A Birthplace of CSA: Vermont Valley Community Farm
By Jonnah Mellenthin Perkins | Photos By Jim Klousia 0
On a humid afternoon in the summer of 2009, I marched briskly out to the fields behind the farmhouse, following my future mother-in-law. I had a camera in my hands. Her wiry arms swung purposefully at her sides. “See, over in this row,” she waved me over to a row of Roma tomatoes staked and trellised with mathematical precision. I crouched down and looked at the watery, blackened leaves she held in her hands. The owner of this enormously productive CSA farm, Barb Perkins, began to cry. “It’s late blight. I know it is,” she said under her breath.
“Let’s just send a sample off to the pathology lab, and I’ll take some pictures. Everything will be ok,” I tried to reassure her.
“It won’t be ok. You have no idea how much work we’ve lost, months of it.”
It did turn out to be late blight, the fungal pandemic that swept over farms throughout the Midwest that year, killing potatoes and tomatoes—the same disease that caused the Irish Potato Famine. Barb and I were both right that day; everything did end up being ok, and I had no idea how much work had been lost. That was my first summer on the farm.
In an age where young people are clamoring to work on farms or start their own, my farming opportunity fell into my lap when I was 25. After moving from New York City to Madison for a relationship with my farmer-boyfriend, Jesse, I went through a smattering of corporate, coffee shop and creative jobs before my farm offer came through. Jesse’s family farm was a place where I loved visiting, and I was always impressed by the crates of beautiful melons, broccoli and sweet corn he brought home from work. I grew up in a food-conscious family, and my mother kept a large vegetable garden, but growing food on a farm-scale was a mystery to me. When his parents invited me to come work on the farm, managing general office operations and being part of the field crews, it seemed like a fun adventure, but I had no idea what a wildly intense world I was about to enter. Like so many people, my notion of a production farm was on the romantic and idyllic end of the spectrum.
Located in Blue Mounds, Wisconsin, Vermont Valley Community Farm was established in 1994 by Barb and David Perkins. They bought an old farmhouse with a dairy barn and 40 acres, only four of them tillable, for the sole purpose of starting a community supported agriculture farm. This was back at the dawn of the CSA movement in the Midwest, when few people understood the concept but the market was wide open. Barb remembers the decision to start the farm and how their steadfast belief in the CSA model fueled their fearlessness. “From the farmers’ and eaters’ perspective, the idea of CSA made so much sense to us. For David and me, it was like holding hands, walking to the edge of a cliff, closing our eyes and taking a step off. That’s about as much as we knew about what our future would hold.”
The CSA philosophy centers on the notion that eaters should share the inherent risk of growing food along with the farmers producing the food. By creating financial stability for growers, the community, in turn, receives a box, or share, of vegetables on a set schedule during the growing season. In addition to eating locally grown produce, the CSA members also have a deeper connection to their food while keeping food dollars in their communities. This concept was beyond beautiful to me, and I dove headfirst into the community aspect of the farm in my early years with Vermont Valley.
On busy afternoons in the packing shed, as we washed and sorted tens of thousands of pounds of produce for the CSA shares, there were stacks of vegetables that didn’t meet our quality standards. Those “seconds” would either be sent off to the compost or given away to CSA members who came out to the farm to pick up their boxes. As a new farmer, I couldn’t bear to see all of the less-thanperfect produce go uneaten. Barb told me that she had never had time to set up a proper donations program and that it was a perfect project for me. I quickly established over a dozen outlets for our vegetable seconds and coordinated donations each week of our growing season. Bringing our community mission full circle has been my biggest accomplishment on the farm and puts an average of 40,000 pounds of produce into the community each year.
I learned quickly that Vermont Valley is a well-oiled machine with efficiency and quality at the core of every operation. Vermont Valley is known for being a challenging and highly educational farm to work on and has trained many of Wisconsin’s foremost CSA farmers. For David, the value and expectation of hard work is something he doesn’t shy away from. “I grew up a farmer. I’ve never been experiential in the farm world. Farming is a professional career. I enjoy the projection side and figuring things out. I am not here for an experience—I grow food.” This pure work ethic, scrubbed clean of whimsical ideals, is fundamental to the success of the farm.
When the farm was at its peak membership in 2012, 1,300 shares were going out the door each week. Barb and David didn’t plan for the CSA membership to grow as large as it did, but they just continued to evolve and adapt along with their farm. The original goal was 500 members in five years, which they met, then the membership continued to pick up momentum with each growing season. Chatting about the early days of Vermont Valley, David said, “We had no idea if the farm would work financially. In the early years, it was just a wing and a prayer if it would work at all. There was no rationale that it would or wouldn’t be successful. It was just a hunch. The drive to start this farm was to find out whether or not the CSA model would be feasible on an economic level. That goes back to my upbringing on a farm, understanding agriculture and understanding the problems with it. The CSA model struck me as the opposite of everything I had grown up under, and I had to see if we could make it work.”
The Perkinses’ three children were in grade school when their parents moved them from the Near East Side of Madison to rural Blue Mounds. Barb remembers her prospect of making such a big life change. “Initially, the thought was that we were going to live on a farm and our lives would be so much more cohesive than they were when we lived in town. That was an illusion. We were so busy juggling city jobs three days a week and working every day getting the farm started. This idea of all of this beautiful family time wasn’t there. There wasn’t more family time, there was actually less.”
But the farm has, in fact, brought her family closer together, just not as she expected.
For several years, all three adult children worked on the farm. Now Jesse, Eric and I are managers and play vital roles in the operation. David has been mindful of the future he has offered to his family. “My dad didn’t want me to be a farmer because you work really hard and get paid terribly, you take a ton of risk, and you aren’t rewarded for it. I wanted to change that. The CSA model is a success across the board. None of my kids were ever asked to work here—they wanted to. That tells me something. All I ever told my kids is that they should go to college.”
The decision to market Vermont Valley produce purely through a CSA program remains an enduring commitment to the community members that support the farm. Everything that comes out of the field is either distributed through the CSA shares or turned around and donated back into the community. With a mind for production, David was moved by how deeply his farm has impacted his members’ lives. “When your members voluntarily come up to you and tell you how important your farm is to them and how you’ve made a difference in their lives, that’s when it really hits you. To me, we’re just out here growing vegetables, but what we are really doing is helping people live better lives. I was recently called the Patriarch of CSA by a fellow CSA farmer. I think that’s a compliment, but it also means that I’m old.”
Vermont Valley didn’t hire an employee until their fifth year, relying entirely on their own labor and a robust “worker share” crew, a barter-style arrangement where CSA members exchange labor for a share. “We were the first farm to really involve the community on such a large scale, and no other farm has come close to managing worker share crews as large as our farm. What we’ve done is amazing. We’ve fed thousands of families, we’ve done a great deal of education for other farmers, we’ve put ourselves out there unselfishly for other people to learn from, and I see how much impact this one farm has had on the community,” Barb said, reflecting on the reach the farm has had beyond just delivering vegetables each week. She goes on to say, “Our festivals and on-farm events bring our CSA members into the heart of what we do. To see hundreds of families out in our farm fields harvesting their own food reminds me why I farm.”
David said, “We’ve been key in creating a whole movement of direct market vegetable farms. It’s changed agriculture in the entire country, not just in Southern Wisconsin. We live in a different food world than we did 25 years ago. It’s changed how people eat and given young people the opportunity to become farmers. I set out to see if we could succeed, and it turns out that we also helped a lot of other farms succeed.”
The farm has transformed the way I see food and has given me opportunities to make a difference in the local food movement outside of my family’s farm. I now know that a dying crop of tomatoes would also make me cry. That first summer with late blight, our hoop house tomatoes were spared, and our CSA members were fascinated by how we managed the situation. That’s the beauty of CSA: passionate, pragmatic farmers growing high-quality food with the community right by their side, supporting each other along the way.