by Lynn Olson, Member Services Manager
After visiting with Barb and Dave Perkins at their Vermont Valley Community Farm, I was reminded of two fitting quotes: “Real success is finding your lifework in the work that you love.” -David McCullough, US biographer and historian (1933-); and “Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work.” -Aristotle, Greek critic, philosopher, physicist, and zoologist (384 BC-322 BC).
Despite the never-ending amount of work to be done on a farm during a September afternoon, Dave sat down with me and shared precious harvest-time talking about the farm, the family and the community that has assembled around their operation.
In 1992, as long-time Madison residents, Barb and Dave Perkins were raising their three children and working on their respective careers when they were introduced to the idea of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) through the work being done by the Madison Community Supported Agriculture Coalition (MACSAC). For those who are unfamiliar, a CSA is defined as a unique partnership between farmers and consumers. The consumer purchases a farm share in exchange for weekly deliveries of the season’s harvest. (The idea, which migrated to the U.S. from Japan, where it is called “teikei,” means “putting the farmer’s face on food.”)
After learning about the CSA philosophy and then purchasing their own share from Stoughton’s Zephyr Group Garden CSA for two years, Barb and Dave knew they had found the answer to becoming farm owners themselves. They each had farming in their backgrounds and intimately understood the inherent challenges before beginning the search for their own farmland. By 1994, they had found their farm in the Black Earth area of southwestern Wisconsin and, after moving their family there, immediately began growing food and gaining members of their CSA. Since that time, their MOSA-certified organic farm has enjoyed a steady 10% yearly growth in shares. During the growing season, Vermont Valley Community Farm delivers 650 boxes each week, serving nearly one thousand families in addition to providing produce for the Willy Street Co-op. With their eleventh growing season in its final stages, Dave summed up how the CSA philosophy made perfect sense to them. “What we do here is, we don’t grow and hope to sell,” he said. “We have a place to sell and then grow so it’s very natural.”
The Perkins’s property was admittedly not the ideal vegetable farm. A former dairy farm, it is comprised largely of wetlands with only four tillable, yet hearty acres. But, as things often work themselves out, the farm employs the use of several acres of rented land in and around the community that boast a hearty silt loam and three-to-five feet of topsoil in some areas. Dave says some of their new neighbors skeptically considered them “hobby farmers.” He says the turning point came when a curious fellow farmer wanted to see for himself what they were up to. Dave says he knew they were in when the elderly neighbor declared, “That don’t look like no hobby to me!”
No, growing over 50 types of vegetables and fruits hardly constitutes a hobby farm. In fact, one significant area of growth for the farm has been the creation of their organic seed potato production, the only organically certified source for seed potatoes in the Midwest.
Dave explained the evolution of their potato operation and why it was important to pursue. “It was more of a decision related to an expectation that our oldest son would want to farm. I looked into [potato growing] and was told by the people ‘in-the-know’ that we couldn’t do it because we’re organic. So, they gave me an opportunity to do it and I proved them wrong.” Vermont Valley Community Farm currently grows four acres of potatoes and, depending on the variety, yields over 25,000 pounds per acre.
As a state, Wisconsin grows a significant amount of potatoes, mostly in the Antigo area of northern Wisconsin where the soil is naturally very sandy. Asked if there was something special about the soil here in southeastern Wisconsin for growing potatoes, David said, “Potatoes like a lot of fertility and consistent moisture. They are generally grown in sand for purposes of harvest-ease. We don’t have sand here, but what that does is, our potatoes [have] way, way better flavor. Also, the commercial guys, their prices are horrible [because] they strictly make money on volume, so they pump up the volume with the nitrogen fertilizers and water to get big yields to make some money. We’re in a different situation where we get a reasonable price for the potatoes, so we don’t have to crank the yield, and the net result is we’re growing in a silt loam in an organic system and they just taste a lot better.” Vermont Valley Community Farm is currently growing seven varieties of potatoes: Gold Rush, Russet, Yukon Gold, Corola, Dark Red Norland, Purple and French Fingerling.
A quick survey of the farm reveals a well-appointed packing area in the lower level of the large barn, two cold-frame greenhouses, a bevy of farm equipment and one defunct corn silo. “Potatoes are sort of a specialized operation because if you’re going to do any volume at all, you’ll end up with a lot of equipment that’s specialized to potatoes, Dave concluded, pointing to the large potato harvester resting across the field. The interior of the old barn features several improvements, including the installation of large walk-in coolers and air-regulated potato storage rooms. The storage rooms are continually making use of outside air to control the temperature and humidity. Dave says a large amount of heat is generated by the potatoes during storage and it’s necessary to keep them between 38-40 degrees. He says, “Generally, I have heat as a backup, but I don’t ever need it because they generate so much heat.” Because harvested potatoes are still very much alive, they also require a high amount of humidity during storage to retain their weight and quality throughout the winter.
Asked about a typical day on the farm, Dave said, “When you live where you work and you work where you live, then as soon as you roll out of bed, actually before you roll out of bed, you’re already working.” He and Barb generally begin each day assessing everything that needs to be done, between assembling harvested produce for the CSA boxes, to tilling, planting, watering or harvesting. Somewhere between all of those duties and hours of work are two people, loving their life and living out their love of farming.
For more information about
Vermont Valley Community Farm, log onto their website (at www.vermontvalley.com) or call them at (608) 767-3860.