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.
About 21 years ago, Tony and Dela first saw Scotch Hill Farm, the centerpiece of which was a century-old dairy barn that had not been used since the 1960s. The couple decided to follow a longtime dream of becoming farmers. Tony left the newspaper business, having been a reporter in North Carolina, Janesville and other parts of the country. Dela, with her love of preserving foods and healthy eating, wanted to be a farmer. Tony had been interviewing some farmers and thought there was a connection to the reporting life—you need to be a generalist and you have to learn to do many different things. “I found myself wanting to do what I was writing about,” he says. They have five children and were active in 4-H events with the kids.
They chose Scotch Hill, Tony says, because it was in such disrepair that it was all they could afford. After they bought the farm, it took them years to save up to fix the electricity. Their house is on the property along with other red outbuildings with green roofs, including a hog house, a chicken coop, a machine shed and a greenhouse. Large hoops and small hoops cover some vegetables. Goats, pigs and sheep live in the barns and dogs run around, including a little terrier named Roxanne wearing a black sweater that reads “Security.” Cats sleep in a sunny vegetable row and among the canning supplies. Scents of lavender, lilac and lemongrass waft from the building where Dela makes and packages soaps.
Growing things organically, from the green beans to nasturtiums to endive and parsley, was always the only way they would run the farm. Dela says that while people complain about the paperwork involved in being organic, it helps keep the farm’s records complete. “Organic is the only thing people can know for sure is safe,” she says.
Focused as they are on their own farm, the Endses are also passionate about helping other farmers, specifically in Africa. Tony spent his first years out of college in 1975 to 1977 working for the Peace Corps in Senegal. He says it had an enormous impact on his thinking about how people live. Then in 2012 and again this year, both Tony and Dela traveled back to Africa through a Farmer to Farmer program of the United States Agency for International Development (US AID). They taught African farmers how to compost. While the Africans were making use of scraps as animal feed and certainly conscious of not wasting, they were not aware that feeding the earth can make for even better soil, Tony explains. Together they created a long-handled tool that is now widely used in the community for composting. This is the kind of long-term thinking, he says, that can change their village. The couple has also taught the villagers crop rotation, insect and companion planting, and solar (direct sun) drying.
Back at home in Wisconsin, the Endses are hoping to improve mulching options for vegetable gardens. Like many farmers, they traditionally have used black plastic but have been trying to use less as it is not easily recycled and eventually lies— never decomposing—in landfills. They grow prairie grass and switch grass and experiment with it in place of plastic. Relying on other projects—soap, livestock, eggs, and growing oats, rye and millet—as new lines of business or bartering between vegetable seasons has helped Scotch Hill Farm bridge gaps.
As I try some of Dela’s smooth goat cheese spread on pea pods accompanied by radishes (“seconds,” she advises me, due to some slight imperfections, but they taste perfect) with a little salt, I become aware that, really, they would like to get back to work. “We don’t sit still real well,” Dela says.
It has been 20 years of producing good, true food, some of which will be carefully boxed and delivered this week to more than 100 families in Wisconsin and Illinois. But there is not a lot of time to rest on that achievement. “We came here for the health of our family and the lives of our children and we wanted to do right on our little corner,” says Tony.
Asked the secret to their two-decade success, Tony says, “We’re stubborn. So we survived.” And then, they went back to those fields, heads down, pulling weeds in the summer sun, continuing what they had begun in their corner of the community.