Vegan in College: Transitioning to Vassar

As I mentioned in my latest “Interview With a Farmer” post, I officially moved into my dorm at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, NY on Tuesday. Along with my internship at the Troy Kids’ Garden, most of my summer included transferring my possessions into cardboard UHAUL boxes, quadruple-checking my comprehensive packing list, agonizing over narrowing down my course selections amongst the plethora of stunningly intriguing options during pre-registration, and researching the bounty of esteemed New York vegan restaurants to visit during my studies in the Hudson Valley. Nerves permeated no aspect of these preparations; I had eagerly awaited the commencement of my college journey since junior year of high school. However, only one of my most prized hobbies, as well as a necessity of life, caused me much anxiety when considering my move to the east coast: food. Yes, my friend and current Vassar sophomore assured me that the All-Campus Dining Center (ACDC) provided a wealth of vegan options (including a create-your-own stir fry station!), but I panicked over the possibility of forsaking the intense pleasure I constantly discover in creating my own meals, especially those utilizing fresh produce from the farmers market.

Thus, I clicked my mindset to full-fledged food/kitchen preparation mode. Opting for the minimum form of the meal plan, which more or less allows me to eat one meal per day in the ACDC, I happily retained the ability to enjoy my daily smoothies and lunch salads, along with weekly (and meticulously budgeted) jaunts to the Arlington Farmers’ Market as well as to a grocery store and a health food store called the House of Nutrition, both just across the street from campus. A large portion of my kitchen supplies completed the 17-hour-long trek to New York with me, including my blender, food processor, famous blue ceramic salad bowl, stainless steel pots and pans, cutting board, and loads of Tupperware containers, all of which now live snugly alongside my clothing in my wooden wardrobe plastered with old New Yorker covers.

In addition to various supplies and appliances, I also packed three plastic bins full of pantry staples which currently reside underneath my bed. Top Left Bin Contents: spices, nuts, dried fruit. Top Right Bin Contents: gluten-free flours, cacao and carob powders, date syrup and agave nectar, cacao nibs, baking powder, agar flakes, baking yeast. Bottom Bin Contents:teas, seasweed, nutritional yeast, grains, canned beans, olive and coconut oils, vinegars, coconut aminos, Dijon mustard.

In terms of actual food preparation, I whipped up multiple batches of different types of veggie burgers, along with a couple fabulous Gluten-Free Buns from Green Kitchen Stories, to freeze in my mini-fridge’s freezer. Here are the six burger recipes I followed: Black Bean Beet Burgers from Including Cake; Foolproof Tofu Burgers from Choosing Raw; Classic Veggie Burgers from Sunday Morning Banana Pancakes; Juice Pulp Veggie Burgers from Sketch-Free Eating; Quinoa Sweet Potato Kale Cakes from YumUniverse, and Poblano Pepper, Sweet Corn, and Pinto Bean Burgers from Peaceful Plate.

The bottom portion of my mini-fridge houses fresh produce from the Arlington Farmers’ Market, including gorgeously succulent sungold and heirloom tomatoes as well as robust salad greens, along with GT’s Kombucha (I haven’t yet discovered a local kombucha brewer in the Poughkeepsie area), my infamous Liquid Gold Dressing, tahini, dates, miso, and flaxseed meal.

As for the actual areas in which I cook, every morning I head downstairs to the newly renovated dorm kitchen to blend up my smoothie—thankfully, the kitchen is secluded from anyone’s actual room, so I musn’t worry about rousing sleepy college students in the wee hours. This larger communal kitchen houses my blender, food processor, and basic smoothie ingredients, including kale, fresh fruit (also from the Arlington Farmers Market; I gleefully picked up white peaches, raspberries, and nectarines last night), homemade almond milk, chia seeds, hemp seeds, lucuma, maca, spirulina, and wheatgrass powder.

My well-guarded bag in the communal refrigerator.

My first smoothie at Vassar–yes, that is a name label from my label-maker on the spoon.

For lunch, I’ve set up my dresser as a make-shift countertop to prepare my prized salads.

Dinner usually leads me toward the ACDC, along with my collegiate compatriates, to enjoy a surprising host of wholesome vegan options complete with a well-stocked salad bar, whole grain salads, roasted vegetables, tofu, and brown rice.

Last night’s plate included roasted brussels sprouts (my favorite!), mixed greens, chickpeas, carrots, tomatoes, cold roasted beets, and mung bean sprouts.

So far, I’ve not harnessed a moment of time amongst the whirlwind of orientation for culinary experimentation, though I do intend to aromatize the kitchen with a batch of granola in the very near future. Welcome to Vassar!

Until next time, Ali.

Interview With a Farmer: Roots Down Community Farm

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.

Out in the fields with a glimpse of the greenhouse.

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.

Gorgeous green zebra tomatoes on the vine.

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.

Kyle displays the ginormous sweet yellow onions.

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.

In the greenhouse: basil and tomatoes.

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.

Milo, the adorable grey tabby of Roots Down.

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.

Big ol’ green bean harvest.

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.

Red and orange bell peppers in the field.

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.

A second greenhouse brimming with beautiful heirloom tomatoes.

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.

Picked melons storing in the cooler.

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.

An amalgamation of bumper stickers decorating the walk-in cooler.

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!

You can find Kyle online at his website or on Facebook at Roots Down Farm, or you can email him at csa@rootsdowncommunityfarm.com.

Until next time, Ali.

Interview With a Farmer: Garden to Be

This post serves as the third 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.

While I don’t interact with Scott Williams of Garden to Be as often as I’d like to during the summer, I look forward to seeing his smiling face every weekend at the indoor farmers market in the winter. Scott’s baby shooted vegetables including peas and sunflowers, as well as his microgreens, often grace my daily salads, reminding me of the honorable work he performs both as a farmer and as an activist for social justice. A beamingly positive and optimistic attitude in the face of unpredictability on the farm and the responsibility of raising two children inspire my ardent admiration of Scott, who truly understands and effectively elaborates on small-scale agriculture as a means of social change. In addition to his primary endeavor of supplying produce to restaurants and grocery stores, Scott also offers a “storage” CSA share that provides large quantities of vegetables commonly used for pickling, canning, freezing, and other forms of preservation.

Scott at the first outdoor market of 2012.

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

Scott Williams: We’re 20 miles southwest of Madison, near Mount Horeb, right in the corner of Dane County. My wife, April, and I own seven acres and rent six more directly adjacent to us from Roger Sponem, one of the original owners of the land. He lives at a farm across the road; the land was his wedding present back in the 50’s. It’s really cool to have that connection with a heavily experienced farmer, to see his old tractors, and to have his blessing shining down on us. All our land is certified organic. We have two greenhouses that are roughly 1,200-1,500 square feet each, and operate one of them year-round to grow the microgreens and pea shoots that we sell at the Dane County Farmers Market, the Willy Street Co-op, and Metcalfe’s. But since 2000, we’ve sold primarily to restaurants in both the Madison and Milwaukee areas.

Ruby Streaks Mustard Microgreens.

FMV: You mentioned your organic certification, about which I’ve previously spoken with a couple other farmers. Do you find it difficult to maintain the certification?

SW: No, we do really well with it since I’m meticulous about record-keeping. I don’t find any of the rules too overly cumbersome, but it does involve a lot of paperwork. I used to do it all by hand—no computer or email for our first few years—but once we got Quickbooks in 2005, everything became much easier to keep track of. The application is fairly long, but our farm doesn’t do anything suspicious in terms of the questions to which the certifiers pay the most attention—our methods don’t change that much from year to year; we don’t use very many off-farm inputs other than seeds, potting mix, and compost; we don’t buy much in the way of chemicals, organically approved or not; and we don’t have both organic and non-organic production to keep separate. Everything we do is dedicated to organic production and we use really reputable sources for our seed and supplies. I like our certifying agent, MOSA; they’re easy to talk to and have always sent pretty good inspectors. I think there’s a twinge of cynicism in organic certification since the USDA is involved, and we all know that they are influenced by large corporate farms that do whatever they want—if they get help up in litigation for a supposed offense, they’ll just continue with it and call it organic, usually without USDA interference. But large farms are not specifically our competition. I’m happy to say that most people who buy from us can easily meet us—we’re at market during four months of the year, the restaurant chefs know us really well, and they introduce us to their staff—which makes for lot of interim trust and well-cultivated relationships that set us apart from those industrialized “organic” farms.

Buckwheat Shoots.

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

SW: Food politics and social responsibility. April and I were vegetarian for a super long time, and I recognized diet, food production, and food transportation throughout the world as political issues pretty early in my life—probably in high school, like you! [Motions to me.] At that point, I started gardening and working in social justice businesses, nonprofit organizations, and cooperatively owned businesses until I found myself in Madison and met Steve Pincus, the owner of and farmer at Tipi Produce, as well as one of the original founders of Outpost Natural Foods in Milwaukee and one of the most senior members of the Dane County Farmers Market. I had worked previously on a farm in Michigan, but the concept of small farming as a political statement didn’t make full sense to me until I started working with Steve on a farm in close proximity to a rather large city. I recognized that he was growing food for real people and deeply admired the amount of attention that he paid toward stewarding his little corner of the world. Steve worked with a lot of retailers and grocery stores, but only a couple of restaurant chefs would come and buy at the farmers market, like Odessa Piper, the original owner of L’Etoile. As a single young man who ate out for most of his meals, I didn’t want to hunt halfway around the world to find tasty, local, organic dining options, and became interested primarily as a farmer in collaborating with restaurants. The philosophy that April and I have always shared is that we all have a responsibility to one another other and to the land we live on, so sliding toward the world of farming and expanding that responsibility to restaurants seemed quite natural.

Heirloom Tomatoes.

FMV: Can you talk a little bit more about how farming connects to the social justice movement?

SW: I think at this point, I see that who we are, how we’re connected, and how we take care of each other is intrinsic in being able to take care of ourselves—food is a huge part of that. Take the programs April and I are involved in, for instance: we’ve always been members of the Fair Share CSA Coalition, we host farm tours for school groups, we hosted Bike the Barns a few years ago, we’ve served on the committee to start the Partner Shares Program that helps provide CSA shares to low-income families, and April is currently serving as a consultant for the Spring Rose Growers Cooperative, which is a co-op of Hmong- and Latino-American farmers who are trying to branch out and sell their produce at other outlets besides just markets around the city. April’s role is to create better marketing solutions to make the farmers more profitable and and their businesses more sustainable.

Salad Turnips and Red Radishes.

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

SW: Maybe I could start with the hardships. I think it always strikes people that where we live doubles as where we work. It’s sort of an adage, but there’s always something to do on the farm, and it’s a little difficult to manage work and leisure time, especially with a family. This year, for example, we didn’t see rain for two months and I had to run irrigation constantly. I can put off moving sprinklers and setting up drip lines by 15-20 minutes here and there, but otherwise it’s a very scheduled process. My alarms were always going off reminding me to go move the irrigation, go turn off the sprinkler, go turn that on—interrupting story time, bath time, or lunch. So one of the hardships is trying to balance separate aspects of life, because you’re right on the farm all the time. There’s also hardship in trying to grow food when certain factors are not entirely predictable. But even when some things aren’t working out, some things are, and it’s really rewarding to hear how much people enjoy the food, especially when the restaurant chefs to whom we supply our produce are recognized. To know that we provide one of the elements that’s a part of a chefs’ palate in creating these awesome menus, dinners, and experiences for somebody dining out is when I can truly say, “Oh, I’m so proud of what we do!” It’s an honor to work with artists and scientists who are very successful in such a competitive business field. Plus, it’s awesome to see my kids getting involved with food and showing interest in the farm, whether they’re playing on the tree swing or in the creek, or actually harvesting the produce and eating it. My son loves to cook, and to watch him learn and grow is so rewarding.

FMV: How long have you sold your produce at the farmers market?

SW: Garden to Be became a member of the Dane County Farmers Market in 2000 and started selling regularly in 2002 since there was a two-year waiting list. But by 2004, we started scaling our market stand back and shifted to selling primarily to restaurants, though we do still go to the winter market and have been for two years.

FMV: Even though you don’t attend the market as often as the farmers who sell every weekend year-round, do you enjoy selling there?

SW: I really do. I love the interaction and seeing regulars. For example, Johnny would buy the same thing every week. Then one day, he changed his mind and bought something new! I asked him, “Oh, what’s happening here?” He told me, “I’ve been in a rut. This week, I’m not buying the same of anything.” After that, I had a fun time asking myself, “I wonder what he’s going to buy this week!” I always think about that close connection with people that we meet and get to know at the market. I love the atmosphere and the spectacle of the market outside; it’s so exciting.

Scott and Chef John of Sardine Restaurant promoting microgreens at the Willy Street Co-op.

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

SW: First of all, what I tell my family and friends who live outside of Wisconsin is that Madison is so supportive of the important aspects in getting on the right track toward a healthy and sustainable food system. People recognize the importance of healthy food and taking care of our land in a sustainable manner, then they spend their money on it. They could be spending their money on anything other than food because, let’s face it, good food is expensive. But 10,000-plus people show up at the market every week and spend their money with local businesses on better food—raw food—that they then prepare themselves. It’s just amazing. The market’s been here since 1972, and I think what might be considered a regional cuisine has been forged out of relationships made at that market. For instance, Odessa Piper opened L’Etoile in 1976 and became the first chef in Madison to shop at the market from local farmers; now you see dozens of chefs bringing wagons around the market every week. That market has helped shape what has become a growing trend. I mean, how many cities do you go to where there’s that much attention paid to what produce is in season?

FMV: Do Madison’s qualities make you hopeful that similar attitudes toward food will expand to the rest of the nation?

SW: Yes, and they have. For example, in the time that Madison’s been involved in the sustainable food movement, the food scene in Chicago has changed dramatically. The Green City Market has grown, there’s dozens more markets there, and their attention toward food has now shifted from that of other big cities. The shift has started in other places, too. April and I visit family in the Cleveland, Ohio area, which is still sort of desolate to me in terms of where to eat, but there are a lot of great things happening there right now—farmers run CSA’s and deliver to restaurants, which they’ve never done before. I think that the Saturday market on Capitol Square has had one of the biggest impacts on the food scene in Madison in the last 40 years. It’s done so much to shape our restaurants, our co-ops, and our grocery stores, and has started a national organic trend.

Flats of microgreens and pea shoots ready for delivery at L’Etoile.

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

SW: I remain pretty encouraged and try to keep a smile. We still have to improve the energy usage and transportation portion of food production. But large-scale industries are turning toward smaller suppliers now—Target, for example, carries organic products—and I’m definitely leery. Prior to having organic certification standards and knowing what any particular label might mean, we had to read a lot, and now we’re reading again. Alright, so a product is “certified organic”. But are they asterix-ing certain ingredients? It just reminds me how much responsibility rests with us as individuals to constantly push the envelope. Though, it’s really nice to know that, at the very least, there’s more attention paid to the types of chemicals used and more public money supporting energy efficiency in food production, s0 hopefully we’ll see more of that.

FMV: You mentioned earlier that you supply your produce mainly to restaurants and grocery stores. Can you talk more specifically about that?

SW: Yes, we supply to about 30 restaurants and grocery stores around Madison. Both of the Willy Street Co-op locations and two of the Metcalfe grocery stores mainly carry our microgreens and young shooted vegetables like buckwheat, sunflowers, and peas. As for restaurants, we offer larger quantities of produce, both pre-cut and still in the flats. The latter way, the chefs can cut as they want it, which is nice, especially for certain places like Shinji Muramoto’s restaurants—he can put the flat right out on the sushi counter and display the food that his diners will eat at that very meal, which is exciting. (You can find a full list of restaurants and grocery stores to which Garden to Be supplies here.)

Spring outdoor market stand.

FMV: What advice would you give to aspiring farmers?

SW: Go to the MOSES Organic Farming Conference. Work part-time or full-time on a farm. Do some research, pick a farm, and work on it. Read This Life is in Your Hands by Melissa Coleman. It’s a very honest, no-nonsense look at the nostalgic feeling that everyone gets from her father, Elliot Coleman—the master of organic market gardening right now. He’s written these manuals and workbooks that every CSA and small organic farm has copies of. Melissa’s book is a lot more about the hard work involved in farming and how much of your life you have to devote to it. There are a lot of jobs that require the same amount of work, I think, but farming is definitely as much a lifestyle as it is just a job—April and I hadn’t anticipated that. By the time we started realizing it, we were knee-deep in the farming world and completely addicted. But it’s a lot to consider—you’re a business owner, you need to understand so many things that you don’t think of in terms of personal gardening, you’re taking your passion out of a hobby realm and into a responsible business realm. I’d recommend reading anything that provides some sort of insight into the balancing working and living on a farm, as well as how to make sure you’re meeting your needs. Also, you need to have some experience. There’s nothing harder than being a beginning farmer who’s started a CSA and has taken both money and memberships, then spends their entire first year overcoming weeds and getting discouraged or despondent. It’s a really good idea to figure out a lot of those fundamentals while working for somebody else—they can cover for you, direct you, and guide you. Luckily, there’s a lot of resources for aspiring farmers to gain experience—the Fair Share CSA Coalition’s website offers all sorts of resources for first-time farmers and is updated pretty frequently. Michael Fields also offers internships and workshops, as well as links farms together so that interns or just agriculture-curious people can tour farms for a day.

FMV: Do you think that the Madison/Wisconsin area serves as a good place to start a small farm?

SW: I think there’s still tons of room, tons of business, tons of commitment toward, and tons of demand for local, organic food in Wisconsin. People here are very creative and open to both new ideas and really old ideas that haven’t been tested in the area before. It’s nice to see people who aren’t of Southeast Asian descent buying Asian melons and gourds from Hmong farmers out of curiosity, or experimenting with interesting herbs usually grown in Mexico. The average shopper in Madison and at the farmers market is savvy—they watch the Food Network, read cookbooks, pick up copies of Edible Madison magazine, and read restaurant reviews. They have direct access to what Tory Miller is doing inside L’Etoile. They can experience all these creative uses for food that they think they knew all about. It’s a great place to be and to grow food.

Garden to Be at Eagle Heights Community Gardens.

FMV: What is your favorite fruit or vegetable growing on the farm?

SW: That is really hard to narrow down. Every year, I’ll have my annual favorites. Last fall, for example, I randomly started growing salad turnips for the first time in a while—really sweet, white turnips with young, tender greens. I have this salad mix seeder and I decided that I would plant them really thick with baby turnips; they turned out so delicious. For about two months, I ate them all the time and decided that they were my favorite vegetable. But in this really weird way, I have always loved growing peppers and potatoes, even though they aren’t greatly marketable crops for us. I thought that for the amount of labor and space put into those crops, I couldn’t effectively charge as much as I would need to. But after the few years that we didn’t grow potatoes, I thought, “Man, why did we ever stop growing potatoes?” I love harvesting them, digging them, watching them grow, and trying to outsmart potato beetles. Peppers, too. There were years when I was growing just one or two plants of thirty pepper varieties—I just love their diversity. Those two vegetables, longevity-wise, are my favorites.

FMV: I’ve never heard anyone talk so passionately about potatoes and peppers.

You can find Scott on Facebook at Garden to Be or on their website, or you can email him at gardentobe@tds.net.

Interview With a Farmer: Jones Valley Farm

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.

Greenhouse at the farm.

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.

Market stand.

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.

Fava beans.

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.

MM: Yes!

Garlic scapes.

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!

My favorite salad mix at the market.

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.

You can find Mike on Facebook at Jones Valley Farm, at his farm blog, or you can email him at mmartin01@localnet.com.

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.

A Renewed Vegan Philosophy

While I just updated the “Philosophy” tab of my blog mere seconds ago, I felt it a powerful and inspiring summary of why I find immense inner peace and feel such passion toward a vegan lifestyle, and thus decided to recount it in a separate post.

An avid kale muncher, smoothie blender, chickpea fiend, avocado worshipper, I passionately extol the health virtues of a wholesome plant-based diet, in utter awe of the vast array of vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes that nature bestows upon us to nourish both our bodies and souls. I launched this blog to satisfy my curious friends’ inquiries of “But where do you get your protein?”, “What do vegans eat besides carrot sticks and tofu?”, “What about ‘organic’ and ‘humane’ meat and dairy?”, and “Isn’t it hard dining at restaurants?”…among others.

While doing so, I experienced a personal vegan evolution—whereas I originally focused mainly on the nutritional superiority of an animal-free diet, my vegan convictions deepened immensely once I finally allowed myself to absorb the true magnitude of the utterly inhumane impact a non-vegan lifestyle has on non-human animals. Essentially, I became vegan for my health, but remain vegan out of a fierce desire to show non-exclusive compassion for all beings, to cause as little harm as possible to the world around me and all of its inhabitants, and to help others on their journey to an enlightenment that our industrialized, profit-driven, meat-centric society constantly works to shroud.

In response to those who consider veganism “restrictive,” I’d urge them to consider that I made a conscious decision to stop eating animal flesh and secretions because it felt completely anathema to partake in the exploitation of animals, in a corrupt billion-dollar industry, and in food that would intensely hinder my health. It’s not restriction—it’s liberation.

I entitled this blog “Farmers Market Vegan” out of my fervent appreciation for the cornucopia of seasonal, organic fruits and vegetables grown mere miles away from my hometown of Madison, WI, which in turn spawned my desire to both study sustainable agriculture in college and to begin cultivating my own vegetable garden in the hopes of becoming as self-sustainable as possible.

However, after proudly declaring myself a “locavore” for quite a while, I realized that many proponents of the locavore movement also ardently support the impossible ideal of “ethical meat,” and thereby conveniently ignore the violent slaughter of non-human animals inherent in a society that manipulates voiceless creatures for selfish gustatory pleasures, as well as choose to romanticize images of “grass-fed, poetry-read, tucked-in-bed” animals raised within shouting distance of the homes of those who consume them. No matter how local, organic, or “humane” a farm claims to be, the fact remains that these terms are all but entirely unregulated, that the animals are only allowed to live out a fraction of their potentially fruitful lives, and that any agricultural operation, whether local or on a factory farm, contributes to the notion of non-human animals as inferior beings.

Thus, I yearn to reclaim the term “locavore” and instill it with new connotations that are compassionate to the environment, to health, and, most importantly, to the animals. Allow us to truly live off the earth and its bounty of fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and seeds, rather than off the mangled carcasses of those who share the earth with us.

-Until next time, Ali.

From Humble Blogger to Harmony Valley Newsletter Contributor

Direct link to my feature in the Harmony Valley newsletter here.

Since the onset of my fierce passion for local, organic produce and my utter adoration of the farmers market, Harmony Valley Farm in Viroqua, WI has continually earned a coveted spot on my list of favorite farms thanks to its wide array of consistenly stunning fruits and veggies, as well as its impressive selection of unique crops (Burdock root? Yukina savoy? Nastursium blossoms? Crosnes? Ramps? French orange cantaloupe? Harmony Valley’s gotcha covered).

The Harmony Valley stand at the summer farmers market.

Thus, you can surely imagine my overwhelming state of sheer excitement (think back-flipping over my desk chair) after reading an email from Harmony Valley offering me a position as a feature contributor to their weekly CSA newsletter. Every week, Farmer Richard and his team select a vegetable of particular interest among the bounty of produce that CSA members will recieve in their box. I then write a short yet informative summary (a crash-course, if you will) of the vegetable, including how to prep it for cooking, how to store it, its origins, culinary uses, flavor pairings, and other little-known facts. In addition to the summary, I also provide two tantalizing recipes, original or adapted, that utilize the vegetable of choice as a key ingredient.

A sample summer CSA box from Harmony Valley.

Getting paid to extol the virtues of veggies and impress CSA members with flavorful vegan recipes? I couldn’t ask for a better summer job. I would also consider my vegetable feature in the newsletter as a mild form of vegan outreach, since all of the recipes I provide will obviously contain no animal flesh or secretions, and will obviously taste so utterly amazing that all of Harmony Valley’s CSA members will immediately cease to consume these products…maybe. Certainly, though, they’ll be exposed to healthy, plant-based recipes—seeds of change, at the very least!

Anywho, if you’d like to read my first veggie feature on the ever-intriguing and always delightful fennel in the June 22-23 Harmony Valley newsletter, please visit this link! Special thanks to Laura at The First Mess, from whom I adapted two recipes for the feature—her Grilled Fennel and Quinoa Salad as well as her Fennel and Carrot Slaw with Orange, Olives, and Dill.

Stay tuned for my feature in next week’s newsletter, with which I’ll captivate the Madison CSA community thanks to my intriguing prose on sweetheart cabbage. You can also check out Harmony Valley’s blog.

Until next time, Ali.