Who exactly are the local organic farmers who supply the Willy Street Co-op Produce department? This is an important question for our Owners, and for me personally. As the Produce Manager of our new store in Middleton, it’s my business to know our farmers well, and also to make sure my staff are familiar with the farms we work with so that they can tell the farmers’ stories to our customers.

With this in mind, I led a group of key Willy West Produce staff on several days of farm tours this October. We were lucky to catch some of the most beautiful autumn weather in memory. Not surprisingly, we had a blast; and while it was sometimes hard to believe that we were actually at work, the tours proved to be even more interesting and beneficial than I had imagined.

In total, we visited eight farms: Troy Community Farm, WestStar Farm, Yesteryear Farm, Garden to Be, Vermont Valley, Tipi Produce, Keewaydin Organics, and Harmony Valley Farm. Going from one farm to another, we were struck by the incredible diversity of local agriculture in Southern Wisconsin: from Troy, a small urban farm on Madison’s North Side with only one employee and several interns; to Harmony Valley, a large and bustling farm with 50 employees located way off the beaten path in Wisconsin’s beautiful Driftless region.

Large or small, and regardless of which crops were in the ground, each of the farms we visited is certified organic, and each is dedicated first and foremost to building and sustaining the fertility of their soil. Almost every farm utilizes cover-cropping to build their soil, and they all had a system of rotating their crops so that the ground will not be overtaxed year after year.

Not only did we get a first-hand view of the skill with which our farmers practice their craft, but we were able to make a personal connection with each of them that just doesn’t happen during the normal course of business. The Produce department is a busy place, and our contact with farmers is usually limited to email, phone, and brief conversations when they deliver to us. Actually getting out and talking with farmers in their fields opened up a completely new facet to our relationships.

We harvested scarlet turnips with Richard DeWilde from Harmony Valley; we witnessed the crew at Tipi Produce harvest their famous carrots; we crept up on two grazing Sandhill Cranes with Claire from Troy Community Farm; and we were treated to an unexpected homegrown meal by Jason and Jeanelle Thimmesch, the farmers who grow our chard for Keewaydin Organics.

It was a wonderful experience that we will be sure to repeat in years to come. Without exception, the farmers we visited were delighted that we had taken the time, and we were astounded by the level of expertise that each farmer approached his or her craft.