with the help of Scott’s parents, babywearing, and a little extra help from our field crew. While I used to do most of our Madison deliveries, Scott will likely take on this role this year, as well as regularly attending the Fitchburg Farmers’ Market. We’ve also decided not to do our local Argyle Market this summer. We needed to let something go and unfortunately in recent years this hasn’t been profitable enough to justify the time we put into it. However, if local customers still want to purchase some extra produce from us, we’re always happy to sell it directly off the farm.

We’re looking forward to introducing Maya to our community – at markets, events, or here at the farm.

Our little dino

Our little dino

Rebirth

Anyone who has driven by our farm in the last 9 months (yikes!) surely noticed we’ve been undertaking quite the house remodel. After years of living in the old farm house that had little insulation, lead paint, snakes in the damp basement, and other less than ideal living circumstances, we decided it was time to invest in our home and in ourselves, and build something more comfortable to raise our family in.

This included quite a few additions: a new master bedroom facing the fields instead of the road, a nursery for the baby, a home office for Scott, a finished basement, a great room also facing the beautiful view, and a garage. This feels like a lot for our small family, but this isn’t just our home – it’s also our farm headquarters, and a place where we work remotely a lot for our off-farm jobs. We designed the house to function for all three of these uses. We now have a guest bedroom for family and friends to visit, which we’re encouraging so those who don’t live nearby can get to know Maya. Scott and I now each have places we can comfortably and effectively work from home. Our new garage will not only be convenient for us to do less ice scraping on cars and treacherous walks to the driveway with the baby, but is also designed to serve as a greenhouse in spring to start our seeds and a space for caterers to use for weddings and other events held in our barn. The basement underneath will serve as a root cellar to better store our fall veggies in optimal conditions.

To assuage our environmental guilt of building extra square footage in the house, we also implemented several energy-efficient features. We added a ton of high efficiency windows and insulation. (We were only somewhat surprised to learn that our freezing kitchen was only insulated by 1930s newspapers.) All lights in the house are LEDs. The biggest upgrade we made was the addition of a geothermal system. Also called a ground source heat pump, this heating and cooling system uses a heat exchanger to draw energy from the difference in temperature outside (from horizontal tubes buried underground) and the house. The system then heats (in the winter) or cools (in the summer) the inside air, and also heats our water.

1930s “insulation”

1930s “insulation”

Perhaps our favorite room in the remodeled house is the kitchen. We added an island and have tons of counter space, which lends itself well to all of our cooking, baking, canning, and other food preservation projects. We got a new stove which is hybrid – propane and electric – and also has both conventional and convection settings. A local woodworker made us beautiful new cabinets so we can keep all our kitchen gear and gadgets better organized and more accessible. We can’t wait to do all kinds of cooking with fresh fruits and veggies this summer!

New favorite room in the house

New favorite room in the house

And of course, we’re also seeing rebirth all around us on the farm as we transition into the growing season. Scott and his mom have a competition each spring to spot the first robin, and this year Scott found one very early – at the end of February. This week we started to plant our first seeds of the season – lots of alliums including onions, shallots, and leeks. It won’t be long before the snow melts and the daffodils appear, many migrating birds return (we also heard the conclareee! of our first red-winged blackbird this week), and we spend a lot of time with our hands in the dirt sowing this year’s bounty. One of the things we love about farming is the inherent tie to the seasons. There’s a time for dormancy and rest, rebirth and growth, incredible abundance, decay and regeneration. While this winter wasn’t as relaxing as we’d hoped (see prior blog post – “A Wild Winter Week”), we still enjoyed a change of scenery and tasks, so after several months away from the day-to-day work of growing food for our family and community, we’re ready and eager to step back in. (We still have spots in our 2019 CSA, so if you’d like to join or refer a friend, please visit our sign up page!) We’re looking forward to launching our seventh season here at Plowshares & Prairie Farm, bolstered by the support of our community and the new birth that brings much joy and purpose to our lives.

And sow it begins…

And sow it begins…

A Wild Winter Week

During our first season on the farm, we did a little blogging to help our friends, family, and CSA members understand what our days looked like on the farm as we dove headfirst into a new adventure. Then we took on more and more projects and additional off-farm jobs, and decided we didn’t have enough time to do it all so the blog fell by the wayside. We’re still busier than we’d like (more on that in a moment) but we really want to share a little more about our lives on the farm – the fantastic community that embraces us, our intimate relationship with the land, the highs and lows of this rewarding but unpredictable work – so we’ve decided to give blogging another go. While we expect the coming months to be full of happy but sleep-deprived days, we’ll do our best to provide more regular updates. For now we’re excited to relaunch the blog, and start with a little insight into a crazy and amazing week we had recently. We hope you enjoy this little window into our lives here at Plowshares & Prairie Farm!

Winter is supposed to be a time for rest, reflection, and recovery for farmers. I can’t say that’s how this one has shaped up for us at Plowshares & Prairie Farm. First of all, Scott and I both have off-farm jobs doing environmental work at nonprofits in Madison. We’re thankful that we get to fully explore our passions for promoting healthy communities and planet, pairing our tangible work of farming with this additional work on clean water and climate change. We’re also grateful that our off-farm jobs allow us a lot of flexibility – frequent work from home to cut down on commuting and adjustable seasonal schedules. But that means that in the winter we’re actually working a lot at our other jobs, which leaves less time to recover from the physical and mental exhaustion that accompanies any growing season.

This year was also exceptional in our personal lives. We’ve been undertaking a major house remodel for months. As is often the case, the number of updates snowball into more and more, and the timeline stretches and stretches. The wet weather last fall only contributed to the delays. What started as a completion date of October quickly shifted to December, then the New Year, then Jan. 15. We were fortunate to be able to stay just around the corner with our in-laws during the most disruptive months of construction, but we were eager to get back into our space and our routine. We finally moved back in on Feb. 1 after three months out of the house. We have a way to go to get fully settled in, but for now are so happy to be in our home and are loving the comfort (insulation! a geothermal system!), functionality (so much kitchen counter space!), and beauty (lots of windows looking over the farm!).

There’s still some outdoor work to do, but we’re so happy to be back in our farm house.

There’s still some outdoor work to do, but we’re so happy to be back in our farm house.

The even bigger and most exciting change is that we’re about to meet our first child who will be joining us any day now. Though we’ve been preparing for months it’s hard to believe we’ll be meeting the little one soon. We’re just so excited to meet this little wonder, and to raise our child in this beautiful place.

So, there has been a lot going on. However, there was one week in particular which I think might go down in history as our busiest ever: Jan. 20-27. It was also a week where we felt incredibly loved, supported, and honored.

On the 20th, our cousin threw us a festive baby shower. Family and friends showered us with love, advice, and some adorable baby gear. 

The “parents to bee” at our baby shower.

The “parents to bee” at our baby shower.

On the 22nd, we were invited as guests of honor to attend Governor Evers’ State of the State address. He wanted to acknowledge farmers with significant contributions in sustainable agriculture. We’re proud of all that we do to manage our produce fields, prairies, and wetlands on our farm in a way that keeps our soil and water healthy and stores carbon in the ground. Still, it was a surprise and complete honor to be recommended and selected to be the face of sustainable agriculture for the new administration. Before the address, we got to meet Governor Evers in his office, as well some of the other guests of honor and a couple cabinet members, including DNR Secretary Preston Cole and DATCP Secretary Brad Pfaff.

Meeting the Governor before his State of the State address.

Meeting the Governor before his State of the State address.

We were then ushered up to the gallery where we got to sit (and stand up to clap a lot) during the Governor’s address.

Watching Governor Evers’ State of the State address from the gallery.

Watching Governor Evers’ State of the State address from the gallery.

Later in the evening, we were invited to the Governor’s Mansion where we again chatted with the Governor, ran into State Representative Mark Spreitzer who we’ve met at Wisconsin Farmers Union events, and enjoyed hors d'oeuvres and picturesque views on a beautiful snowy night.

Outside the Governor’s Mansion.

Outside the Governor’s Mansion.

On the 23rd-25th, I headed to Appleton to host a summit on energy and resilience for local leaders. This is the biggest annual event that I organize for my off-farm job which involves months of planning. I’m happy to say this year’s summit was a big success – I think the best one yet. We had record attendance, Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes delivered our welcoming keynote address, and our panels were the most diverse yet (by gender, ethnicity, geography, and age). It was also held in a gorgeous location – at the Bubolz Nature Preserve – where we watched cross-country skiers on the snow-covered trails outside our plenary room and enjoyed a tour of the microgrid that powers the nature center.

Mandela Barnes delivering the welcoming keynote address at the Powering Local Leadership summit. (Photo credit: Amanda Shilling)

Mandela Barnes delivering the welcoming keynote address at the Powering Local Leadership summit. (Photo credit: Amanda Shilling)

On the evening of the 25th, I caught a ride to Johnson Creek on the way back from Appleton to meet Scott, who had already begun the Wisconsin Outstanding Young Farmer (OYF) award weekend.

Last fall, we were nominated to apply for this award for farmers under 40. From WI OYF’s materials:

GOALS OF THE OYF PROGRAM ARE:

  • To foster better urban-rural relations through the understanding of farmers’ challenges, as well as the appreciation of their contributions and achievements

  • To bring about a greater interest in farmers/ranchers

  • To help build an urban awareness of the farmers’ importance and impact on America’s economy

We submitted our application late last year, and soon learned we were selected as finalists along with seven other farms. The WI Outstanding Young Farmer program judges farms based on: progress in agricultural career; extent of soil and water conservation practices; and contribution to community, state, and nation. Through a number of questions in our application and during an interview that Scott completed on the 25th, we shared our accomplishments in each of these areas.

To make our weekend even busier, we were actually double booked, and hopped back and forth from OYF activities to child birth classes in Madison (which of course we had booked before we learned about the awards weekend and was the only weekend we could take them given our timeline) on the 26th and 27th. We were sorry to not be able to fully participate in all the OYF activities (including a sub-zero degree tour of a local farm), but appreciated how supportive the group was of our balancing our family needs. Before we left for the Breastfeeding 101 class on Saturday, some of the dairy farmers in attendance joked with Scott about never making any comparisons to his wife about milking cows.

We quickly discovered that the very best thing about the OYF weekend was the welcoming and supportive community of farmers, past winners, and volunteers that make this program a reality. It was a pleasure and a privilege meeting all the other finalists who are doing some exceptional farming across the state - large and small, conventional and organic, dairy and produce. Talking with the other farmers throughout the weekend, it was obvious that despite the differences in our scales, methods, and what we grow, we have many of the same challenges and values. We were thrilled to make some new friends and are honored to be part of this community of hard-working, community-oriented farmers.

WI OYF’s 2019 finalists.

WI OYF’s 2019 finalists.

We were especially proud to win 2nd Runner Up! After learning about all the hard work, community leadership, and innovative techniques that the other finalists were doing all across the state, it was a true honor for Scott and me to have our achievements be celebrated among this impressive group with this award. As a small, organic, community supported agriculture (CSA) farm, we’re not necessarily the first thing that comes to mind when people think of farmers in the Dairy State. It meant a lot to have our growing and conservation practices recognized, and we're happy to be included as part of the vision for the future of farming in Wisconsin.

Proud 2nd Runner Up winners. (Yes, I wore the same dress 3 times during the course of this week – that’s what happens when you’re 8-months pregnant and only have one nice outfit that fits.)

Proud 2nd Runner Up winners. (Yes, I wore the same dress 3 times during the course of this week – that’s what happens when you’re 8-months pregnant and only have one nice outfit that fits.)

Like I said, it was a wild week. But it was also one where we got to meet the Governor and Lieutenant Governor, educate ourselves and celebrate as we prepare to welcome a new family member, and exchange ideas with leaders from across the state on farming practices and environmental stewardship. I would have been exhausted even if I weren’t 8 months pregnant. But I can say this week is one I will never forget, and I feel so lucky to have had these opportunities. Scott and I work hard to live according to our values. The life we have chosen is by no means simple, but it is simply meaningful. While our winter hasn’t exactly been relaxing, we came out of this week inspired, honored, and reinvigorated for all that awaits us in 2019.

End of Year Reflections

Well, here we are at the end of 2013.  It’s hard to believe that just nine months ago – with the exception of garlic – we had not even broken ground.  We have come a long way in our first year, and have learned many invaluable lessons along the way.  Here are the top ten lessons from our first year of farming:

1.      Do not plant 600+ tomato plants.  Yes, everyone loves tomatoes and they are delicious, and it’s nice to have a variety, but oh my, this is way too many.  Next year we will plant a small fraction of this, take better care of them (pruning, clipping up, and weeding) and still have plenty.  We also have a better idea of which varieties sell best.  Turns out most people enjoy either the large and juicy heirlooms or the small cherry tomato snacks.  We had a number of medium-sized tomatoes that did not sell well at markets.  We’ll probably still plant a small number of paste tomatoes, which are great for canning (especially tomato sauce) because they are less watery, but we’ll cut out most of the medium-sized varieties.

2.      Row cover is amazing.  We conducted a series of trials over the growing season, with some crops under cover and our control group uncovered.  The row cover helps regulate temperature and retain moisture, and our covered plants consistently matured faster and looked healthier.  It does make weeding and picking a little harder as you have to pick up and move one side of the cover to get in there, but the benefits clearly outweigh any added challenges.  We plan to use a lot more of this in 2014.

3.      Stay ahead of weeding.  Having to play catch up is no fun.  It is so much easier to periodically run through the rows with the wheel hoe than to pull out large weeds by hand.

4.      Don’t mix up squash seeds.  I was devastated when I realized I had accidentally planted spaghetti squash when what I really meant to plant was pie pumpkins.  Sure, the spaghetti squash turned out well, but it’s just not the same in a pie.

5.      California Early White garlic (aka what you find in most grocery stores) does not like Wisconsin weather.  Neither does Spanish Roja.  Having lived in all three places, I suppose this does not surprise me.  We’re sticking to our heartier (mostly hardneck) varieties for next year, and are trying out a limited amount of new softneck varieties so I can work on my braiding skills.

6.      Sweat bees are the worst.  Even if it’s 100 degrees out, I vow to wear pants during the few weeks when sweat bees are out.  They land on you, mostly on your legs, and generally in annoying places like the back of your knee and they then sting you as soon as you move.  A dozen stings before lunch is pretty unpleasant.  Though I suppose if this is the worst thing that happens while working outside, and wearing pants can pretty much avoid it, it’s not too terrible.

7.      Don’t plant on the hillside.  There was a point this spring when we were desperate to get seeds in ground that seemed perpetually soaked, so we sought out higher ground.  This worked briefly, until the ground finally dried out and the seeds we planted too high up really dried out.

8.      Plant fewer varieties of corn.  Since this was our first year, our tendency was to plant lots of varieties to see which we liked best.   However, we have to plant it in four-row clusters to help with pollination, so it’s really best to stick to just a few types.  We also lost a fair number of stalks to mischievous raccoons, so we’ll need to work on a strategy to prevent this next year.  Corn is a tough crop to grow in a diversified farm, since so many farms do it large-scale for cheap.  A CSA we were members of in Seattle didn’t even bother with corn, saying it was too hard to grow and not worth it.  We like being able to offer a great variety of veggies to our customers, so I think we’ll stick with it, but hope everyone understands if our ears are not as massive as the ones you can buy from farms specializing in sweet corn.  For the record, though small in size, we thought our corn was big in taste.

9.      Take one day a week off.  This was the plan when we started out, but it didn’t really happen.  We just had so many things to get set up that we justified the constant work as something unique to our first year and that we just had to do.  Needless to say, we were pretty exhausted by the time fall rolled around.  Next year we plan to give ourselves a regular break, to relax, regroup, and be more efficient when we come back to work.  This reminds me of an Edward Abbey quote I’ve always liked:

One final paragraph of advice: do not burn yourselves out. Be as I am - a reluctant enthusiast....a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here. So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to the body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much; I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those desk-bound men and women with their hearts in a safe deposit box, and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this; You will outlive the bastards.

Of course, incorporating nature and exercise into our work is part of our plan to integrate what we enjoy into our jobs and make a lifestyle that is sustainable, healthy, and fun. That said, sometimes it’s still necessary to get away from the routine and recreate.

10.  Write more blog posts.  As I post this, I see our last post was in July.  Yikes.  We did a little better with our Facebook posts, and we did send out weekly newsletters to our CSA members, but we’d like to do better with our more in-depth communication next year.

2013 has been a pretty tumultuous year for many reasons. To name a few, we left stable jobs, embarked on a five-week antipodean adventure to visit dear friends and beautiful places, moved to a new state, started a business, lost a grandparent, supported two parents through cancer diagnoses (both are now happily looking healthy), started new part-time jobs, started remodeling an old farm house, and have been fortunate to take a number of trips to celebrate weddings and visit family.  When I find myself getting frustrated with the number of projects on my list and feeling like there is so much to do, Scott is good at reminding me of all that we have accomplished this year.  2013 will certainly go down in the books as an exceptional one.  I’m looking forward to a more efficient, less stressful, healthy, happy, and celebratory 2014. Happy New Year from your farmers at Plowshares & Prairie.