Gaining Common Ground at the Farley Center Farm Incubator

Feature Stories Spring 2014 Issue

Gaining Common Ground at the Farley Center Farm Incubator

By Keefe Keeley | Photos By The Farley Center 0

A shallow valley surrounded by wooded slopes outside of Verona holds the Farley Center for Peace, Justice and Sustainability. Upon arrival, a long gravel lane lined by large blossoming apple trees offers the view. Gnarled Concord grapevines send out tender spring-green shoots, and occasional abstract sculptures of swirling steel grace the landscape. Vegetable gardens cradle young garlic spearing through straw beds and bean tendrils beginning to crawl up tipi-style trellises made of tree branches. Some people tending the gardens wave in welcome. The late and beloved Doctors Gene and Linda Farley planted this orchard, and now many enjoy the fruits of their labor.

Oscar Ferreira came to Wisconsin from Colombia, where he came to love growing food at his grandparents’ farm. His family raised everything from sugar cane to plantains, as well as an array of animals, fruits and vegetables. When Oscar arrived in Madison, he brought this experience to bear in a community garden, but his dreams quickly outgrew his small plot there. He started asking around about more land, and eventually he made his way to the Farleys, who invited him to cultivate their land along with others who had recently immigrated. “I told Gene, ‘Thank you for sharing your land,’ but he said, ‘Thanks to you because you are here.’”

The success of Oscar and other growers provided inspiration for what an incubator here could offer beginning farmers, especially those without the advantages of growing up in this country. “The Farm Incubator is like a funnel that brings together people, land, training, a place to wash and cool our produce and markets where we can sell,” says Oscar. “It’s growing, growing, growing, and we’ll have a better future because we are learning what we can do.”

The farmers, alongside volunteers, interns and a small staff, have put immense energy into growing the farm incubator into a fully-fledged farmer training center with coursework, field trips and conferences. One key milestone has been the transformation of a pole barn previously used for storage into a facility where produce is sorted, washed, kept cool and packed for market. The incubator is also now home to several tractors, a fantastic variety of field equipment unique to vegetable growers, seeds and schedules for cover crops, a new well pump with irrigation lines, and two hoop houses for extending the growing season. The second, larger hoop house went up last August over several days of educational workshops. The effort culminated in a festive atmosphere akin to a modern barn raising, when 50-or-so community members gathered to lend a hand in stretching the plastic roof cover over the hoop house frame.

Beyond land and infrastructure, markets are also important for beginning farmers (and for people who want to eat in support of them). Farmers markets sprinkled around Dane County have been a good option because of their flexibility, but the unpredictable sales of farmers markets makes them unreliable for income and makes it tricky to figure out how much to plant and harvest.

To achieve some stability, several farmers have developed Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs. In a CSA, members pre-purchase a share of the harvest to be delivered weekly throughout the season. The Spring Rose Growers Cooperative, whose founders include Oscar and other incubator farmers, offers one such CSA. Another CSA, called Los Jalapeños, allows new incubator farmers to add their produce to that of more experienced growers. The multicultural milieu of these CSAs means that along with expected favorites like tomatoes and potatoes, members enjoy ethnic specialties such as Mexican squash and Asian greens.

Clockwise from top left: heirloom Roy's Calais Flint Corn; Ian Aley monitors the Farley Center pollinators; a diverse spread of seasonal produce enjoyed by CSA members.

With funding from the USDA Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, the incubator staff offers a host of other services: trainings on-site and around the state, interpretation for non-English speakers, guidance for farmers who "outgrow" the incubator and are searching for land to rent, technical assistance with things like organic certification, and facilitation of the many cooperative efforts required for farmers to share space, irrigation, equipment and markets. On top of their tireless efforts in the fields, the farmers contribute hundreds of hours each year training each other and managing the incubator.

“It’s kind of hard work, and if I don’t keep down the weeds, it’s cuckoo for me,” says Oscar, who leaves the fields each afternoon for work at a second shift job. “But I love to harvest, to see what comes from the soil. I say ‘God bless this food I will share with people,’ and I know what I am eating is organic. I know what I’m putting in my body is good.”

Much of what must be learned in farming is technical, but deeper lessons here spring from a vision of ethical agriculture. Farley Center board member Juan Gonzalez uses the phrase “cuida la tierra,” which means “care for the land.” He explains, “We raise vegetables organically, without chemical pesticides and fertilizers, so when it rains the chemicals don’t contaminate the waters beyond our fields.” He adds, “It is better for vegetables to be sold locally, so fresh produce doesn’t lose flavor and nutrition by being shipped long distances.”

While some beginning farmers here truly are beginners, others like Oscar arrive with rich experience in raising fresh food. Another such farmer is Yee Ythao, whose family farmed in Thailand, where she grew up. She began bringing vegetables to market at 11 years old. At 15, her family came to the United States as refugees. Her story of life as a recent immigrant reveals a side of the good food movement that can be obscure to perspectives raised in privilege. “We started growing here because we couldn’t buy the vegetables that we wanted to eat,” she says. “My mom always had a community garden in the Allied Drive neighborhood, which is where we first landed. There are a lot of services for poor people there, and we used the services. There used to be a huge garden there."

Empowered by her upbringing, Yee hit the ground running in 2013, her first season at the incubator. She started new farmers market stands outside the Veterans Affairs and St. Mary's hospitals. She took it upon herself to learn how to grow vegetables entirely new to her, such as radishes and beets. As if that was not enough, Yee found her one-third acre plot too small, so she turned the soil of a neighboring grassy area and began turning that fallow lawn into food.

Yee has been blessed with a green thumb, and the incubator has given her a chance to bless more people with the good food she raises.

"Here is a beautiful place, and we have everything we need, like the packhouse, washing station and the cooler,” Yee says. “So out here I can try farming."

Leaving the Farley Center via the orchard-bordered lane, plenty remains to be pondered: the process Yee shared for pickling her cucumbers, the lingering taste of an herb called papalo and the layers of generosity at work here. These generosities extend beyond the farm incubator. On any given day, a visitor to the Farley Center might fly peace kites, pay respects in the natural burial sanctuary, advocate for climate justice or simply reflect on a favorite saying around here:

“We are all temporarily not soil.”

To learn more about the Farley Center for Peace, Justice and Sustainability, visit

Continue to the next page to read about Dr. Eugene Farley, founder of the Farley Center, who passed away shortly before this article was published. 

Dr. Eugene Farley, founder of the Linda & Gene Farley Center for Peace, Justice and Sustainability died November 9, 2013.

Ever optimistic that we can create a better world, Gene and his wife Linda devoted their lives to advancing a broad justice vision that cares for and respects people and the environment.

Growing up on a farm, Gene was as comfortable on a tractor as he was reading an EKG. He could carry on an informed conversation with everyone from farmers to congresspeople. His love for the land and respect for the natural world in all its diversity guided the decision to set aside land at the Farley Center for a farm incubator and natural burial grounds. Because of this, many others can also enter into a respectful relationship with the land.

Gene’s awe of discovery and openness to possibilities encouraged the imaginations of large numbers of people across the country. One of his regrets was not being around to see perennial wheat become a crop reality. This regret is offset by the sheer joy he had in knowing that his and his family’s legacy will be one of making this a more just and healthy world.

- Susan Corrado, Farley Center facilitator

Peace kites flying over Farley Center open spaces.

Keefe Keeley cut his teeth in local foods as a farm hand a Driftless Organics. His passion for sustainable agriculture has led to work with farmers on five continents, including research and consulting on diverse topics from grazing and wildlife monitoring to marketing and ethics. His current research for a graduate degree in Agroecology focuses on agroforestry in the Driftless area. He serves as board chair for Community Conservation. He can be lost or found pedaling, paddling, preparing his almost-famous salsa or planting trees on his folks’ farm.

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