Angela Pohlman: How long has your farm been established? How did it start?
Mark Voss: My curiosity about farming began when I was 22 years old and a Peace Corps volunteer in Togo, West Africa. I worked with subsistence farmers and learned a great respect for working the land. I grew my first crops in Togo with neighbors and friends. It was an amazing learning experience. My next farming foray was in Japan. I lived and taught English there for a year and borrowed some land from a local farm family. They taught me a lot about Japanese farming approaches, and I shared with them what I had learned in Togo. It was a great exchange. I have to mention that while I lived in Japan, I met the great agricultural thinker and philosopher Masanobu Fukuoka. He wrote a seminal book called The One-Straw Revolution—check it out.
When I returned to the U.S. in 1993, I applied to be a farming apprentice on a biodynamic CSA near Michael Fields Agricultural Institute in East Troy, WI—another formative experience. The next season, I joined several other recent apprentices and formed Drumlin Community Farm in Deerfield, WI. We farmed three rented acres and had a 60-member CSA that first year. We held many celebrations on the beautiful drumlin that gave the farm its name. Unfortunately, the landowner raised the rent on the house and adjoining land we were farming, so we moved Drumlin Community Farm to the south side of Madison and expanded our rented acreage and membership over the next few seasons. I left Drumlin in good hands in 1997 and moved to Viroqua with my newlywed wife, Michelle, to form Avalanche Organics on 10 rented acres with good farming friends and gifted farmers James and Kristen Welch.
Land tenure again became an issue and Michelle and I moved back to Madison to farm on five rented acres in Cottage Grove. We named our new farm Voss Organics. This was a great piece of land and close to Madison where we lived and marketed our products. Unfortunately, on Memorial Day weekend of 1999, an herbicide drift occurred on my newly planted acreage and I self reported to my organic certifier, MOSA. My crops were no longer marketable as organic and the land needed to rest for three years to be certified again. The seedlings inside the greenhouses in Cottage Grove, however, were safe from the drift and able to be marketed as organic. A seedling business was born.
In those days, the Co-op leased patio space to Liza Lightfoot from Avant Gardening. Liza contracted with me to grow certified organic seedlings, which she sold along with many other cool products for the home and garden in her shop on the Co-op patio. When Avant Gardening’s pop-up shop moved on, the Co-op contracted with me directly to grow organic seedlings. In the meantime our family was growing with the birth of our son and our daughter on the way, so Michelle and I bought a house with some land near town and continue to grow our seedlings for the Co-op and the Dane County Farmers’ Market and the Northside Farmers’ Market.
AP: What kinds of products do you produce?
MV: Our main products are organic vegetable, herb and edible flower seedlings. We also love growing tomatoes and kale, which we market to Madison’s best restaurants and UW Hospitals.
AP: How long have you been providing for Willy Street Co-op?
MV: We have been a vegetable supplier to the Co-op since 1996 and a seedling supplier since 1999.
AP: What can we expect in the future from Voss Organics?
MV: We are very excited to provide grafted tomato plants this year. Grafted tomato plants have been very popular in Asia for years and are just making inroads here in the States. Our grafted tomato plants include a hardy organic rootstock of a variety called Estimo that lends superior disease resistance and productivity to the plant. The top of the plant—the scion—can be any variety, but we will offer our favorites: Brandywine, Striped German, Cherokee Purple, and Marmande. I grew grafted tomato plants last year in my own gardens and was extremely impressed with their production over a long season. The plants are more expensive because of the labor involved and the fact that each plant is essentially two, but the production more than makes up for the higher price.
AP: Any advice for folks looking to start farming or gardening?
MV: Grow what you love to eat most. You will care for it better. As you become skilled at growing—tomatoes and green beans, for example, you will gain confidence and curiosity and you will add to your repertoire over time. Garden with friends. Ask questions and research. Take risks.
WEST STAR organics
A conversation with Randy & Tanya Kohn of West Star Organics and our own Angela Pohlman, General Merchandise Category Manager.
Angela Pohlman (AP): How long has your farm been established?
Randy & Tanya Kohn (RTK): George and Sandy Kohn started West Star Farm in the mid-’90s. West Star was one of the first farms in Wisconsin to certify organic in 1999. Our first customer was Odessa Piper, former owner of L’Etoile, who asked West Star to provide high quality, locally grown, organic produce for her restaurant. From there, West Star expanded and continued to grow and sell produce at farmers’ markets; wholesale to grocery stores and Co-ops in Madison, Milwaukee, and Minneapolis; and restaurants reaching as far as Chicago. In 2004, Tanya and Randy Kohn (George & Sandy’s daughter-in-law and son) joined West Star. During this time, West Star Farm built additional greenhouses and began offering custom-grown transplants to other organic farmers as well as certified organic spring plants for home gardeners. In 2012, West Star Farm became West Star Organics with a focus and commitment to the greenhouse and nursery operation. Today, West Star Organics is excited for the future of organic gardening and helping people realize the satisfaction and success with growing their own food.
AP: What kinds of products do you produce?
RTK: West Star Organics grows over 220 varieties of certified organic spring bedding plants. We have 60 herb varieties (including medicinal, perennial, and ornamental), 40 vegetable varieties, 50 tomato varieties, 30 pepper varieties, and about 30 flowers. We also have a wide variety of perennial berry bushes, like raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, and a few other unique varieties. To complement the plants, we offer our compost and potting/growing mix. This is the same compost we use in our mix we use from start to finish (seeding to transplanting).
AP How long have you been providing for Willy Street Co-op?
RTK: We are proud to be part of the Willy Street Co-op’s continued growth and success for over 15 years.
AP What can we expect in the future from West Star?
RTK: First and foremost, we will continue to work hard to provide our customers with the highest quality, healthiest certified organic plants. Our success is built on our customers (the home gardener) having successful and fruitful gardens every year. With our focus solely on the greenhouse/nursery operation, we are able to commit all our energy toward providing the best plants, products and services we can. We will continue to support the community, schools and education programs designed to teach about gardening and growing organically. The more we teach and help current and future gardeners grow organically, the more soil will transition to organic. Lastly, we love to experiment with new varieties. Every year, we will have something different and fun to grow. Look for artichokes this year—they are delicious.
AP Any advice for folks looking to start farming?
RTK: There is a lot of enjoyment from growing and harvesting the fruits of your labor. Farming can be challenging but rewarding. Be flexible, yet scheduled. Stay on your schedule, but have a plan to adjust when Mother Nature strikes. Be proactive but quick to react. Take precautions to prevent issues from happening, but be ready to react when necessary to tackle the issue. Understand your costs so that you can make better decisions about what you grow and offer. Be ready to work very hard, long hours when necessary. You are in control, until Mother Nature says you are not, so plan accordingly and prepare properly. Find something you are passionate about and focus to achieve it.
AP Advice for folks looking to start gardening?