This post serves as the fifth 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.
Prior to this spring, I had never before encountered the gorgeous produce grown by Kyle Thom of Roots Down Community Farm, a five-year-old organic farm that offers bountiful CSA shares and just this year entered onto the Dane County Farmers Market scene after enduring a lengthy waiting list. One look inside Kyle’s greenhouse rife with every variety of heirloom tomato trellised methodically on a single string per vine convinced me of his utter dedication and passion toward providing impeccable fruits and vegetables to the near-Madison community. Kyle’s generosity, considering both the grocery bag bursting with veggie goodies with which he sent me home after the interview as well as the beaming smile he shares every Saturday at the market, surely will further his ventures in the strong agricultural network of southern Wisconsin.
On a more personal note, I’d like to apologize for my semi-hiatus from the vegan blogosphere over the past couple of days. Tuesday marked my official transition into the Vassar College community in Poughkeepsie, NY, and our freshman orientation schedule leaves little room for leisure activities such as blogging. I do plan on writing a post chronicling my meal plan and food preparations during my shift to college life, but probably won’t finish it until this whirlwind of introductions, social gatherings, and class registration has settled. Stay tuned, my friends!
Farmers Market Vegan: Tell me about your farm—where it is, what you grow, if you have a CSA, etc.
Kyle Thom: We’re in Milton, WI and we grow a wide range of diverse plants. We do have a CSA that feeds about 85 families a year with weekly and biweekly shares that run from late May to mid-October. We don’t offer any winter shares yet and our boxes contain strictly fruits and vegetables. We also attend farmers markets every week—the Eastside Farmers’ Market, the Fitchburg Farmers Market, and the Dane County Farmers Market.
FMV: What originally brought you into the world of farming?
KT: I was very interested in ecology, wildlife, nature, being outdoors, and being active as a kid. I got into cooking when I was younger and always had a love for science; I find growing to be somewhat scientific and I’m a big dork about it—I get really into all the facts about it.
FMV: Out of those interests, how did the farm itself originate?
KT: I started farming as a teenager, helping on some farms in Stoughton where I grew up. I worked at Pleasant Hill Farm, which is no longer a CSA farm, unfortunately, but they were for a long time. There, I picked raspberries and washed spinach just as a side job to make some money when I was about 15 or 16 years old. I started farming as a partner with somebody in October of 2005 to try it out and fell in love with it. That’s when I decided I wanted to start a farm of my own.
FMV: What would you identify as the greatest hardships and rewards about farming, respectively?
KT: The greatest reward is when people find value in what you do and in the food; they either tell you directly or you can tell because they’re enthusiastic about it. The greatest hardships, I must say, are weather, insects, and all the plagues that farmers have to deal with.
FMV: How do you manage those plagues?
KT: Well, insects can be managed through monitoring. Most insects hatch during a certain time of year, so if you know when that is, you can expect it. In weird years like this when there’s a warm winter, more insect eggs and larvae survive, but there are certified organic insect sprays that we can use if we have an infestation or if there’s an insect that could cause a major problem.
FMV: Would you say that your farm was hit hard by weather this year?
KT: No, I wouldn’t say that. We suffered some losses, but gained more of the earlier crops that matured faster in the heat.
FMV: How long have you sold your produce at the farmers market?
KT: Since I started farming seven years ago. I began marketing myself at farmers markets because I knew I couldn’t build a CSA customer base right away—no one had ever heard of me or my farm. I started my CSA after two years with just 10 members, then joined the Fair Share CSA Coalition the year after, and finally became certified organic in my third year. It’s been a slow progression of meeting the goals I had when I started, but I think I’ve reached all of them. Now, though, there are new goals to set. I’d like to expand my farm and provide more food to more families.
FMV: Do you enjoy selling at the farmers market?
KT: Yes. I enjoy meeting new people and socializing over food. Sometimes I’m too tired to really want to be there, but when the crops are ready, they’re ready. When life gives you lemons…
FMV: You’ve got to sell the lemons! But you mentioned earlier that you also employ workers on the farm. Do you ever send them to the market to sell for you?
KT: No, I haven’t developed the infrastructure or obtained enough equipment to do that. Also, we haven’t really met anyone who is willing to pack a truck for that long or wake up at 3:00 in the morning to go to market. It’s a little hard to find the right person for that job—who you want to represent your farm and your name.
FMV: What are your thoughts on the food culture in Madison?
KT: I think the food culture in Madison is extensive and very broad. There are a lot of ethnic foods in Madison compared to other cities, like Janesville, where I live; they’re a little more chain-oriented. I lived in Madison for quite a while and very much enjoyed the restaurants down there—lots of good chefs, lots of good food. I wish I had more time to visit.
FMV: Do you appreciate the connections between many restaurants in Madison and local farmers?
KT: I do. It’s cool to see chefs walking around the market on Saturday morning with their wagons. Hopefully one day, our farm will be able to sell to them more extensively.
FMV: Do you currently supply your produce to any restaurants or grocery stores?
KT: Not really. I’m constantly busy selling at markets and running around doing CSA drops— I don’t have much more time to also stop at restaurants. I’ve supplied to some chefs who come to the markets, though, like The Weary Traveler, Alchemy Café, Ian’s Pizza, and Underground Food Collective. They usually have small orders—a little bit here, a little bit there. But selling to restaurants is not really a priority for me.
FMV: As a small farm, are you encouraged or discouraged with the current climate of food production, both in the Wisconsin area and beyond?
KT: I think I’m both encouraged and discouraged. The organic food movement is growing, and it’s encouraging to see so many young farmers starting up. I’m probably a young, beginning farmer myself, but it’s still encouraging to see other people like me doing it. The old generation of farmers is going to disappear soon, and we have to replace it.
FMV: Would you say that nation’s focus on local food is expanding?
KT: I think it’s growing, yes, which is very positive. Commercialized agriculture is definitely still a huge presence, though. There’s some scary things out there when it comes to cheap food—the way it’s shipped around and what sorts of chemicals people are putting in their bodies. America has such a problem with diabetes and obesity—corn and sugar plays a big role in that. But hopefully it’ll improve with the growth of small farms.
FMV: What advice would you give to aspiring farmers?
KT: It’s a lot of hard work—don’t get discouraged too quickly and be patient. Remember that you can’t accomplish everything in one year or one season, so just keep trying. Learn from older farmers whenever you can because getting on-farm experience is priceless. Working on several different farms is even better than on one because no two farms are alike—each one does things in its own way. I’d recommend reading a lot, too. Dig into seed catalogues or books on soil and biology so you can understand what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. That way, you can find value in each individual task because it’s all a chain. A lot of the best farmers I’ve ever seen will tell you that all the little things you do make a great crop.
FMV: Are you mostly self-educated or did you study horticulture in college?
KT: No, I don’t have a degree, I just started reading. I was homeschooled, so I don’t feel like I need the label of a college degree to be able to farm. I think farming is a very active, physical career that requires a lot of energy—you can’t learn that.
FMV: Do you think that the Madison/Wisconsin area serves as a good place to start a small farm?
KT: Yes. It has a great climate—it doesn’t get too hot and the winters aren’t that severe. It’s definitely enough to keep a farmer busy for 10 out of 12 months of the year, and if you have the space, you can store crops for the entire year.
FMV: What is your favorite fruit or vegetable growing on the farm?
KT: I get excited about almost everything! But I have to say, I really enjoy working with tomato plants, just because there are so many different varieties. I also really enjoy growing onions and garlic—anything in the onion family. I like growing melons, too—those are exciting. Oh, and fennel. It gets a frilly top and a blanched bulb beneath. When they’re all in a perfect row and weeded nicely with the fronds waving in the wind, it’s gorgeous.
FMV: Spoken like a true farmer!
Until next time, Ali.