This post serves as the second of 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.
Mike Martin of Jones Valley Farm never ceases to impress me with his wide array of rainbow-colored produce of European, mostly Italian, origin, including Rosso Milano onions, fava and romano beans, baby artichokes, fresh lavender, peacock broccoli, escarole, lacinato kale, and chiogga beets. Perfecting the intricate technique of displaying differently hued vegetables for optimal sales, Mike sets his goods against neutral gray bins to allow the food to seize center stage. While Mike has expressed to me his deep inquietude about coming across as a “food snob,” I can imagine no farmer more humble or willing to engage in friendly dialogue to educate market patrons about his unfamiliar produce.
Farmers Market Vegan: Tell me about your farm—where it is, what you grow, if you have a CSA, etc.
Mike Martin: Our farm is out by Spring Green in a deep, narrow valley. We’ve kind of modeled it after a small, European-style family farm and only supply the Dane County Farmers Market; we don’t do a CSA.
FMV: What kind of crops do you like to grow?
MM: I like to grow, oh, almost everything. Our favorite over the years has been salad greens, but they’ve been really tough this year with the heat. I like to grow a lot of exotic stuff, too, which is especially fun to watch grow, taste, and see people enjoy.
FMV: What originally brought you into the world of farming?
MM: My grandmother inspired me. She wasn’t a farmer, but she always had a big garden that I helped her with. When I think back to it, she’s probably the one who started it all for me.
FMV: What would you identify as the greatest rewards and hardships about farming, respectively?
MM: Well, the biggest hardship is doing a bunch of manual labor and then watching the plants get destroyed by weather or insects. Our farm has been hit by floods, drought, insect infestation—it’s just amazing, the stuff that happens out there. As far as the greatest reward, I think it’s coming to the market, meeting a lot of people, and watching them enjoy the produce. The open-air market, to me, is the most fun to be a part of; that’s why I don’t do a CSA. I’d rather come to market and interact with all the customers, who actually teach me a lot.
FMV: How long have you been selling at the farmers market?
MM: We’re approaching 20 years now.
FMV: Wow, that’s very impressive! What are your thoughts on the food culture in Madison and the people who shop at the farmers market?
MM: I’ve been around the country a little bit and I’ve looked at other farmers markets and the food culture in other towns—this is one of the best, if not the best, especially for a town this size. It’s really an amazing place.
FMV: Do you find that many of the people that you meet at the market are knowledgeable about the produce you offer?
MM: There’s a certain segment of customers here that are knowledgeable about what we grow; a lot of Europeans, especially, are familiar with it. I would say, though, that overall, most people who come through this market don’t know what we grow, just based on their questions—they’ve never seen a lot of the stuff that we bring in.
FMV: But then you introduce it to them.
FMV: As a small farmer, are you encouraged or discouraged with the current climate of food production in Wisconsin and beyond?
MM: I’m kind of both encouraged and discouraged. I recently dropped my organic certification because of the direction that’s headed. The rules and the way you have to carry out their audit trail aren’ts really scale-specific, and they’ve raised the fees now on smaller growers while capping them off for the larger growers. I’m still organic, but I’m just not certified anymore.
FMV: I’ve heard that the organic certification is quite difficult to obtain and maintain.
MM: Yes, especially if you’re growing a lot of different crops in small amounts like we are. We grow probably 150 different types of crops. Compared to a conventional corn and soybean farmer, the audit trail is huge for us.
FMV: Do you supply any restaurants or grocery stores with your produce?
MM: L’Etoile—Tory Miller buys a lot from us—as well as Underground Food Collective. Other chefs will also stop by the market stand early in the morning, like Nostrano. But really, Tory’s our biggest buyer.
FMV: Does he buy a variety of your produce or just select items?
MM: He comes every week and buys lots of stuff. He’s a major driver behind this market. He comes early in the morning, goes around, and buys from several stands. It’s really great what he’s doing in supporting the small farmers around Wisconsin.
FMV: Do you think that the Madison/Wisconsin area is a good place to start a small farm?
MM: I think if you have access to this market [the DCFM], Wisconsin is a great place for a farmer to come and have a go at it.
FMV: What advice would you give to aspiring farmers?
MM: I would tell an aspiring farmer to take some art courses to learn about color and shape, which will help when it comes to marketing. Presentation of your food makes a lot of difference because there’s so many good growers and so much good produce at the market that you want to stand out. Learning a little bit about color, texture, and how to display stuff will really help out.
FMV: Can you explain how you implement those design ideas in your stand?
MM: I put contrasting colors together. It’s funny—a vegetable won’t be selling very well, but if you just move it to a different spot, all of a sudden it will fly off the shelves. If you pay attention to why that happens, you can learn a lot.
FMV: That’s very intriguing! Is that why you chose to display your produce in grey bins—so that you would get a pop of color?
MM: Yes, grey is a pretty neutral color and it makes colors pop.
FMV: When my mom and I first started shopping at your stand, we referred to you as the “grey bin people.”
MM: [Laughing] Really? Well, basically I’m a failed artist. I have a fine arts degree and was a professional college student for years.
FMV: And then you got into farming.
MM: Then I ended up doing this, yeah!
FMV: I love that story! Well, my final question—what is your favorite fruit or vegetable growing on your farm?
MM: Ooh, that’s a tough one. I think my favorite would have to be radicchio.
FMV: Mmm, good choice.