Peacefully Organic Produce is proud to be the first ever Veteran-led community supported agriculture (CSA) and farm in the Madison area. They aim to provide a peaceful place for Veterans to return home, learn about organic agriculture, and build a stronger community around their food supply.
Tell me a little bit about Peacefully Organic Produce.
Well, this is my first year in ownership of a farm business. I don’t own the land, but I lease 16 acres outside Madison. Last year, I was managing the farm on this property, but this year, with my partner Steph, we reestablished it as Peacefully Organic. We actually just had our first two deliveries last week and the week before for our CSA members! We are the state’s first veteran-led farm, and the majority of the workers here are veterans, including myself. We are trying to establish a vocational rehab program, both for veterans who were farmers before serving and those who want to get into farming for the first time. Some of our veterans participate in compensated work therapy, because they are experiencing disabilities that prevent them from normal employment. They come out a few days a week just to work a little bit and get paid a little bit, but they’re not expected to go out and start their own business because of their disabilities. We also try to identify veterans who want to get into farming for the first time. Maybe they’re a bit disenfranchised and are looking to get to a place where they can be around other veterans and not have to explain everything they’re feeling, or maybe they are just looking for somewhere they fit in and feel comfortable. When I returned from the military, I didn’t really have a place to go. Over 70 percent of veterans from Wisconsin are from rural communities, so the farm is a good fit for them.
Did you come from a farming family or did you get into later in life?
I came from a farming family. I was raised on a dairy farm with Holsteins, and my partner, Todd, also comes from a farming background.
Tell me more about your path from knowing you wanted to farm to actually owning your own farm.
So, I got out of the service at the end of 2008 and transitioned right into college. In May 2013, I got my civil-structural engineering degree from University of Wisconsin Platteville, but I realized pretty quickly that living in a cubicle as a engineer for the rest of my life just wasn’t a good fit. I started looking around, and that’s when I met Stephanie. We were both already CSA members and decided that we wanted to pursue our own CSA farm. We started by searching for jobs on farms, but I got lucky and was offered a management position that ended up morphing very quickly into ownership.
What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced starting your own farm? And how did you overcome them?
I would have to say capitalizing the venture. I was starting a farm from scratch, more or less, so even with what Steph was willing to contribute, the business loan I received and grant funding, the money goes really quickly. Buying equipment and setting up infrastructure alone are very expensive. Then when you add seed and certification costs, fuel cost and labor, things get to be spread very thin. Because of that, finding the capital to get all of the things we needed just to get started was hard.
What has been the most rewarding part of purchasing your own farm?
Every Wednesday when we deliver shares of fresh, organic produce directly to families and know that they’re going to take it home to feed their families healthy food that doesn’t have pesticides and sprays and all of that other stuff. That feels great. Also, being able to go out in my fields, harvest produce and have it cooking on the grill ten minutes later is pretty nice.
Were you always an organic farm or did you transition from conventional to organic?
Growing up, my family ran a conventional dairy until I was 9 or 10. We then transitioned to organic, but shortly after that I had to move off of the farm due to family reasons. When I started Peacefully Organic, the land that we farmed on had been in transition for four years, and this year we took another nine and a half acres back from a conventional farm and are transitioning those to organic as well. The certification for those acres should actually be in the mail right now, as we speak!
We chose to grow organically because we believe it is much healthier for both our consumers and the environment. I standby and watch as the “conventional” farmer around us has to repeatedly spray his fields with round-up, chemical fertilizers, and insecticides. This type of farming leaves the farmer in the pocket of large GMO seed and chemical companies. I still don’t understand why there are so many regulations governing the production of Organic agriculture, yet the conventional farmer isn’t required to disclose the fact that they apply poison on food…but I digress.
What are the biggest issues facing farmers today?
In the past two years, my observation is that conventional farmers are feeling so much pressure from seed and chemical companies. They’re forcing them to use a certain kind of practice that is detrimental to the environment,the topsoil and the food they produce. It’s not good. I can show you evidence from my own farm, just from two fields. One was used to harvest GMO corn for four years, and the other has been used for organic produce. One set of soil is crap, and the other set is fantastic. Seed and chemical companies place so much pressure on farmers to use the practices that destroy land.
What do you think is the most hopeful or exciting thing happening in the organic food and farming community right now?
For me, it’s how many people are reaching out to our farm to help. Veterans and non- veterans alike want to see us be successful. Besides that, most of the organic CSA farmers that I’m meeting these days are under 30, so the future of organic faming has a lot of potential. I really think that the mindset about our food is changing with our generation, and that’s exciting.
What made you apply for the Your 2 Cents grant and how do you see it helping your business?
Free money is never a bad thing! So it’s partly that, and partly that I like making new connections – hopefully long term – that can be reciprocated in some way, whether directly to the Institute or through our practices and to our consumers. We used the funds we were given to purchase organic cover crop to transition our new fields to organic status, and also to purchase more seed fo the rest of the year. We really wanted to be able to do more with the acres that we have instead of having to wait a year or two to do those things, and having the funds for cover crops will certainly speed that up. We’re just very appreciative for what we’ve been able to do so far.
What is one tool you couldn’t live without?
The one tool I absolutely could NOT live without would be my potato hiller/buster. Last year, we had to dig up roughly a half acre of potatoes with forks and people-power….never again.