In the Kitchen with Robert Pierce
By Erica Krug | Photos By Jim Klousia 0
On a February night in 2016, Robert Pierce took some of his family members to his favorite restaurant, Estrellon, to celebrate his birthday. As Pierce and his family enjoyed dish after dish that emerged from the kitchen, Chef Tory Miller appeared clinking a glass. “You might be wondering why this table is getting so much attention,” Pierce recalls Miller announcing to the dining room. “Well, it’s Robert’s birthday and he’s my farmer.” Miller then served Pierce the first batch of the strawberry ice cream made with 80 quarts of strawberries that Miller had purchased from Pierce the previous summer. Pierce grins and shakes his head as he tells this story while sitting in his dining room on a Saturday afternoon this past January. “Chef Miller made my day.”
When you visit Pierce’s home, he’ll greet you at the door with a firm handshake—or a hug—and the smell of simmering onions and garlic wafting down the stairs from his kitchen. On this January afternoon, Pierce has prepared a stew of organic carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, herbs and grass-fed beef, and those gathered are hovering, waiting for the invitation to eat. And even though it’s the middle of winter, everything in the dish, except for the beef, Pierce grew at his urban farm located on 20-some acres on the south side of Madison. It’s also where he grew the strawberries for Chef Miller, the collard greens for one of his buyers, Regent Market Co-op, and the tomatoes that he puts in the “senior packages” full of produce that he sells to the elderly women in his neighborhood for $2.
But Pierce isn’t growing all of this food alone; he has recruited and trained a small army of farmers to help him. While Pierce has been growing organic food since 1983, he’s more interested in sharing his knowledge, and his dirt, than he is in selling food for his own profit. “You can buy food from me,” he says. “But I’d rather teach you how to grow it.”
Pierce grew up gardening and foraging for food on the south side of Madison. His grandmother had a five-acre garden near the Dane County Coliseum (now the Alliant Energy Center), and his grandmother’s friends would pay him to gather wild mustard greens for them. Pierce also learned to cook from his grandmother and mother and says when his mom made beef stew once a week, kids would line up at the door for a bowl. It was common in those days for people in south Madison to grow, preserve and cook their own food, but when he returned to Madison in 1971 after serving in Vietnam, he noticed a decline in the health of the people in his neighborhood. Pierce blames the decline on the fact that the first McDonald’s in Madison was built on South Park Street in 1965.
“It was the only fast food place, and it was right on our side of town in walking distance,” Pierce says. “In the three years I was gone, there was that much difference in how their health had changed from not growing and eating the food that they had grown.” Pierce says his health changed while serving in Vietnam, too, and he acquired several food allergies after being exposed to chemicals. He decided the solution was to grow his own food, so in 1983 he quit business school, leased 22.5 acres and declared that he was going to grow food without chemicals. He called his farm “Half the 40 Acres.”
Pierce ran a farm stand at the Dane County Farmers’ Market on the Capitol Square from 1984 until 1995, but says he experienced so much prejudice and racism there that he decided to give it up. Watching the white farmers next to him sell out of vegetables while he sold next to nothing, Pierce says he would pack up his produce, take it to Park Street, and sell everything out of his truck. When the South Madison Farmers’ Market needed a new manager in 2001, the choice was obvious. In addition to running the market, which has expanded to five days a week in the summer in different locations, Pierce continues to lead the Program for Entrepreneurial Ag Training (PEAT), which he and a friend officially launched in 2008, and is working with a new organization, Neighborhood Food Solutions. And he also cooks a meal every day for whoever might show up at his door. But more than anything, Robert loves playing in the dirt. “Did you know digging in the soil triggers endorphins?” Pierce asks. “I guess that’s why I’m always smiling.”
Q&A with Robert Pierce
What are some of Madison’s food equity issues?
RP: South Madison has always been a food desert. Living in South Madison you see how it’s cut off from everything else. You can go to that Copp’s on Park Street, and you can see the difference in the quality of the food, like vegetables, compared to the ones in Fitchburg or on University Avenue.
What is PEAT and how did it start?
RP: It started off (in 2003) as kids put on community service or their parents wanted them to get punished so they sent them out to me. I would put them out in the fields and work them, and sometimes they would ask to come back. Kids make mistakes you know, but I wanted to pay these kids. I was paying these kids out of my pocket, but they would still come out whether they were getting paid or not. I saw there was a need to start educating these kids. A friend of mine was working with the county, and we got a stimulus package grant for training, which is how we came up with the PEAT program (in 2008). We started teaching kids how to make soil and grow food, and we gave them lessons on marketing and creating spreadsheets. We were teaching them how to work at a farmers market.
What is Neighborhood Food Solutions?
RP: Neighborhood Food Solutions is the new organization I’m working with. We want to partner with people who really want to help out in the scope of making sure people get fresh, safe, affordable food and who feel the same way we do- that just because you’re poor, doesn’t mean that you can’t eat right. A mission of Neighborhood Food Solutions is teaching people how to grow. You can put a seed in the ground, and it will come up. But what do you do after it’s up? I want to teach people not only how to grow food, but how to preserve that food so that you can do like I do—you don’t have to go to the store; you can go down to your basement or your freezer and pull food out that you’ve grown so you know what you’re eating. That’s the bottom line—to be able to be self-sufficient.
What is one of the best parts of your job?
RP: Ever try to say something bad about a farmer with your mouth full?