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Garden to Be Community Farm

Things have changed in the five years since we visited Garden To Be Community Farm on our Annual Farm Tour. For one, there’s the new addition of a baby boy named Julian. And, there’s a switch in focus from CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) shares to greenhouse micro greens, which are seedlings of various vegetables and greens harvested after they form their first true leaves. One thing that hasn’t changed is the enthusiasm April Yancer and Scott Williams have for their farm which is situated in the gently rolling hills of Southwestern Wisconsin near Mt. Horeb.

Of the switch to micro greens, Scott says, “There’s a little more flexibility and, being first time parents, we were concerned about the commitment we knew that would take and also the commitment that a CSA would take. With restaurants and Willy Street Co-op, we knew that if we needed to take a week off, that’s a reasonable request for most customers, but to take a week off in the summer for a CSA member who’s already paid you, was impossible. At the same time, we started to gear up our greenhouse and started doing year-round production of micro greens and, more recently, wheat grass.”

Deciding on micro greens
Asked how they decided specifically on growing micro greens, Scott explains, “Part of it was, we had the greenhouses [and] it’s an asset that we were only using part of the year. We built it primarily to be our transplant starter, for our onions, our tomatoes, all of our field crops. So we needed those three months [but] we often were only using about a half to a third of the greenhouse for those things. I’d been intrigued with micro greens for quite a number of years before we’d actually done them. I knew there were a couple of businesses around the country that were doing it and a couple of places in Wisconsin who were experimenting with it and none had gotten it to a consistent scale. Then, once we started doing it, it immediately took hold. Even customers we started working with [on field crops] are buying more [micro greens] and we’re constantly getting calls from people with restaurants out of town wanting to know how they can get the micro greens. They really love it. More and more chefs recognize and are seeing [the] reality that you can source your food locally and it’s no longer a far out dream.”

Delegating tasks
April and Scott each manage their full-time farm jobs by delegating tasks to suit their individual needs. Of her work on the farm in the greenhouse compared to Scott’s work tending field crops, April says, “It’s a different responsibility. It’s much more regimented. So, it’s really predictable for the most part and it’s really close to the house so I that I can negotiate taking care of Julian and taking care of the greenhouse. We kind of station it—I have the greenhouse, the wash station and Julian-care, and Scott has the fields, so it does narrow down what I’m responsible for in terms of business stuff and it just sort of streamlines, so that’s really wonderful.”

Varieties of micro greens
Garden To Be currently features four varieties of micro greens at Willy Street Co-op, but they are growing around 20 distinct varieties for their customers throughout the Madison area. Some of the varieties change with the seasons even though it’s a greenhouse, but some micro greens actually do prefer colder temperatures. In early August, the focus is on sunflower sprouts, pea vines, wheat grass, even brassica (a member of the mustard family), and the ever-popular radish sprouts. The Farmhouse Blend (available in the Produce department) is a rotating mixture of various greens which allows April and Scott to introduce some of the more expensive greens (requested by chefs) to consumers who might not be familiar with a particular green.

Packaging for the environment
After harvesting, the fresh cut greens are packed at the farm into non-vented containers. Mindful of their impact on the environment and trying to minimize that effect as much as possible, Scott and April have switched their packaging to 100 percent corn-based containers to avoid using petroleum-based plastics. Most of the area chefs who use their micro greens buy them by the flat (a long, shallow tray) and store them in their coolers. Scott says this will keep the greens steady, but they won’t grow much and the chefs can cut from them as they need to. For individual packages, Scott says the best way to prolong the life of the greens is, after removing each portion of the cut greens from the package, reseal the package and put it back into the fridge. He and April say they’ve been able to store sunflower shoots in their fridge for up to two weeks, but 10 days is probably more realistic as this is a very fresh product.

Favorite preparations
If you’re unfamiliar with how to prepare or serve micro greens, April and Scott have some favorite recipes which might be helpful or enticing even if you are familiar with these flavor giants in tiny packages. April’s current favorite is the Farmhouse Blend, spiced pecans (from the Co-op), sesame stix and fresh goat cheese with a little bit of goddess dressing and sliced tomatoes. She proclaims, “I eat it everyday and I can’t get enough of it.” Scott adds, “My standing favorite is an egg salad sandwich with the radish micro greens. That’s really good.” April eagerly adds, “Tacos with radish [greens],” and Scott quickly follows with, “The Farmhouse mix with a soft cheese, like a fresh goat or a gorgonzola with a wedge of lime squeezed on it.”

A strong start
These tiny flavor powerhouses are given every advantage during their 7-to-21 day growing period on Garden To Be’s MOSA-certified farm. The greenhouse along with a partially covered outdoor lean-to area can accommodate about 350 flats per week during the summer months. Scott and April rely on organically certified seeds and an organic, sterile potting mix from Vermont. Scott says they have been researching more local sources, but the need for weed-free, organic potting soil is essential for their operation and, so far, there have been very few options with the same consistent qualities from local vendors.

Heating with corn
In Wisconsin where winters are never mild, the need to heat local greenhouses is typically satisfied by the use of propone furnaces. However, three years ago Garden To Be was awarded a grant from the Frontera Farmer Foundation (a la Chef Rick Bayless) to purchase a corn burner, which has significantly reduced their use of propane and the expenses associated with it. Burning dried corn kernels, which can be purchased from the local feed mill, the propane heater is now used only as a back up. “The hopper holds three bushels,” Scott explains of the corn burner, “and typically it’ll vary between burning an entire two bushels a day and sometimes three bushels will last us a week. Sunny days in here in January can still get up to 70 degrees [in the greenhouse]. It does require some attention [but] it’s really nice to know that we’re using a fuel that’s grown in our neighborhood.”

April and Scott say the exhaust from the heater smells a lot like popcorn and has hardly any emissions. Scott explains, “It works like a high efficiency furnace that someone might have in their house as opposed to a wood stove where you have to have a certain clearance above for your CO2 emissions, where with a corn burner you can just side vent them.

Building community
The past few years have also brought about a better sense of understanding and mutual respect in this farming community where mainly conventional farmers ply their trade. Of her recent experiences in the community April shares, “People are excited to see that there are younger generations making a living on farming so it’s really exciting for older people that there’s a lot of new younger farmers moving into our area. Some of the older farmers will stop in when they see something coming in like the beets and they’ll say to me, ‘Oh, that reminds me of when I was a kid and my grandmother did an acre for our whole family,’ so there’s a lot of nostalgia for them and in their lifetime, in terms of farming and family lifestyle, things have really moved away from growing your own food.”

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