Canoeing to the Carrots

With the recent heavy rainfall events and flooding we’ve experienced in southwest Wisconsin, I thought it would be a good time to share a blog post I wrote a couple years ago for my off-farm job. In addition to my work on the farm, I also lead a Climate & Energy Initiative at a statewide nonprofit. I’m passionate about both jobs, which at a glance may appear very different, but in reality compliment each other quite well. My work educating and connecting leaders on climate change issues gives me insights into anticipated climate impacts and proactive solutions that land owners can implement. Likewise, my hands-on work in sustainable agriculture lends crucial perspective to the challenges land stewards face in addressing climate impacts, as well as opportunities for crafting feasible and effective solutions. Since this blog was originally published, we have encountered many more floods (several on delivery days). Scott and I continue to do what we can do sequester carbon in the soil, use renewable energy and manage our energy demands efficiently, and talk with others about opportunities to minimize their environmental footprint. We hope you join in this important effort as we seek to protect this beautiful place and build a safer, healthier, and more equitable world in which our daughter’s generation (and those that follow) can explore and thrive.

This blog post originally appeared in 2017 on the Climate & Energy blog of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts & Letters.


I spend a lot of time thinking about how climate change impacts Wisconsin. And that’s not just because it’s part of my job directing the Climate & Energy program at the Academy. It’s also because when I’m not in the office, I run a produce farm in the Driftless Area, and I observe these impacts every day and live with the consequences.

The extreme weather this summer has been unrelenting. From flooding to tornadoes to extreme heat, this summer has been far from normal – unless it’s indicative of a “new normal” that is. The first half of 2017 was the second wettest on record in Wisconsin. Scientists project that our state will experience more frequent heavy precipitation events in the future.

My partner and I live on a farm located in northeast Lafayette County. It is a patchwork of fertile valley, wetland, prairie, and woods. In addition to providing a modest revenue stream and lots of fresh fruits and vegetables for our family, the farm is a living laboratory where we can convert our ideals into something tangible – restoring the health of the land and our community. We do this through land management techniques like doing controlled burns in our prairies and planting cover crops, powering our buildings with the solar system mounted on our barn roof, providing ample wildlife habitat, and growing organic fruits and vegetables for the 64 local families that subscribe to our Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program.

A view of our produce fields and barn from the prairie remnant.

A view of our produce fields and barn from the prairie remnant.

The Mud Branch of the Pecatonica River separates the farm buildings from the produce fields. In our five years farming, we’ve observed that the stream has flooded about once or twice per year. However, it generally subsides enough by mid-day to cross the bridge and access our fields. Until recently, we had been lucky enough to have these flooding events fall during the early summer or on a day of the week that didn’t have a scheduled CSA delivery.

This year, we ran out of luck. On a Thursday in late June, the stream flooded and the bridge was underwater. We were able to pound in some t-posts to mark the edges of the bridge so we did not accidently drive off the edge and into the water, and carefully navigated the crossing in our farm truck to get out to the field and harvest the fresh produce we needed that day to meet our CSA and market commitments.

A different Thursday in late July proved much more challenging. We again awoke to a swollen stream and flooded bridge, but this was the worst we had ever seen it. Our normally 10-foot wide stream became a 100-foot wide flow of muddy water. After being hit by storm after storm, it seemed there was just nowhere for the water to go. The bridge was more than three feet underwater (as estimated by the tiny tips of the t-posts peeking above water) and we realized it would remain impassable for the rest of the day.

Part of the culture and concept built into the CSA model is that members take on both the risk and reward of farming. Extreme weather certainly poses many risks, but we had never had to cancel or postpone a delivery, and we wanted to avoid that option if at all possible. After running through our limited options, we decided on an unconventional harvest plan: loading up our crates in a canoe and paddling out to the field. It felt like a miracle that we pulled it off and made our deliveries on time. While we were proud of the creative troubleshooting and it was a fun adventure and good story to tell in retrospect, we don’t want harvesting by canoe to be our “new normal.”

After a brief portage, we reloaded the canoe with bins of vegetables and paddled across the normally walkable path back to the barn.

After a brief portage, we reloaded the canoe with bins of vegetables and paddled across the normally walkable path back to the barn.

Extreme and variable weather—such as this recent flooding, or in the form of extreme heat, early spring warming followed by a frost, drought, tornadoes, hail—can threaten public safety, damage important infrastructure and goods, and have huge economic consequences. In agriculture, too much moisture at the wrong time of year can delay planting, create conditions favorable for spreading disease, wash away seeds, and hinder transport of product. These extreme conditions do occur naturally, and it is therefore prudent to build as much resilience into farms, roads, and other infrastructure and systems as possible. However, the increasing frequency with which we’re experiencing these events is alarming.

While scientists rightly caution against conflating weather and climate or attributing particular weather events to climate change, there is high confidence in the trends expected in a warmer world. In Wisconsin, we anticipate more frequent and intense storms.

There is a connection, and while we will learn to adapt and become more resilient in facing this loaded atmospheric system, it is also logical to work towards lessening our contributions to climate change. Investments in technologies and practices that can decrease the amount of greenhouse gases we release into the atmosphere—from solar panels and batteries to smart thermostats and soil carbon sequestration—can seem like a high price for a small farm. However, when assessing these costs, it is important to remember that the calculation is not the cost of investment compared to nothing. The reality is we are already paying for the impacts of climate change through agricultural profit losses and dealing with the ramifications of extreme weather. In addition to myriad other reasons to lessen our contributions to climate change, it makes economic sense to invest in solutions now rather than paying more later on when dealing with the consequences of inaction.

My story is just one of many that illustrate how extreme weather fueled by climate change can pose challenges to those trying to care for and make a living off the land. Many other Wisconsin residents are in the same boat (perhaps some, as in my experience, literally). Watching these impacts play out first-hand, I’m driven to seek solutions. I hope you and other land stewards will join me.

The Patchwork of Plowshares & Prairie Farm

I revived the farm blog a couple days before our baby was born, and while I managed to write a few more posts during those early months when she napped more, it was early in the growing season, and I was on leave from my off-farm job. It has proven more challenging to find the time now that farm and office work is in full swing. So, after a few months off, I wanted to carve out a little time to talk about how we manage the diverse landscape on the farm. 

This particular topic was inspired by a workshop we hosted a couple weekends ago as part of the “Women Caring for the Land” series organized by the Southwest Wisconsin Grasslands Network. This involved a listening circle, potluck, and farm tour. While the listening circle was intended for women only, men joined in for the rest of the afternoon. It was a good opportunity to connect some local landowners interested in learning more about our CSA and all the conservation practices on our farm, and to connect with people who serve as great resources for these conservation efforts. Staff from the Driftless Area Land Conservancy, Pheasants Forever, and the local NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service - an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture) office were present to share information about opportunities and answer questions. We think our farm serves as a good model of what land owners can do to take care of the land – restoring prairies and wetlands, minding water quality and soil carbon, and providing wildlife habitat – while also generating farm income by growing crops and sharing healthy food with our local community. We're honored to share our experience with others, and always appreciate learning from our peers about the great work they're doing and planning as well.

 So, inspired by that conversation, we’d like to share an overview of the patchwork of land uses that makes up our farm.

 We talk most about our produce fields, which makes sense, because this is where we spend the most time working, generate the most revenue, and can most directly share the benefits of our hard work with our community through the CSA and farmers’ market. But we’re only growing food on a few of the roughly 75 acres on our property. This acreage is certified-organic by MOSA, a local USDA-accredited certifying agency. We certainly could grow on more, but we choose not to because our method of highly diverse produce farming for the CSA allows us to grow a lot on a small footprint and on a scale that works for our lifestyle and current capacities. Also, some of our hilly Driftless land is not well suited to growing certain crops, and rather than row cropping in many intensive annual crops we prefer to preserve and restore the native landscape. Every once in a while, we talk about the possibility of introducing some kind of rotational grazing, which could help manage invasives, improve soil quality, and promote carbon sequestration. If you ask Scott, he’ll say we should get cows; if you ask me, I’ll say bison (though I admit they’re pretty intimidating). Our current compromise is neither.

Some of the diversity on the farm - the prairie remnant and restored prairie, produce fields, and wetland

Some of the diversity on the farm - the prairie remnant and restored prairie, produce fields, and wetland

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has a number of programs incentivizing conservation measures that we partake in here on the farm. I’ve historically had a hard time keeping all the acronyms straight and paired with the right agencies, so frankly writing this blog post has been a good opportunity for me to get this all written down in one place!

 One program we participate in is CRP, or the Conservation Reserve Program. This program is administered by the Farm Service Agency (FSA) of the USDA. We currently have three fields enrolled in the program: about 10 acres of restored prairie on a hill above our produce fields, another 10 acres of restored prairie in the valley below the produce fields, and another 6 acres of grassland in the back corner of our property. These programs were enrolled in CRP in 2000 and were renewed in 2015. CRP contracts typically last for 10 or 15 years. According to the contract, we receive $210 per acre per year for following a number of required practices including managing invasives, shrubs, and trees. This often includes controlled burns, which can be a really effective management tool. FSA has to approve our burn plans. We’ve historically requested to burn more than the minimum amount to help us manage trees and shrubs.

A controlled burn in the restored prairie

A controlled burn in the restored prairie

There were some other chunks of land that were enrolled in CRP under prior ownership which we inherited when our family bought the farm. These are two plots of trees – a walnut grove and a spruce grove. However, while these programs were originally enrolled in 2000, FSA did not renew the contracts in 2015. The agency has a bit of a reputation for not renewing contracts for trees, which is why these programs can be tricky. Obviously planting a tree is a long-term commitment, so it’s hard to plan on this long-view timeline with uncertainty surrounding contract renewal. We now have a walnut grove with skinny trees planted too close together (we may thin at some point), and an overgrown Christmas tree lot at the back of the property (which does provide a good location for winter snowball fights).

 Not to be confused with CRP, we also take advantage of a program called CSP, or the Conservation Stewardship Program. This program is administered by NRCS, the Natural Resources Conservation Service of USDA. A few years ago, we enrolled a pollinator plot in this program. CSP pays a certain rate per acre in exchange for following particular practices on that land. The contract terms are shorter than CRP. Caring for our pollinator plot involves planting certain pollinator-friendly flowering plants and managing invasive species. The pollinator plot is just above our perennial produce field, and it’s rewarding the see many bees visiting the nearby chives and other crops growing in the field immediately south of the CSP plot.

 Another program administered by NRCS is EQIP – the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. EQIP is a cost-sharing program that helps landowners implement conservation practices to protect soil and water quality. In 2017, we received a 70% cost-share (meaning we paid only 30% of the costs) to dig a scrape. A scrape is the technical term for a pond that’s adjacent to a wetland. The main benefit of the scrape is providing good wildlife habitat, and indeed, we’ve observed a range of animals enjoying the scrape including belted kingfishers, muskrats, deer, American toads, fish, and even an otter. Along with the wetland, the scrape can also help with filtration (keeping any nutrients that run off our fields out of the stream) and can absorb flood waters. This is increasingly important as we experience more extreme weather and flooding.

The scrape

The scrape

 Our wetland is not enrolled in any conservation programs, but we still manage this area – mostly with controlled burns trying to remove invasive species like honeysuckle, cattails, and reed canary grass which out-compete native species. Reed canary grass is something that settlers and farmers planted in the area long ago when they realized it grew well in wet areas and served as forage for their livestock, and it has since taken over and become quite the pervasive nuisance.

 Finally, our prized jewel: the prairie remnant. This beautiful piece of prairie has never been plowed and only periodically grazed, a rarity in these parts (USGS reports over 99% of Wisconsin’s tallgrass prairie has disappeared since 1830). We’ve had success restoring other areas of the farm to prairie, but it’s hard to compete with the abundance and diversity of native species that we observe in the remnant. While we did receive a one-time contract from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to do some brushing (cutting brush/removing invasives) in 2014, we have regularly managed this prairie (through brushing and burning) to help it thrive and spread. In fact, there is an oak savanna that is part of the prairie remnant, and after years of work we’re seeing lots of native species moving back in such as shooting stars, cone flowers, bergamot, side oats, and Penn sedge (sedges are similar to grasses but are in a different family, and can be easily identified by their triangular-shaped stems). The prairie remnant contains some rare species such as compass plant, lead plant, and Indian plantain. It also includes a state-listed threatened plant: Hill’s thistle.

Shooting stars in the prairie remnant

Shooting stars in the prairie remnant

 We are incredibly fortunate to be farming on leased family land, as land access is one of the main barriers that young farmers face. Scott’s parents, Bob and Carolyn, live up the road and have been doing incredible conservation work there for over 15 years. As jointly managed land, we do a lot of coordinating about priorities and strategy for how to care for the land where we live. It works well because we generally have the same priorities and values in mind – restoring native landscapes, providing wildlife habitat, contributing to good water quality, and building a healthy and sustainable land use model in our community. We cannot thank the Laesers enough for all they have done and continue to do to help us live according to our values on the farm.

 I have been wanting to make a barn quilt to proudly display at our farm, but I haven’t found the time yet for this creative pursuit. I don’t just want to use a standard pattern, but rather hope to craft a design that is meaningful and unique to our farm. Maybe this patchwork quilt can somehow represent the patchwork of land uses here on the farm. Because while managing our farm certainly entails a good amount of planning and science, it is also a form of art. We’re grateful for all the support and resources – from our family, community, and USDA programs – that allow us to care for this beautiful Driftless landscape.

Our farm name in a photo

Our farm name in a photo

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…