The Virtuoso of Artisanal Producers
Owner, grower and producer, Mark Olson of Spring Green’s Renaissance Farm has a rich history with farming and was already a dynamic part of the organic growing movement when he created his first product-- basil pesto--in 1985. Mark is a second generation Dane County Farmers’ Market vendor, and he, or someone in his family, has been vending at the market since it began in 1972. The original family business, Oakhouse Bakery, has since been sold but the Olson family (which includes nine children) grew up sharing the baking and vending at the Market each Saturday. In addition, they grew their own food, raised livestock and made butter and yogurt. Baking was another way Mark came to appreciate farming life and living close to the land.
Now Mark primarily farms basil for his Renaissance Farm products on nearly all sand only 60 yards from the Wisconsin River in Spring Green. Consciously and unconventionally, Mark selected this land where the water table rests 12 feet below the ground and is essentially an extension of the river. “When you grow on sand...the downside is you have to irrigate,” but on the upside, Mark says, “I love farming on the prairie. I have to irrigate, but the weed control is really easy. You pull a weed and it comes out by the roots and it’s done. The way I harvest, by just taking the very top, the field has to be virtually weed-free.” Mark trims less than two inches of growth at each trimming from the Genovese basil plants throughout the season, which helps the plants recover and maintain a desirable flavor and texture for future harvests. “It’s a finicky product. Basil’s really fragile, and you have to treat it in a very certain way,” he adds. Using a combination of hand-clipping and machinery, Mark can continually harvest throughout the growing season until there isn’t enough daylight to maintain new growth and the plants are plowed back into the soil. Then, legumes (beans) are grown on the field, only to be plowed back into the soil to restore nitrogen before another basil planting can occur.
Only a few miles from his fields in Spring Green’s growing industrial section, the Renaissance Farm
office and kitchen is housed in a 3,500 square-foot reclaimed and rebuilt structure that was once owned by a local high school. After purchasing the parts and putting the building back together six years ago, Mark finished the interior of the building using reclaimed and recycled materials including steel garage doors, which were unrolled, laid end to end and installed along one wall to separate the kitchen from the office portion of the building. Having only rented “off-hours” kitchen space for the first part of his company’s history, Mark was ready to settle into a kitchen of his own and maximize its efficiency.
An expansive space, the kitchen is a filled with a long list of specialized equipment to make quick work of preparing or packaging Renaissance Farm’s products. Mark admits that he’s a lover of ebay and auctions for finding more efficient tools to improve production and reduce waste. Bottling or producing approximately two to three days per week, Mark and his only part-time employee—his sister—are able to package around 180 bottles per batch and generally run six to twelve batches per session with only one hour of setup time and two hours of clean up time.
Renaissance Farm’s first product in 1985, the still popular frozen Basil Pesto, was first sold from his stall at the Dane County Farmers’ Market and a few retail locations including the Willy Street Co-op. Later he developed Lemon Basil Pesto, Cilantro Pesto, Sun-dried Tomato Pesto, Spicy Cilantro Pesto, Spicy Thai Pesto and even a Dairy-Free Pesto (great for grilling, without the burning cheese), all made from herbs grown by Mark. Asked about his process for recipe development, Mark enthusiastically states, “All of my new products go through my daughter! She wasn’t there when I started but she has a phenomenal palate and she’s 19 now.” More recently Renaissance Farm released several more products including herb-infused olive oils, pesto vinaigrettes and pasta salad dressings. After passing a taste test with his daughter, Mark says, “I have to like it. If I didn’t like it, it’d be pretty hard to do.” The next step is producing it in a way that stays true to its taste while remaining reasonably priced. He says, “And then a big part of [creating a recipe] is rolling it into production. The recipe is one thing, but if you can’t scale it, it doesn’t do you any good.”
Mark is also active in the history of the organic food movement in Wisconsin. He was the first president of the Wisconsin Chapter of the Organic Crop Improvement Association (OCIA), on the Board for the Dane County Farmers’ Market, co-creator of the first organic dairy standards adopted by OCIA and was a working partner in the early development of CROPP. Therefore, it might come as a surprise that Renaissance Farm products are not certified organic by the National Organic Program. “It was a very conscious decision,” Mark says. “I was limited about how I could talk about it on my label...the other thing is the actual bookkeeping and the costs. It takes,” (holding up his thumb and index finger about four inches apart to illustrate the amount of paperwork needed to become certified and laughs as he continues) to get certified. It’s a tome! And I am not a bookkeeper kind of guy, so as I grow and there’s staff here who can do that, then it’s the logical next choice, but it doesn’t change the way I farm. I just can’t legally [label as organic].”
Mark describes himself as a “Virtuoso of Artisanal Producers,” but his farm/business is just one of a larger group of producers who are a long way from having a federally mandated program to verify their authenticity. This and other farms across the country represent a large segment of producers who may be as committed to quality and sustainability as their certified organic neighbors, yet have made the choice to forego organic certification for a number of their own reasons. Renaissance Farm falls squarely into that category of growers and producers who are choosing not to become certified organic.
Having watched the trends in natural and organic foods for the last forty years, Mark sees a parallel between the organic food movement and his own company. He says, “Movements are like waves. I body surf, so I know what it’s like to sit out there and wait for the perfect wave and when the perfect wave comes you have to do something or it’ll just go right past you. So, when I see a movement coming that excites me, I say, ‘What’s the structure? What’s the foundation you can build under [it] that that will remain after the wave goes?’ You can apply that to certified organic dairy as well. The time was really ripe, so [we got] together a group of people and said, ‘What can we do with this energy that’s here? There seems to be an opportunity, let’s take advantage of it.’”
“I’m at a point now where it’s just so much fun, because I’ve been here long enough, I’ve got a good reputation, I’ve got a history and I know all these people and I can see these things falling into place and it’s like a recipe.”
You can find their vinaigrettes and frozen pesto at the Co-op.