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Community Reinvestment Fund Recipients
Produce News: Summer Fruits are Here
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All About Cheesecake
Heath & Wellness News: Taking Care of Your Skin Under the Sun
Avoiding Food-Borne Illness this Summer
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Producer Profile: West Star Farms
Camping Foods for Families \
The Wonders of Dried Fruit
by Lynn Olson, Member Services Manager
A mere 10 miles from Madisonjust outside Cottage Grove, West Star Farm grows a variety of farm products for Willy Street Co-op, including the many seedlings now available from our floral department. Owned and operated by George and Sandy Kohn, this farm exemplifies the years of love and care for they have put into their land, buildings and business.
Before they came to farming, George served for several years in the Air Force Reserves as a pilot. He also flew for a commercial airline before being forced into mandatory retirement at age 60. He has stayed close to the ground ever since. He and Sandy both grew up on traditional farms and waited many years before realizing their dream of owning their own land. In 1993, their dream became a reality. Today, this 40-acre, MOSA-certified, organic farm is flourishing and productive under their care.
The attention to detail on the farm is everywhere. Winters are spent on special projects like this year’s restoration of the original barn to use as winter crop storage and an office. A large walk-in cooler on the first level has already been completed and is in use. A conveyor-belt potato washer that doubles as a washer for squash is also ready. The framing for an office in one quadrant of the barn is coming along nicely and should make a good base of operations when they’re finished. Although it’s still a work in progress, the restored barn at the farm is one of the nicest I’ve seen. A forced cement treatment applied on the inside foundation walls of the barn has secured the original fieldstones to the outside of the barn and helps keep them from deteriorating. After some research and because of things like the the hand-hewn beams, George thinks his barn was likely built in the 1800s, but no official date has been determined.
During my visit in early May, the two very large hoop-houses were brimming with thousands of healthy, vibrant plants. Some of these were headed to local stores to be sold as seedlings, and the rest will likely be planted on the farm to be grown as fresh produce for their wholesale accounts. According to organic regulations, George keeps detailed planting records, tracking nearly every stage of the planting process. Everything, from the hoop-houses to the sheds here are clean, organized and purposeful. There’s not much on the farm that appears to be unplanned or untended. In the flower and perennial garden near the barn, several varieties of flowers are grown for their cut flower customers, including the Willy Street Co-op.
Oddly absent from the farm are any animals; however several wild species are thriving in and among the old-growth wooded area that divides the property in half. There, a rocky, dry streambed that once brought water through the farm is now becoming overgrown with prairie grasses and moss, a result of renovations on County Road N that permanently diverted the water to feed their stream. Still, despite the loss of a water source, George regularly sees coyotes, wild turkey, rabbits, herds of deer, pheasants and the most destructive foragers, raccoons, in this wild area. Last year the masked bandit(s) ravaged over half of his corn plants, taking one bite out of each and every ear of corn before moving on to the next until they could eat no more or were frightened off. With the availability of electric fencing at no charge from the USDA to deter these animals in exchange for allowing a controlled number of hunters on his land, George expects the problem of late-night marauders to now be solved.
Beyond the wooded area, on the far field of the property there is a steady, long slope to the landscape. With considerable use of tall prairie grass patches, left intentionally between large growing sections, West Star Farm manages to keep their erosion at a crawl instead of a run. There have been several steps taken to prevent or slow down the inevitable erosion of nutrient-rich soil to the lowest part of the farm. George says they take a “low-till” approach to abate erosion, but cover crops of alfalfa and buckwheat are routinely grown on the fields to bolster the soil with nitrogen and are then turned over (tilled) before the planting of vegetable crops can begin. Additionally, horse manure from a nearby stable is routinely used in limited amounts as fertilizer, but experiments with cow manure from a neighboring farm also brought with it a lot of weeds, so that practice had to be scrapped. Technically, the “turning over” of the cover crops will likely provide as much benefit for the soil as the manure, and George has been happy with the results.
Besides the owners, there are currently only two employees on the farm to keep up with the daily demands of the planting and harvesting. As many as five more workers will be necessary when the peak of their harvest season begins. In order to circumvent some of the more backbreaking duties of farming, George has made several wise equipment purchases to assist them. Actually, this was the most farm equipment I’ve ever seen on an organic farm, and it was a little bit like being a kid in a candy shop as he swung open the door to the equipment shed. There was a gravity bin planter, a thousand gallon water tank trailer, a combine harvester, two tractors, a potato planter and a host of other attachments. But, as George said, “If I can’t fit it in my shed, I don’t buy it. I don’t like my equipment to sit outside.” Many of these items, bought used at auction or from dealers are arranged like toys and show their owners’ consistent care. In the workshop, there waits an enviable assortment of tools for keeping all of it in good working order.
Portions of West Star Farm are rented out to area farmers who are also required to follow organic practices on the property but do not necessarily resell them as certified organic. Bees from apiarist Dale Marsden, who makes George’s favorite, Buckwheat Honey, gather their nectar from the buckwheat cover crops grown by one of his tenants for animal feed. Two other women have rented acreage and sell a variety of their produce items at area farmers’ markets.
With 40 acres and plenty of space to grow, I asked George what he sees in the future for West Star Farm and he summed it up by stating, “We’ve experimented with a lot of different things but my focus is, I want to do five or six crops and do them well. So now we’re doing onions, sweet corn, garlic, potatoes, greenhouse tomatoes, cucumbers and squash.”
We’ll be looking forward to seeing all of those in the produce section this summer and with good storage in their new cooler, some of those will be available throughout the fall as well. For more information or to speak to West Star Farm’s owners, they can be reached at (608) 239-7570.