Interview With a Farmer: Hickory Hill Farm

This post serves as the first of hopefully many to come in my “Interview With a Farmer” series. Through this series, I hope to cultivate a deeper relationship with small-scale, organic vegetable farmers, both in the Madison and Poughkeepsie—my hometown and my college town—areas, and to offer insight toward the staggering importance in supporting these hard-working, noble individuals, who act as the backbones in the fight against overly-industrialized agriculture.

For the series’ premier post, I interviewed Gretchen Kruse—a jovial farming powerhouse who, along with her brother, husband, son, and farm partner Peggy, manages over 180 acres of land on Hickory Hill Farm. Gretchen has uniquely expanded her family’s generations-old farm since recently moving back to Wisconsin from Idaho by cultivating exotic produce not typically encountered in the Midwest, securing a spot in my heart entitled “Favorite Farmers” thanks to her wide variety of obscure herbs, edible weeds and flowers, squash blossoms, and rather tropical plants often implemented in Thai cuisine. I’ve highlighted in bold a couple points in Gretchen’s interview that I find particularly compelling.

Farmers Market Vegan: Tell me about your farm—where it is, what you grow, if you have a CSA, etc.

Gretchen Kruse: We’re located two miles south of Loganville, WI on Highway 23 in Sauk County on the edge of the Driftless Area. We don’t have a CSA currently. We grow many, many things—all the way from your standard produce to banana leaves and kaffir lime leaves. We also raise grains and make maple syrup.

Edible Johnny Jump-Ups.

FMV: What originally brought you into the world of farming?

GK: I was born into it. When I was 18, I moved to Alaska to find myself and my place in the world. From there, I attended Washington State University and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Marine Biology and Environmental Studies. I then moved first to Montana and then to Idaho, where I lived for 19 years and went to school at the University of Idaho for my master’s degree in Fisheries Resources.

FMV: And you said you’re a fourth generation farmer?

GK: Yes, we are a fourth generation farm. My great-grandparents came over from Germany—Prussia, I suppose—during the war and immigrated to New York originally, ending up eventually in Wisconsin.

Edible nasturtiums.

FMV: What would you identify as the greatest rewards and hardships about farming, respectively?

GK: The rewards are having lots of natural space around me, being able to get up and listen to the birds singing, seeing the lushness, and not being crowded. Seeing the produce come to fruition is also a huge reward. One of the greatest challenges, I think, is probably marketing—finding the outlet for your produce, finding the prices, educating people. I enjoy educating them, definitely, but people are so removed from their food right now that they don’t understand what it takes to produce a pint of tomatoes—they’re often not willing to pay for it. But if you’re willing to go to Whole Foods and pay five dollars a pint for tomatoes, why not pay that plus a little bit more to the farmer and help them to improve their situation? For example, we need a building for a refrigeration unit, so all of the money that we make goes toward useful things like that which allow us to provide a better product.

Inside the greenhouse.

FMV: You mentioned marketing as one of the hardest aspects of farming. Did you find it difficult to secure a stand at the Dane County Farmers Market?

GK: Well, we’ve sold at the DCFM since 1973. My mother and father were some of the first farmers there. We were located on the other side of Capitol Square and then moved over to where we are now on Carroll Street sometime in the late 70’s. In the 90’s, when my parents started getting elderly and couldn’t go to market as often, my brother went sporadically in their place. Then I moved back to Wisconsin from Idaho last summer and really kicked the market stand back up again.

Sweet Pea cherry tomatoes.

FMV: Do you enjoy selling at the farmers market?

GK: Oh, I love it! However, it’s often really exhausting since I’m at the market from 6:00 am to 2:00 pm and I have to get up at 3:45 in the morning. Most nights I’m done at a reasonable time, but sometimes it’s 11:00 at night by the time I finish packaging everything up. I know many farmers endure worse than I do, though; I remember my mom staying up until 1:00 am and getting two hours of sleep before getting up and going again. But I really enjoy the people, the diversity. I grew up in Madison; I learned how to make change at the farmers market; I learned a lot about culture, differences, and tolerance.

Gretchen with the banana leaves.

FMV: What are your thoughts on the food culture in Madison and the people who visit the market?

GK: Well, the food culture in Madison is fantastic. I’ve always thought of Madison as a melting pot—a comforting place for Wisconsin’s different cultures which bring with them a lot of ethnic foods and variety. I think, also, we’ve gotten to the point where there’s a lot of crossover between say, the standard German and Italian fare that used to be really popular in Wisconsin, and the more promient Asian and Hispanic cultures of today. As far as the people who come to market, there’s a wide diversity of shoppers. Unfortunately, there’s a smaller portion of serious shoppers who come to actually buy produce; these are the shoppers that tend to come in the morning—they’re at the market early, they know what they want, they get it, and they get out. In contrast to that, Madison has a huge supply of what I like to call “market tourists.”

FMV: Who come for the cheese bread.

GK: They get cheese bread, they gossip in front of the farmers’ stands—which actually works out nicely because it provides an educational opportunity. Though, there are pros and cons to that, and I think that our limited space is probably one of the drawbacks.

FMV: Yes, my mother and I always lament the people with their strollers.

GK: I know—thank goodness we don’t allow dogs at the market! But it is really nice to have those people because they’re the ones who need to be educated on where their food comes from. That’s why I supply print-outs of recipes and information about things like purslane. That way, people can learn about more unfamiliar foods which will perhaps lead to them becoming serious shoppers eventually.

Zucchini and summer squash.

FMV: As a small farmer, are you encouraged or discouraged with the current climate of food production, both in Wisconsin and beyond?

GK: I think overall, at least in Wisconsin, I’m pretty encouraged. Up until recently, I lived in northern Idaho where a lot of the farm land around Coeur d’Alene, unfortunately, has been sucked up and built into housing developments. This was beautiful productive prairie land and now the topsoil is gone forever. I’ve seen agriculture disappear out there, and it’s a sad situation. Here in Wisconsin, I’m pretty encouraged. One of the sad parts, though, is that there still isn’t enough support for small farmers. We have organizations that accomplish a lot for small farms, but I think that, as a whole, the public still doesn’t really realize how critical it is that we support those small farmers. They also don’t fully understand the division between small farming and corporate farming, especially the benefits, like crop insurance, that corporate farms receive from the government, which don’t really benefit someone like me. It’s not worth my money to buy crop insurance, so I just have to accept my losses, whereas a corporate farmer can afford the crop insurance and take the gamble of whether or not they’re going to need it that year.

Fennel bulbs.

FMV: Have you interacted with any of the organizations you mentioned that help small farms?

GK: A little bit, but I don’t have a lot of time since I’m still in the process of settling into the farm here in Wisconsin. Family Farm Defenders is one that I’m very interested in possibly getting involved with in the future—John Kinsman, a friend of my parents and a farmer in nearby Lime Ridge, is president of that organization. Right now, I’m searching and trying to figure out where I should put my energy; I spent a lot of years volunteering for many environmental organizations out West, and it kind of sucked me dry. You have to be careful how much time and energy you devote to advocacy work so that you don’t exhaust yourself.

Bright blue cabbage amongst the greenery.

FMV: Do you supply any restaurants or grocery stores with your produce?

GK: I do. In the Madison area, we supply to the Willy Street Co-op’s westside location, to A Pig in a Fur Coat on Willy Street, and to the Hilton hotel off of Capitol Square. Driftless Depot in Spring Green buys my edible flowers often for their catering and may buy some more things as time goes on. A few chefs also come to our stand at the farmers market. I really like the restaurant outlet, actually, because I just send them an availability list, they tell me what they want, I know exactly what produce I need to pick, and I drop it off directly to them.

Prairie full of flowers and herbs.

FMV: What advice would you give to aspiring farmers and do you think that the Madison/Wisconsin area is a good place to start a small farm?

GK: I definitely think that we need more small farmers and I definitely think that Wisconsin is a great place to start. One of my main points of advice is to not go into the business all starry-eyed and thinking that it’s going to be easy, because you’re going to spend a lot of time pulling weeds, doing tedious work, getting frustrated, and crying—that’s just the way it is. But I’d highly encourage networking, getting assistance, finding people that can help you, and especially self-educating. The internet has so much information on farming—just sit down for an hour a day with your coffee and read. Also, don’t be afraid to try new things; you don’t need to sit inside the box.

Tomatoes galore.

FMV: How many hours a day would you say you work out on the farm?

GK: In the summer heat, I work about six to eight hours. On a cool day, I could be out there almost all day long, from dawn till dusk. In between farming, taking my son to swimming, going into town for errands, and running another business part-time, I research for marketing, contact people, deal with taxes, and take care of my bookkeeping. Farm planning has also been a huge part of my life in the last couple of years—writing up a plan, seeing where we’re going, and determining what things we need to accomplish. That’s another thing that I would really recommend for new farmers—sit down and lay out a plan of what you want to accomplish in one, three, five, ten years.

On the left, a small fig tree. On the right, kaffir lime leaves.

FMV: Where do you see your farm in the future?

GK: We’re actually moving along pretty steadily. Pretty soon, we’ll offer some ground grains and flours—I actually set that up just this week. We’re starting out with a wheat/rye mix since there was a little mix-up in the planting and some rye got into the wheat patch. But it worked out well! We’re having Lonesome Stone Mill in Lone Rock grind the grains for us and I’ll be offering the wheat/rye flour at the market this weekend. I’ll also have hulless oats coming up soon which I plan on having rolled, and perhaps we’ll produce soy flour in the near future. In the meantime, I have a lot of maintenance work to do—fixing things up, getting a refrigeration unit, working up different areas of the fields, controlling weeds. We also need to build a little repair shop. Eventually, it’d be nice to start hiring people, but that’s a whole new ball of wax!

Mixed herbs.

FMV: Wow, the flours sound quite exciting! Now a tough question—what is your favorite fruit or vegetable growing on the farm?

GK: Oh, that is hard! Do I have to pick one?

FMV: No, of course not!

GK: Well, right up there together are the banana leaves, the kaffir lime leaves, the black cap raspberries, and the sweet pea cherry tomatoes—those are my babies. I also have ginger and kiwi berries coming in now and I think that those will be really neat plants to have. I just love the uniqueness of it all.

FMV: Do you find that these unique products sell well at the market or do people tend to shy away from them?

GK: Some people are scared, but a lot of people just ask, “Wow! What is that?” Like with the lime leaves, for example, some people don’t know what they are, but then when you explain that they’re used in Thai cooking, they say, “Oh! Of course.” Most people are pretty brave and willing to try new things, especially if they’re offered in a small amount for a reasonable price. I think it’s really important to expose people to new varieties and tastes.

You can find Gretchen on Facebook at Hickory Hill Farm, or you can email her at hickoryhillfarmloganville@live.com.

Until next time, Ali.

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