Featured Farm: Foxtail Farm Winter CSA
In our third on-location interview, we met with Chris and Paul Burkhouse, owners of Foxtail Farm – Winter CSA (a term that stands for Community Supported Agriculture) located in Osceola, WI. As Foxtail Farm’s website describes, CSA members purchase a share of vegetables in the Winter season and enjoy fresh, frozen, and value-added produce. In return, members support small-scale, local, sustainable farming and a local, year-round food system (foxtailcsa.com).
Chris and Paul have been patiently tending the land and growing produce for over 20 years. They owned and operated a Summer CSA for 16 years, a Winter CSA for 6 years, and are now fully focused on their Winter CSA. Beyond their incredible patience, Chris and Paul are intelligent, down-to-earth people. They believe in local, sustainable agriculture and a “Morganic” philosophy. “Morganic” is a term coined by one of Foxtail Farm’s members meaning more than organic. To Foxtail Farm, it means building dependable relationships between farmers and members. It means produce grown locally, naturally, with organic principles in mind, and without pesticides, herbicides, or harmful chemicals.
In addition to their alternative, “morganic” principles, Chris and Paul are forward-thinkers. Most CSA farms located in the Midwest offer shares during the “normal” growing season: early Spring to late Summer. Paul and Chris, on the other hand, have a slightly different approach. They focus their efforts solely on Winter produce and value-added produce from the farm, offering members fresh vegetables and produce from late Fall to early Spring. Growing fresh produce in the Winter in the northern Midwest is practically unheard of. It raises a number of questions and challenges; Paul and Chris rise to the occasion.
The first question that begs an answer: How did you get into winter CSA’s? “It started with the extended season vegetables. At the time that we started, there was only one other farm that was doing what was called Winter CSA,” Chris stated. “So, we thought ‘this is probably the next frontier.’ This is the next thing that needs to be developed if we are going to have a sustainable, local, dependable, safe food system. We need to have food year round. So how are we going to do that?”
That was the second question: How do you grow produce in the winter in the Upper Midwest? “We are actually still in the process of learning,” Chris explained. “There’s not a whole lot of people doing this, so, we’re kind of learning as we go and seeing what works and what doesn’t.”
They may be learning as they go, but Chris and Paul are amongst the trailblazers for Winter CSA’s in the Midwest. Chris described the process saying, “We select varieties that are going to be as winter hardy as possible.” She added, “We have crops out in the field that are completely unprotected. A lot of those are the typical types of produce out in the fall: broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, spinach, kale, Swiss chard, et cetera. So, there’s that part of fresh vegetables that we harvest throughout the winter season.”
Besides their fresh produce, Chris and Paul offer much more. “There’s also the root crops and storage crops that we grow throughout the summer and harvest in the fall, like potatoes, sweet potatoes, squash, carrots, beets, and onions,” Chris explains. “Then there’s other produce that we process for added-value. We vacuum-pack and freeze produce like broccoli, sweet corn, and roasted tomatoes. We also make canned salsas (red and green), tomato sauce, pickled beets and ratatouille. We make soups, and a bunch of fermented products like sauerkraut, and kimchi,”
She went on to explain another key difference in Foxtail Farm’s experiences. “We plant produce in successions that go later – later than you would plant normally for a CSA, because we are going to be harvesting in November and sometimes even into December … if we don’t get two feet of snow!”
Deliveries for Foxtail Farm’s Winter CSA go from late-October through Mid-April, and as Chris explained, “Harvest is super weather dependent.” She added, “We actually take a break in January. If it’s not sunny, we can’t harvest. Nothing is un-frozen enough to harvest. If it’s sunny, it actually heats up enough in the hoop houses and low tunnels to go out and harvest.”
Hoop houses and low tunnels provide the means to grow produce in the dead of winter for Foxtail Farm. These structures are similar to greenhouses, although they have different characteristics. Chris described a hoop house as a structure made of metal and plastic. Unlike a greenhouse that houses plants in pots and on tables, a hoop house contains plants sown or transplanted directly in the ground. Greenhouses usually contain an external heat source, whereas Foxtail Farm’s hoop houses use passive solar heat. Paul described low tunnels as similar to hoop houses, but they are lower to the ground and are less permanent. Low tunnels are moveable, allowing Chris and Paul to plant vegetables early and to cover them when they need to be protected or pushed along during the growing season.
In addition to their progressive farming methods, Chris and Paul focus their growing efforts on preserving natural resources. Without an external heating source for their hoop houses and low tunnels, Foxtail Farm relies on the sun to naturally heats these structures. “Even if it’s super cold outside, the sun will heat like a greenhouse effect,” Chris said. In addition, doing the Winter CSA uses less land base and allows more focus on soil health. “When we were doing the summer CSA, we were managing 18 to 20 acres of tillable land. It was hard on the soil. Now, we cultivate between 7 to 9 acres, which is about half of what it was.” Chris went on to explain, “Therefore, we are able to do a better job with crop rotations and do more soil building with cover crops.”
Growing local, sustainable produce year-round is just one aspect of Foxtail Farm. Educating others is also important to Chris and Paul. Paul teaches a class at the University of Minnesota, and students from the college campus, technical colleges, high schools, and grade schools visit Foxtail Farm for talks and tours. Chris and Paul also value the global food system and extending their knowledge beyond national borders. “When we had interns, some were international and came through exchange programs. One is called MESA, which stands for Multinational Exchange for Sustainable Agriculture,” Chris said. “It’s a really good organization. We’ve had a number of folks through them, who are farmers in their own country. We’ve had great experiences with them. We tried to have one international intern out of our 6 each year. It was great for all of us to get that exposure to people coming from other international farming backgrounds.”
Chris and Paul also focus on developing future farmers through their apprenticeship program at Foxtail Farm. Apprentices tend up to a one-acre plot where they grow produce for the local farmer’s market and develop the skills needed to run their own business. Paul described the program saying, “We’ve taken people with zero farming background and ability, and they are now farming full-time. We’ve also brought people with experience in who we just let do their thing and they just go.” Chris went on to explain, “We’ve been really lucky and have had really good people here. We’ve had a lot of people go on to farm. We’ve raised a lot of farmers.”
Ryan and Caroline are the newest apprentices at Foxtail Farm; they started their apprenticeship on September 1, 2016. Both Ryan and Caroline have previous experience on farms, and the couple is eager to develop their own system. “We are looking forward to bringing in our own ideas, learning about winter shares, and getting to know each other in farming with our own acreage,” Ryan said. “We are focused on making use of that space as best we can and learning what is reliable in this region.” Through the apprenticeship, the couple manages their own plot of land and sells their produce at the Osceola farmer’s market and wherever else they can during the summer season. “This is an incredible opportunity to work with an established farm and get to know the infrastructure,” stated Ryan.
Through the Foxtail Farm – Winter CSA, their educational programs, and apprenticeships, Chris and Paul build community centered on organic practices and growing produce naturally. They have been watching as that support system grows. “I’m not sure people are aware of what an amazing farming community we do have here,” Chris pointed out. “I think Wisconsin has the second highest number of organic farms per state. Most of that is because of Madison, but it’s also a lot of the farms popping up on this side of the river and because of the traditions of co-ops within the Twin Cities.”
About the growth of Winter CSA, Chris said, “There are a lot of questions about what things need to happen so that people can continue to make a living farming. It used to be that we all got produce from local farms. We didn’t get our food from California. There were hundreds of farms around here that were growing produce. So, we should be able to duplicate that again and have more food sovereignty.”
More information about Foxtail Farm – Winter CSA visit http://www.foxtailcsa.com/.
-Photography by professional photographer Kelsea Fehlen – http://www.kelseafehlen.com/