20 Years at Scotch Hill Farm
By Shannon Henry Kleiber | Photos By Jim Klousia 0
Visiting Tony and Dela Ends at the charming, organic and resilient Scotch Hill Farm in Brodhead, Wisconsin, one might get caught up in how much the farm is about the two of them. Both 60 years old, they never stop moving. Dela is making goat cheese as we talk; later Tony picks weeds between pauses in our walk. There is dirt on their hands, mud on their shoes, and weeds and weather on their minds. There is no time to waste—we’ve had rain every day this past week and the vegetables are growing as we speak. The couple, married 27 years, are the only two fulltime workers on this farm. Scotch Hill Farm is one of the oldest to offer community supported agriculture (CSA) in the state, which they have now been doing for 20 years, since 1994.
But the Endses are quick to point out that Scotch Hill Farm is only as strong as its community— the “C” in CSA—and those 106 subscribers who might find eggplant, butternut squash, swiss chard, carrots or beets in their box depending on how the week turned out. Yes, Tony and Dela’s personalities are part of this farm. Tony writes poetic newsletters every week to the members: “Every time we plant seed, as tiny as a pin head or as big a dime, it feels like a big, lovely, risky experiment,” he wrote recently. Dela often includes a gift of her handmade goat cheese or goat soap in the box, and her lovely recipes are inspiration for home cooks. But for every farm like this, it must also be about the subscribers, or else it will cease to exist. Rather than lavishly celebrating the farm’s 20th anniversary, they are cautiously and humbly happy to have survived so far. “We’ve gambled on this; we’ve put everything into it,” says Tony.
For the Endses, the community is more than a business relationship. The subscribers should be willing to be part of the farm’s unknown future, to bask in the bounty of a luscious harvest or exercise patience when a crop has been decimated by weather or insects. A CSA subscriber needs to be willing and ready to take a chance. They rely on members to work on volunteer days, and they like to say that the farm is the subscriber’s farm throughout the whole year—not just the summer—and they are welcome and appreciated at any time. Their ideal subscriber is not someone who just writes a check but who gets to know the farm and its owners. They are a bit annoyed at people who say they like to try out different CSAs as if they are pieces of clothing.
“Food gets people to understand what community means,” says Dela.
“We won’t achieve sustainability without heartfelt relationships and loyalty and things in common,” Tony adds. “Our problems will not be solved without community. There is no Lone Ranger coming to our rescue.”
Today a 19-year subscriber, Pat Marick-Sperry, from Madison, is here at the farm, weeding and helping to harvest fields that produce 60-some varieties of vegetables. She picks up her box from Mother Fool’s on the East Side, but she regularly comes to do a work session at Scotch Hill. Tony and Dela are enormously grateful. They remember, too, that Marick-Sperry came to help the year Dela had cancer surgery. “That meant a lot to me,” says Dela. They are also grateful for hosts who hold pickup spots for the vegetables: some individuals and Barriques in Fitchburg and Middleton. The subscribers, the hosts, are all part of this farm. So are the community volunteers, who include everyone from Girl Scouts to Edgewood and Beloit College students.
For many, part of the fun of ordering a CSA is the serendipity of what’s in the box, discovering new recipes and looking up a previously unknown vegetable. Others get frustrated when the food is not uniform or expected. There are certainly no guarantees in farming. Mother Nature gives and takes away on this farm, which has seen frost followed by 90 degree days, torrential rains and winds that ripped the hoop houses to shreds, choking droughts and falling trees.
And then there are the Japanese beetles, the corn borer worms, and more that this farm does not fight with pesticides but with organic methods. There has been tomato blight, which can wipe out the entire tomato crop in three days. Sometimes the timing gets so thrown off that they have to let some plants die while they focus on saving or harvesting others. Tony also estimates about three things break down every day. “We fix it, we get through it, we just keep going,” he says.
Farms like Scotch Hill are also susceptible to economic tides. The farm started with five subscribers and at its height had more than 200. While some subscribers might leave because they are not as willing to take the risk, many others, Tony explains, were forced to cut their CSA from their budgets during the economic downturn.
All over the country, people can pinpoint when the crash became a reality to them. For Scotch Hill Farm, as for many in Wisconsin, it was in 2007 when the General Motors factory closed in Janesville. Tony knows people who now commute to Kansas for GM jobs and others who are out of work entirely. Members underwater on their mortgages were not going to pay for organic vegetables, as much as they wished they could. In response to these problems, the Endses created scholarships for members in financial need. Still, the reverberations of the plant closure continue. “[This area] has never really recovered,” he says. “There is a semblance that things are okay, but things are not really okay.”
Scotch Hill Farm’s “Wine, Weed and Cheese” volunteer workday and potluck, in which subscribers pitch tents, bring their kids, help out and enjoy the farm, is a barometer of the economic times. During the best times in the mid-2000s, they had 44 volunteers for the day. Then after the crash, only one person out of 200 subscribers showed up. In 2010, it was back up to ten and remains steady at the moment.
But the Endses won’t forget the leaner times. For them, farming is a calling without promise of riches. On many days, that’s a good reward, but sometimes they are reminded of the inequities in the local food system. The couple recently enjoyed a special dinner at one of Madison’s best-known restaurants as a gift from one of their children. It is very rare for them to consider going to that restaurant because of the high cost, even though they are growing those kinds of foods on their own farm. “It’s too bad the farmers who grow this food can’t afford to eat there.” Dela says.