A Year on the Farm

Farmer Voices

A Year on the Farm

By Lauren Rudersdorf | Photos By Lauren Rudersdorf 0

2016 was a big year. Of course, when you're a young farmer, every year feels big in some respect. There are things to learn, people to meet, investments to make, changes to be made. It's never a small feat. In year one it was big just to make it through the growing season. In year two it was a blessing to pull off 400% growth while still enjoying working beside one another; our October wedding was the picture-perfect ending to a second year of hard-earned strength through struggle. Year three brought stability and a truly great growing season. This year, year four, was a big year. A year of harsh growing conditions and a whole lot of firsts.

My husband finished construction of our greenhouse in 2016—the first structure he's ever built and the first structure to be erected on our farm. In 2016, we started seeds on our land for the first time (instead of cobbled together in multiple locations). A few short weeks later we conducted a series of interviews. Folks from Green, Rock and Dane counties made the drive to Magnolia township to chat with us, get their hands dirty and throw their name in the hat to be our first employee. We hired dear Eryn to work in the fields two days a week. Jessica, Erica, Steve, and Patrick quickly joined the ranks as our first team of worker shares. We went from a husband and wife-only farming team in 2015 to running a busy operation where it was rarely just the two of us.  

In 2016, the first half of our three acres became certified organic by MOSA. We spent an eight-hour day with an organic inspector who walked through our fields and dug through our records. In 2016, we were endorsed by FairShare CSA Coalition for the first time bringing new CSA members and a spot at the CSA Open House in Madison. In 2016, I became a Soil Sister. I was asked to join a group of farming women I respected endlessly. These titles, endorsements and certifications were much more than just words. They were an absolute honor. In 2016, we began to recognize that we weren't just farmers, but part of a much grander movement. 

We hosted eight events on the farm this year: two work days, an open house for CSA members, three dinners, one workshop and an all-day tour of the farm. Nearly 150 people stepped foot on our farm during May through October, many of them now our friends. I taught children the difference between pests and beneficial insects. We gorged ourselves on snap peas. Kyle shared the ins and outs of organic certification with captivated visitors. We ate way too much pizza, kale salad and tomato pie.

In August, Midwest Living did a photo shoot at our farm. They snapped pictures of us harvesting colorful tomatoes, eggplant and peppers. A few weeks later we were featured in an article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about the fresh new faces of Wisconsin agriculture. In 2016, I began to document my personal farm journey for Edible Madison and dove deeper into my blog. I began to realize my voice as a farmer.  

There was plenty to talk about. 2016 brought unforgiving growing conditions. The weather was hot, the humidity was high and the timing of most rains felt inopportune. The spring drought and intense rains of August brought opposing kinds of headaches. Our brassica crops were the worst they've ever been, but the peppers were prolific in every shade and color. The tomato season was short, but the sweet corn was abundant and beans refused to stop growing. 

We had the worst pest and disease problems we'd experienced as farmers. At times it felt like every damaging insect that existed in zone 5 made an appearance. Flea beetles, squash bugs, cucumber beetles, thrips, Colorado potato beetles, slugs, hornworms, cabbage loopers: things we'd only ever read about were spotted on our farm this year. With humidity so high and rain so constant, plant diseases also had their ideal climate. Disease ran rampant in 2016. We managed the best we could, but we had several disappointments in the field and our first major crop failure. Our winter squash field, well-tended and cared for, largely turned to rot.

Harsh growing conditions aside, 2016 was a year of new techniques and growth. With a couple rolls of landscape fabric, a little time and a thoughtful planting schedule, we finally learned how to grow root crops well in our weedy fields using weed seed pre-emergence practices. In 2016, we added fields of beautiful crimson cover to our cover crop rotation for the first time. The buzz of the thousands of bees that flocked to our fields in June was pure magic. We bought our first attachment for our walk-behind rototiller: a flail mower that helped us maintain our fields and incorporate cover crops more easily. We began using a broadfork for the first time. We advanced. We continued to learn.

We grew our small CSA to 72 members in 2016. We created a core group of CSA members who met biannually to help us make decisions and strategize around our farm goals. We began a community fund that helped lower-income households afford our CSA. We added three new restaurant accounts and improved relationships with our original five. We increased our gross annual sales by 50% from the year before.

Best of all, 2016 was the year we began looking forward. It was a year of long-term planning. We started thinking in decades instead of seasons. We bought our first home: a home perfectly positioned in between our rented farmland and my off-farm job in the heart of a small town we hope to excite about local food. We sat down with my parents, our landowners, and spoke earnestly. We were patient and kind with each other. Together, we formed a real, concrete plan for transitioning the family farm over to us. 2016 was a year of new, and of old, of constants and of change. We had higher highs and lower lows. It wasn't always pretty and it certainly wasn’t simple, but it was significant. It was after all, a very big year.

Lauren Rudersdorf owns and operates Raleigh's Hillside Farm outside of Evansville, Wis., with her husband Kyle. Together, they manage four acres of leased family land, growing vegetables for a small CSA and area restaurants. In her free time, Lauren loves to share stories about farming, life and food on her blog, The Leek & The Carrot.

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