Farm Blog

Thank you again for braving the blizzard to celebrate, connect with great food, and 'planting an orchard'! Just imagine all those future cherry trees (don't forget to squat:-).
I am so uplifted from all the good vibes, intentions, laughter and seeds shared and planted.

We were able to raise $850.00 in funds! This will go a long way, thank you! Additionally, with all the seeds donated today and from what I've gleaned from others, The women growers in the Sine-Saloum region will be able to plant out a couple hundred row feet/farm. In the past we've planted shared 'demonstration beds' ie since many of the farmers share space/land to grow on we've constructed seeds beds to trial different varieties, plant insectory herbs and flowers and share techniques. From there seeds are harvested and shared forward amongst the individual farmers. So in essence your generosity helped plant teaching/learning/eating/

sharing beds of veggie, herb, and flower goodness!

I will honor my commitment and extend the immense gratitude, generosity that was shared during the workshop with the women farmers in the following ways:

Work with NCBA CLUSA Farmer to Farmer Program to transfer funds and mail seeds.
I'll also email and share highlights, photos forward later this week in celebration of our workshop success.

I am tentatively set to travel there Nov/Dec. or January in 2016.

I also finally remembered the name of third grower group, JUBO (means widespread). If you're interested in learning more about how they got started, here's a link to an interview I did as part of my last Farmer to Farmer adventure in Senegal.

I Will keep you in the loop as the project evolves and thanks again for sharing your generous spirit!

For the chocolate lovers:
Becky Otte, who made the amazing truffles, has more of her chocolate goodness to share and is selling some of her creations just in time for Valentines. if you're interested send her an email:

Also Here is a link to Roots Chocolate website.

For the Fruit Lovers:

I've enclosed a handout of some of the different fruits we grow at our farm as well as a flyer highlighting this season's events at the farm! We'd love to have you venture out and tour the orchard, come visit us (though not nearly as cool as the orchard poses we did during the workshop).

Thank you again for helping me transition from being a butterfly weed seed (ie wind pollinated, not knowing where or how my intentions, projects might stick) to more of an oak or cashew seeds - wherein I can deepen my awareness, provide support in the same place(s) in Senegal for the growers and in my backyard in Wisconsin:-). Here's to planting the seeds of the as yet to be imagined on and off the yoga mat! Wishing you all much abundance.

Happy Mid-winter!

Yours in hardy kiwi,

PS If you are into exploring the planting side as well as enjoying more local fruit creations, we'll be hosting a Local Fruit Tasting May 16, details on our website.


The Harvest Homestretch

A single nighthawk, batting across the sky one evening last week, was enough to panic us about the end of summer. We’d already been watching the barn swallows getting set to leave. In mid-August, their offspring still romped the skies, swooping for horseflies past our ears, testing one another with their dives. Last week they sat on the wire, carefully watching the sun go down. Next week, the boreal dark one step too near, they will be off and gone.

It seemed a good occasion then to look back briefly on the summer and estimate what the Fall might hold in store before frost chokes the life out of what remains of the garden.

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Getting Started

An annual rite of Spring for many vegetable growers in this area is the Upper Midwest Organic Farming conference which takes place regularly during the last week of February. Some growers insist they won't start seeds until after its yearly passage.

When I originally contemplated taking up community supported agriculture I ventured to what was the first such conference to try and get a grasp on whether CSA was something I should be undertaking in my mid-30s – vegetable production has a reputation for being murderous on the back and joints, as I already knew from gardening, and I wondered if I should be diving into it more fully as I approached middle age. I remember little of the conference but the presence of a number of participants much older than myself was reassuring.

While attending, I stayed with a couple of college friends who had recently moved nearby and started a family. When I reunited with the two of them again recently – after having rarely been in touch over the intervening years – I found myself trying to estimate their children's ages and getting it wildly wrong even after compensating for the passage of time. Not only were they past high school but through college and on into adult life.

Such unpleasant shocks are a hazard of age but a good reminder, at least to me, to be thankful that vegetable farming, whatever its risks to backs and shoulders, has at least one hallmark benefit: unlike other types of agriculture - or employment generally - vegetable growers are effectively dealt a new hand to play every year.

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Avoiding the Hazards: 2018 Retrospective

I've often likened vegetable farming to golf -- each year a completely different course, unknown in its layout and length, with novel demands on one's skill-set, exhilarating to engage (inevitably) no matter how draining and demoralizing the final tee. If this comparison is apt, I can say the back nine were especially hard on us in 2018.

Farming is famous for its yearly gauntlet of perils, primarily involving the vicissitudes of weather and markets. At Hilltop, we can at least be thankful to avoid the latter since we sell primarily retail.

But Nature swings a large bat.

As growers, we hedge against calamity in whatever ways are possible – row-cover in the Spring, seven-foot deer fencing, water-catchments to bridge the droughts, obsessive mulching to hold soil-moisture and protect against pounding rains. Much of our preparation is geared toward managing the hydrologic cycle.

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In the short lull between seasons that we get at the top of the year, my mind is sometimes directed toward the wider landscape in which our CSA and others operate.

Generally unseen by CSA customers are the support organizations that provide help with visibility, marketing, professional development and skill-sharing necessary to the farms which grow their food. Fair-Share, the organization that provides these services in much of southern Wisconsin, is probably familiar to eaters as the sponsor of the annual open-house at which CSA farms advertise their wares to potential clientele. In its earlier years the organization was known as MACSAC (Madison Area CSA Coalition), a group of eaters as well as farmers who came together with a mission to educate the public about sustainable farming issues in order to help kickstart the CSA movement in Madison during the early 1990s. Given the solidarity and general bon ami that exists within the community of CSA practitioners, it might seem hard to imagine that there was a brief period of schism and dissension back in the first decade of the millennium.

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Better late than never.

With squirrely and uncooperative weather from almost start to finish this growing season, analysis of 2017's production – like all the rest the year's work – got pushed back by several weeks. But I've finally had a chance to compile the numbers. They are rather uninspiring.

While this growing season's rains (33.05” in total) were not quite as miserable as 2016 (37.88”), they were still 40% over the historical average for the April through October period. And, as usual, the specific timing of the rains was what was most significant. While last year's deluges came almost exclusively after the middle of August, 2017's were heavily loaded toward planting season – we were already 10 inches ahead of 2016 in the short period from the start of April to the end of June.

Cold weather accompanying the rains in the critical third week of May slowed drying and made soil preparation for popcorn and peppers an ungodly slog, especially since both crops were slated for a section of the garden with heavier, more clay-ish soils.

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Of Tides, Foxtail Lilies, and Vase Life Tips

I woke up from the mystery of the night thinking of flowers and the resurrection of the morning, of tides and foxtails.

Rainwater dreams, muffled by the excitement of distant thunder (maybe Tuesday into Wednesday we will see rain?). This past week was tidal. Washed ashore from Ghana and teaching—beached at the foothills of my flower beds—I traded sand for silt loam between my toes, ripening mangoes for a hearty saskatoon set, and bright pink red hibiscus petals for equally showy peonies. No time to linger, the blossom tides are peaking.

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Keeping Mechanics at Bay

Like my back, our pickup truck creaks a lot more than it used to, but still functions. I take this as an augury that another season of vegetable growing is possible; indeed, with an April share already behind us, it seems to have leapt underway.

Both back and truck are indispensable to the enterprise of farming, though I got along without the second for a number of years simply by using my Geo Metro as a truck instead. I hauled uncountable tons of compost to my farm in it, which eventually led to blowing two of the three cylinders, as you would expect from a vehicle rated at 550 lbs live load. (Incidentally, the car operated fine, if wimpily, on one cylinder). After having the valves replaced I was able to keep hauling compost for several additional years. The setup was fuel efficient and cheap, minus the valve-job.

The '97 Nissan pickup is also often overloaded since this is the most efficient way to move things, though perhaps not cheapest in the long run. Road gravel is the usual cargo which I find myself schlepping a dozen times or more each year from the local materials yard to throw, by shovelfuls, into the ruts which climate change + gravity conspire to carve down the slopes of our driveway.

Farming involves an awful lot of moving things against gravity, so I'm glad my back has lasted. Like the truck, it has slowed down but still moves, so I am thankful.

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CSA - For the Love of Fruit, Flowers, the Land and Community

While I am welcoming the snow's return, don't let the illusion of winter cloud the weather's reality these days. If you're thinking, "'s too early for red-wing blackbirds to arrive at the ponds and too warm for February," yes, you are correct. The 68 degree F high temp this past Wednesday set a new record for the entire month at the Madison reporting station, besting the old mark of 64 degree F set on the 25th back in 2000. (Incidentally, the previous record for the day was 60 degree F, set in 1984). So that's five high temp records in a row, from Saturday February 18 on through Wednesday February 22. It appears from the instrumentation at both the Boscobel and Janesville National Weather Service Sites ---which hit 72 degrees F on Wednesday, that we've set an all-time record for the entire state for the month of February.

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2016 By the Numbers

2016 was a good growing year in many respects.

At 178 days, the frost-free period was exceptionally long, even after a relatively late last-freeze on May 15th. We harvested sweet peppers well into the month of November, after what was already a banner-year for the crop. Potatos also performed spectacularly despite over-planting and tight spacing, cranking out almost 300 calories per square foot. Many warm-season crops were 10 to 14 days earlier than normal. After a couple of beautiful broccoli harvests in late June and early July, we thought we might be headed for another 15-week season like we saw the previous year.

And then the rains came.

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Alphabet Soup of Farming Gratitude

I was out walking 'Up and Down the Hill' with my mother and a friend as part of the La Valle celebration this past summer and we were talking of relationships with our mothers and all the gratitude, headaches, tensions, and celebrations that come with it. My friend shared that in coming to terms with her mother's aging, she and her sister were putting together the ABC's of appreciation –a reflection of what they have learned and learned to appreciate about their mother over the years.

As I tuck in the farm for the winter months, exhaling from the frost-nipped fields, I thought I'd share in the ABC's of all the things that I have learned and appreciated from Mother Earth at the farm community this season beginning with:

Autonomy - and interdependence. Our food forests continue to subtley and not so subtely teach us about how to best design perennial polycultures of multi-purpose plants so we might share resources, create networks of mutual support in growing our own food, fodder, fertility, fuel, 'farm-a-cueticals' and fun. And like our orchard guilds, personally, I farm in part because I enjoy the autonomy in decision making, running a small business, and finding my niche. At the same time I reminded of how much as farmers, we rely on others to grow food in partnership with the land and our community.

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A Look Ahead

As you can tell from looking in your share bag each week, the season so far has been unusual in its pace and general fecundity – cabbages, beets and currants have shown up weeks ahead of schedule; potatos and carrots (July 4 share) are as early as they've ever been; and virtually all remaining crops (cross your fingers) look to be vigorous and likely to produce at, or ahead of, schedule. We can thank June's heat and restrained but adequate rains for much the largesse.

One possible exception is cucumbers. Cucumber beetles – 1/4-inch long yellow- and black-striped sap-sucking insects – have descended on our little patch and begun chewing holes in the leaves. Their damage is not excessive in itself since the insects are so small. But they tend to spread viruses and other pathogens as evidenced by the yellowing and drying of a noticeable fraction of leaves even at this early stage.

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Riding out the bumps and over the hump - CSA Underway

The start of year 23 at Hilltop has had its bumps, but been auspicious in some ways too.

The bumps include the first week of April which managed, with its Siberian cold, to kill our bees after an otherwise successful ride through the Wisconsin winter. In March, the workers thronged the entrance to the hive, enjoying the warm sun and searching for the first apricot blossoms and dandelions to appear. The following week, their exoskeletons poured from the frames of comb in piles as I lifted each from the box that had been their home.

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Flowers on the Vegetable Farm?

Every farmer in her/his career hits the pause button and considers a re-invention. For me it's been steadfast, subtle, and soaks in a mix of the personal to planetary when it comes to optimal growth for our farm and finances. With seeding needs just around the corner, taxes due, body restored from a restful winter and farm plans in tow for the year ahead, I never knew that my farming re-invention would embrace so many F-words! I am moving away from the vegetable realm (my husband Rob's terrain) and honing in more on fruit, food forests, financial footing, and flowers. The latter, flowers, I've been marketing direct through CSA and providing wedding flowers for the past three years -slowly, mindfully This season, I am looking forward to stepping into my new role as Farmer Florist, experimenting with how to take flowers to the next good dance.

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Mid-Season Prospectus

We routinely refer to memberships in CSA farms as “shares,” but until recently the aptness of that terminology hadn't struck me. But the other day I wondered what a CSA “bond” would look like.

In a sense, we already know. There are a number of farms – often larger ones, but not exclusively – which make arrangements to buy-in produce from CSA colleagues or another local farm in the case that certain crops fail or do unusually badly on the home soil. In one way, this may be looked at as simple conscientiousness on the part of the grower, but it is not uncontroversial in CSA circles. Many Community Supported Agriculture traditionalists view the at-risk nature of the buy-in by the member as essential to a model in which the community truly supports the agriculture. With too much guaranteeing by the farmer, the relationship with the eater turns into something more like bond-issuance than the purchase of an equity share. The farmer essentially lines up “backing” (albeit from other farmers rather than a bank) so that she/he can guarantee a return on a subscriber's membership fee, presumably one which, at worst, represents a modest premium for the purchaser over the value of food that could be got at market during the same time-frame.

Farmers who hew to a more share-based approach can occasionally be heard to cluck their tongues at this sort of arrangement, but it would be wise to be careful and not just because our colleagues deserve our respect. The CSA market has broadened enormously over the past 20 years and – as in the financial markets – bonds may be more approprite for some than stocks, especially if it gets them to eat from fields in the nearby countryside rather than California. Though I've not yet heard of such a thing, I wonder if farms seeking to expand might capitalize by issuing multi-year bonds in addition to their shares, paying out modest dividends in vegetables while using the cash-flow to incerease their productive capacity.

But that's not what I sat down to write about.

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Humus - sphere

That the United Nations has declared 2015 the International Year of Soil has been a good prompt for me to go out and -- um, have you got the windows closed? – actually learn something about the soil. This is a bit awkward to admit, but as someone who's been farming, if modestly, (occasionally immodestly, when it's warm) for the past twenty years, I know virtually nothing about the substance on which I rely for a substantial portion of my income. Of course, like anyone who works the land, I've come to know when the soil is tired or burgeoning, healthy or depleted, but this is an instinctual thing, developed inevitably from years of having the soil between my hands, knowing how it should feel, seeing how it absorbs water, observing what weeds are present, which vegetables are doing well or poorly.

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We appreciate your forebearance with the schedule change a couple of weeks ago. A family portrait on Sunday, scheduled by the photographer for the low-slanting rays of the late day sun, required that we remain in Reedsburg through the evening, delaying our usual delivery until Monday. The shot was originally scheduled for 6:00 pm, then moved foreward to 5:00 at the last minute -- even the photographer, whose metier is light, was blindsided by the sea-changes of the August sun.

The few weeks after Lammas see a startling decline in day length, with afternoon repairing into evening so much earlier day by day that as a child I had the sense that the year itself was preparing for the sad, school-bound days of autumn by going to bed earlier and earlier, leaving the long after-dinner sun of June, with its sense of endless possibility, a distant, choked-off memory.   

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Sizing up the Mid-summer harvest

The annual cicada has sounded, if tepidly, so it's time to have a look at what the heat of deep summer might produce for us. Sunday the 20th is the warmest day of the year climatologically, but, one hopes, not actually. Low 80s are nice, but we could use a week or two up in the 90s, ideally with a good bit of sun, to really let the warm weather crops unwind. So far, July is running close to 3°F below normal.
Corn, melons, squash and solanacea (the “nightshades,” tomatoes, peppers and eggplants) are the parties most likely to be affected by lack of heat and/or sun.

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