By Mike Roemer
Every Saturday from May to October Suzy Sivertson wakes up early and gets her produce ready to take to the Eau Claire farmers market. Before she arrives at along the confluence of the Eau Claire and Chippewa rivers, Sivertson stops by Oak Leaf Clinic to drop off in-season vegetables to members of her farm’s community sponsored agriculture (CSA) subscribers.
“I really enjoy running our farm’s CSA, because it makes me feel connected with the local businesses, and chefs, and the everyday people that get produce from our farm,” Sivertson said.
For the past three years Sievertson has operated the CSA at Haaken Hills Farm in Eau Claire, with her husband and the rest of the family. In all there are three generations involved in the farm, with the youngest being the backbone of the operation.
“This was kind of the brainchild of our youngest daughter’s husband,” Sivertson said. “He always wanted to do a CSA. We started out very small, just the six of us, it really is a family-run operation.”
Despite the recent trend of locally run farms in Wisconsin closing, CSA’s in the Chippewa Valley are on the rise.
Haaken Hills Farm sits on five acres of land down the road from Chippewa Valley Growers. According to Sivertson the farm has been expanding each of the last three growing seasons. And next year they hope to expand the farming operation to a full two acres.
The CSA runs 22 weeks of the year, and features produce specific to the summer, cool, and late harvest seasons. Customers can sign up on their website and have the options of different “shares” and where they pick up the produce.
Sivertson says that CSA’s benefit both the consumer and the farmer because it creates a connection that buying produce from a supermarket cannot.
“It definitely brings our family closer together, because we get along really well and really enjoy doing the work,” said Sivertson. “And for the members, we use all organic principles in our farm. They get anywhere from 10 to 14 different vegetables each week, that are picked that morning.”
A goal of Sivertson’s is to become certified organic next year. In order to be certified a farm has to grow through three growing seasons using all organic pesticides. After this growing season Haaken Hills Farm is able to become certified by the USDA.
In the United States and Canada CSA’s are a relatively new agriculture movement. They started to become popular in the early 1990’s.
The roots of community sponsored agriculture can be traced back to Japan. “Teikei,” which translates to “partnership” or “cooperation” was started by a group of Japanese women concerned with the use of dangerous pesticides, imported processed foods, and the decrease in the number of local farms.
The dairy industry in Wisconsin has been most affected by large commercial farming, according to local farmer Aaron Ellringer.
“In Wisconsin we are seeing one to three farms statewide close everyday,” said Ellringer.
According to the State Journal in 2014, 800 small farms in Wisconsin and the USDA’s latest report shows almost 400 farms lost in 2015. These numbers were considered low by the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS).
In 2016 the total land for farms in Wisconsin dropped 100,000 acres according to NASS. Almost all of the land was due to small farm closures.
Ellringer says that many of the problems are due to small local farms not being able to keep up with the larger factory farms that have popped up across the state. He says that the issue with factory farms are the unsustainable farming practices used and the amount of pollution in the waste coming from the animals.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) a 2,000-cow dairy farm generates more than 240,000 pounds of manure daily or nearly 90 million pounds a year. The USDA also estimates just 200 milking cows produce as much nitrogen as sewage from a community of 10,000 people.
Local Farmers Standing Strong
Many farms in the Chippewa Valley have resisted the temptation to sell farms to large corporations. Local CSA subscriptions are increasing every year and there are 19 independent CSA’s in the Chippewa Valley as of 2017. There are many dairy farms in the area that use sustainable farming practices, much like the CSA’s do.
Nik Novak and Ellringer, both with Just Local Foods. Credit local farms, such as the Deutsch Farm for their consistency with product.
“A great thing about local farms like this, (Deutsch Farm) is that they are consistent with getting their pork to market every week,” said Novak. “And you can expect that it is fresh.”
The Deutsch Farm is not part of a CSA, but they do implement many sustainable farming practices. Their 160-acre farm is certified organic and the Deutsch’s are committed to antibiotic, and hormone free pork. According to Lou Deutsch, son, the farm is starting to branch out into other areas of farming.
“I took an interest in dairy cattle so my parents bought us a couple cows and now we have 40,” said Deutsch.
Along with the dairy cattle, the Deutsch’s also raise chickens for eggs and have one bull on the farm.
Products from the Deutsch Family Farm can be found in restaurants and grocery stores in Eau Claire such as The Lakely, The Informalist, and Just Local Foods.
As the amount of factory farms increase around the state, this trend seems to be slower in catching on in the Chippewa Valley with subscriptions to CSA’s rising and more individuals, like Ellringer, are starting to farm on their own.
“Processed foods at the store may be cheaper; I have no problem spending the extra money to make sure I know that I’m supporting a local farmer when I’m buying groceries,” Ellringer said.
Going at it Alone
While many farms across the state are family-run or employ outside help, there are some farms that are individually run. Square Roots Farm in Osseo is one of those farms. Like Haaken Hills Farm, Square Roots sells produce to local restaurants and runs its own CSA.
Square Roots Farm is located in-between Fall Creek and Osseo and sits on a 40 acre “square.” According to Lau that was how the name of his farm came about.
“My wife is a teacher so in the summer it’s nice to have her help, but when school starts it’s pretty much just me out here,” says Lau. “Whenever I have a question about the cows she will help, but during the school year it’s just me working.”
This is Lau’s fourth year running a CSA. Before moving to Fall Creek, Lau earned a degree from the University of Minnesota, in agricultural ecology, and interned on farms along the East Coast. That’s how he became familiar with community supported agriculture.
“After college, I started to get more involved with agriculture, and Michael Collins’ book, An Omnivore’s Dilemma, had come out, and people started to realize that agriculture affects the environment, so I became involved with how I can make the environment better,” Lau said.
Lau’s college advisor connected him with a vegetable farmer in Connecticut where he worked on a CSA for two years. After interning in Connecticut, Lau help a friend start her farm, and worked on a farm in Arkansas, Wisconsin, before deciding to start Square Roots Farm.
In the community, Square Roots sells produce to Just Local Food and also participates in special dinners hosted by farm-to-table restaurants in Eau Claire. Lau says that these events, like the Lakely Loves series, allows the community to put a face to the farm whose food they are eating.
Square Roots Farm grows over 60 different vegetables and is 100 percent organic. Lau hopes that his farm will be certified organic by the start of next year’s growing season, and says sustainable farming practices is key to lowering the carbon footprint of farms.
“The way like to think about it is that when people sign up for a CSA, they’re helping support the local farm, and then they are getting their vegetables for free,” Lau said.
Both Sievertson and Lau agree that without the “donations” of the CSA subscribers, they wouldn’t be able to operate their farms. In the coming years Lau says that he expects to see more of the local farms turn to the CSA model.