Cultivating Connection at Blue Moon Community Farm
By Wendy Allen | Photos By Jim Klousia 0
Kristen Kordet of Blue Moon Community Farm in Stoughton didn’t intend for farming to be her full-time career. “I thought, well, that’d be a fun way to spend a summer, and then I’ll figure out what I’m really going to do.”
Don’t so many of us come to our careers in that way? We think, this thing I’m doing is fun, for now, and then suddenly it’s years later and we realize this fun thing is what we want to do for the rest of our lives.
Kristen laughs thinking of that time. “I started out thinking of it as a way to clear my head and work outside while I figured out what to go back to school to study. But then I really took to it. I loved the work, and it was challenging in a different way.”
Not happy with the job choices available after graduating from college, she took an apprenticeship 16 years ago at a farm in upstate New York and worked up the ranks. Soon she decided it was time to make her way back to the Midwest to put down some farming roots.
Originally from Ohio, she says she “overshot and ended up in Wisconsin” thanks to Madison’s FairShare CSA Coalition (then called MACSAC), which caught her attention as an active and engaged network of CSA farms. In 2004, she and a business partner launched their own CSA business on an acre of rented land near Madison.
“It was kind of a shoestring operation,” she says. “I was waiting tables at night and renting a plot of land and renting a greenhouse in a different location and renting a cooler space in a different location and living in a co-op house on the east side. It was kind of nuts, but we were making it work.” Before the 2006 season, her business partner decided to move on, and she held the CSA together as she worked to create a more stable situation for the farm.
Blue Moon Community Farm was given new life and excitement in 2007, when Kristen moved the business to its current location, a permanent home where she could build the infrastructure needed for the sustainable, organic vegetable operation she’d been dreaming of for years. “It’s taken a long time to feel like we’re on stable ground here. A lot of that had to do with being in a tenuous land situation where I could never put down roots and having no long-term security in the land.”
Kristen sees the farm’s location—only 12 miles south of Madison—as a stroke of luck. She’s positioned perfectly for a future of inevitably rising fuel costs, when it’ll be vital for farmers to be close to their customers, and vice versa. “Being able to farm on the edge of a city like Madison is a really special thing,” she says.
“It was hard to find this land nine years ago, and I’m sure it’s even harder today,” Kristen says, recognizing that it’s not always a rosy picture for beginning farmers who don’t have inherited land or money to purchase it. One bidding war in 2015 peaked at $12,000 an acre for a plot of land in our southern Wisconsin region. “The standard system of farmland going to the highest bidder just doesn’t work for getting young farmers on the land. I know there are a lot of efforts to create opportunities for young farmers, and I hope that continues to increase.”
Blue Moon’s six acres have been divided into 12 halfacre plots that Kristen manages organically. As part of the farm’s rotation plan, she incorporates cover crops to restore fertility, reduce weeds without chemicals and build up the soil, which was quite worn out when she acquired the farm. Kristen then allows the farm’s chickens, turkeys and pigs to graze the cover-cropped plots, helping to keep insects under control, and the animals distribute their manure as they go, adding nutrients back to the land.
Forty crops in 200 varieties make their way up through the soil into the sunshine at Blue Moon Community Farm. Kristen says she has her favorite varieties of each crop, but it’s important not to become reliant on a single variety. It’s common for crops to suddenly be attacked by a new pest, dislike a particular year’s growing conditions, or be discontinued by the seed company. If a farm only uses a single variety of each crop, it becomes vulnerable.
While growing 40 crops is fun because she can try her hand at everything, Kristen does have an overall favorite. “Garlic. I love growing garlic. It’s the first thing that pops up in the fields in the spring and a sure indicator that spring is coming. It’s reliable. It’s beautiful. I love hanging it to dry in the barn. And it’s the last thing we plant in the fall when we put the field to bed. Garlic marks the passage of the seasons.”
Long after the garlic has emerged through the mulch comes the craziness of June on a vegetable farm. Kristen says, “Everything is happening on the farm in June. It’s like everything that could happen on a farm is crashing into one another. We’re still planting like mad, the weeds are going crazy, but our harvest season has begun.”
And about those weeds… In addition to the usual annoyances, the farm has a particular challenge with Canada thistle, which had been allowed to flower during a season when it wasn’t farmed before Kristen purchased the place. The thistle is incredibly hard to eradicate on an organic farm that doesn’t use chemical herbicides, and it has been a thorn in Kristen’s side ever since.
“It can make or break the season how you handle the [weed] pressures. But over time you get a sense of which crops can tolerate some weeds and which ones can’t.” With so much to do and such a short growing season in which to do it, a farmer learns where her time is best spent. “We can plan for it, and it doesn’t make your head spin, but at the same time, there’s no replacing the intensity of what June in Wisconsin is like.”
On the other hand, wintertime is a time to relax and decompress from the hectic growing season with part-time farm tasks, spending time with her husband and young son, and taking vacations to see family.
Kristen downplays the conservation efforts that are happening on Blue Moon Community Farm, likely because the activities are simply part of the farm’s DNA. For one, Kristen’s husband, an ecological consultant, has planted a prairie in the non-productive land around the fields and the house, and after six years, it is a beautiful space that provides habitat for not only native birds, bugs and animals, but also for the honeybees a local beekeeper keeps on their land. The beekeeper has said the bees do even better on Blue Moon Community Farm than on the beekeeper’s own land, thanks to the flowering prairie and cover crops providing so much food for the bees within a very short distance from their hives.
Soil conservation isn’t quite the same issue here, where it’s fairly flat, as it is in the hilly southwestern parts of the state, but there is a general slope to the farm’s topography, which means over time all the good soil on the farm has eroded downhill to the bottom two fields. Kristen compensates for the differences in soil quality by putting a lot of effort into soil-building and preventing further erosion by ensuring every plot of land always has something growing on it.
Crop rotations, planting and managing cover crops with grazing animals, eradicating weeds before they go to seed—all that hard work shows from year to year. “I was pretty daunted by the task early on,” says Kristen, “but I’ve been amazed at how much improvement we’ve seen in the last nine years. It’s more than I ever expected. The fields that we’ve been working the longest are definitely our best, so we know that if we continue this system, then all our soils are on that same trajectory, and that’s a good feeling.”
With so many CSA farms located in the counties surrounding Madison, competition for members is fierce, and CSA seems to be entering an evolutionary period. Kristen says there are conversations happening right now about what CSA will look like in the future, what customers want, and how to compete with aggregators and distributors who aren’t actually farmers.
To address this evolution, Kristen has taken Blue Moon in the opposite direction of some of her competitors, embracing that they aren’t a “full-service CSA” with endless options; instead, Blue Moon offers an irreplaceable experience on the farm. In a unique turn that a few farms around the region are beginning to adopt, Blue Moon’s members come out to the farm to get their share rather than picking it up at local drop-sites.
“Our members look forward to coming out here and seeing how things look each week. I think for a lot of them, that aspect is almost as important as the vegetables they’re receiving,” says Kristen.
This direct connection with the farm has resulted in an excellent retention rate, but more important to Kristen, it’s created an incredibly strong member community—a community who made their love for Blue Moon heard when they awarded Kristen a people’s choice Edible Madison Local Hero Award in 2015.
It’s clear that Kristen takes a lot of pride in providing a special community-building experience to her members, and it’s why she sees Blue Moon as a “community” farm. “I don’t know that I’d be farming if it weren’t for the aspect of connecting with people.”