Steve Pincus from Tipi Produce

Combining the best in science and farming and with a passion for both, Tipi Produce in Evansville, Wisconsin is reaping the rewards of its eighth year in organic soil management. Owners Beth Kazmar and Steve Pincus are joined on their new farm by a growing ensemble of old and new farmers this season, who have produced roughly 45 crops on 45 acres for their 665 CSA (community supported agriculture) households and a busy wholesale produce business.

Over the past 20-plus years, Tipi Produce has been a consistently visible farm in the Co-op’s Produce and Deli departments (it is now also in our Juice Bar and Kitchen). Since it had been seven long years since we’d featured Tipi (just months after relocating the farm from Fitchburg, WI in 2002) in the Reader, the Produce team felt we were overdue for an update on how much the farm has progressed. Andy Johnston, Produce Manager for Willy Street Co-op, commented recently about his experience working with Tipi Produce, “Not only is Tipi one of the longest vendor relationships we’ve had at the Co-op, they are one of the most professional. From the quality of their produce to the packaging and delivery staff, it’s a pleasure to do business with them.”

On a recent visit, Steve and Beth sat at their kitchen table and took time to elaborate on some of the changes and improvements since purchasing the 76-acre farm in 2002. Among the accomplishments in soil biology and farm infrastructure since that time, their ability to retain a solid number of long-term employees has, at least figuratively, made it also to their “win” column. From a couple of seasons to 14 years, Steve and Beth have hired or re-hired 22 employees this year to keep pace with the farm’s many crops. Beth says they chose the nearby community of Evansville to relocate the farm because, as she says, “We wanted these long-term employees to continue to come to the farm. If we went too far, we would lose all of them.” At least four employees from the Fitchburg site are still a valued part of their operation.

Up and at ’em

Because many of their employees live in Madison, Tipi Produce also subsidizes carpooling for the crews who choose to begin arriving between 6:00am and 9:00am for their shifts. Shortly before crews arrive, Steve begins to prepare for their day by first attending to their two young children and preparing them for their day. Then he’s on to making lists of work to be done around the farm. He is later assisted by senior employees who also lead work crews and aid in crop management. Beth explained, “We have a set-up where employees can, over time, take responsibility, and we’ve got a group here who are eager for it and can take responsibility, which I hope is why we have so many who come back.” Later in the day, Steve may be seen filling any number of roles on the farm, including machinery repairs or maintenance and cultivating.

Beth’s day is devoted largely to managing the farm’s payroll and sold-out CSA. Because the couple is able to clearly divide roles on the farm, they admit they’re are able to be more productive. However, Beth is never far from the crops and finds soil biology “endlessly interesting,” including watching for and organically controlling any destructive pests that may appear on some crops.

Take a load off

During a tour of their fields, a crew is moving through two to three rows of summer and pattypan squash at one time. Down the long rows of plants, the walking crew picks then passes each squash onto a long, side-mounted conveyor belt where they’re carried up to a flatbed trailer and a young man sorts them into corresponding buckets. The woman driving the tractor pulls the trailer and conveyor steadily down the row before towing the full load back to the newly renovated packing shed where the squash will be washed and packed.

“I think the philosophy is to keep making it a better place to work,” Steve says. “My job is to make sure my employees have what they need to do their jobs successfully. That means the tools and equipment, the information they need so they have the big picture—that the farm is successful in the sense that what they’re doing is worthwhile, that the produce that they helped grow gets sold, gets eaten and is good quality, and that they get enough pay to support their lives and that they don’t work themselves to death. We basically work 9:00am to 5:30pm, five days a week, Monday through Friday, so we keep our employees to a 40-hour week.”

More carrot, less stick

Choosing to grow carrots, the largest and perhaps most iconic crop from Tipi Produce, is another way in which the farm is able to retain long-term employees. By providing year-round work washing, packaging and delivering carrots and other root crops stored in one of the large on-farm coolers, five part-time staff positions were extended throughout the winter last year. Tipi Produce also supplies the Co-op with beets and cabbage well into the winter months or while supplies last.

But growing great, flavorful carrots is no accident. Beth adds that Steve has made a “two-decade investment in finding the right varieties and testing almost every variety out there.” Of the long process, she continued, “Figuring out the right machinery, buying the right machinery, adapting the machinery, building the storage capabilities, improving our ability to wash and handle them,” she concluded, has helped to sustain the farm and their ability to employ staff through the seasons. She says, “they [carrots] grow really well on this farm, because of our lighter soils here. They’re easier to harvest and they just do really well.”

‘Secret’s in the soil’

After farming in Fitchburg for 14 years, Steve knew the limitations and potential of that soil, which was high-fertility prairie soil but heavy and wet. So while they were conducting their three-year search for new land to settle on and own, Steve spent hours poring over county soil survey maps that included each area’s qualities and water sources. Once they’d made a decision to purchase the former Amish farm, which had been dormant for some years, they quickly received their MOSA certification and began a process of feeding the soil with organic cover crops.

It took a while to see the results they were looking for. Steve says, “The farm keeps improving, like a good organic farm should. When it was our first years here, the soil quality was just mediocre. The organic cycles weren’t working in the soil yet and by about the fifth year, it started to come together. And it’s better, so that crop health and quality is better, because the soil is better and we know it. These soils are really different than any other farm than I’ve ever used so it took a while to figure out just what its strengths were.”

For more information

For more information about Tipi Produce, you can use Google to search for several interesting sites featuring their farm, including farmfreshatlas.org, localharvest.org and even youtube.com! Be sure to stop by the Produce department for some of their delicious produce!