Patchwork Green provides venue for discussion on CSA marketing
Erik Sessions and Sara Peterson welcomed 50 visitors to their Patchwork Green Farm Sunday, July 21 for a tour and roundtable discussion regarding community supported agriculture (CSA) structures and marketing models. Their 40-acre farm is one of the most beautiful I’ve had the opportunity to visit; bordering part of Seed Saver’s Exchange near Decorah, the farm is hilly, covered in native prairie, with nooks carved out for two houses and small farm structures.
Five acres at the highest and flattest point of the farm have been planted to vegetables.
Erik and Sara purchased the land in 2001 in partnership with another family. The two families purchased the property in conjunction to be able to afford their vision of living in rural northeast Iowa. Sara teaches first grade nearby. Erik, also a musician in the band Contratopia, farms full-time. Sara helps when her schedule allows, and Erik hires two ¾-time employees during the growing season.
Patchwork Green Farm did not start at a 5-acre scale, but has grown incrementally over the years. They strive to minimize debt; besides the land mortgage, the only other item purchased on borrowed money was a farm tractor that was paid off in two years. They have slowly added infrastructure and acreage using farm income. Now that the production area has reached five acres, the farm is focusing on expanding income on those five acres versus expanding the area of land farmed.
Tidbits from the tour
Patchwork Green has two solar panels on the farm. The goal is for the solar panels to create enough energy to cover energy needs of the farm. The farm added a deer fence around the five-acre production area. The system, a combination of Premiere 1 electric netting plus electric strands positioned at 5’, 7’ and 9’, was a $3,000 investment and effectively keeps deer out.
Erik continues to use his original walk-behind Troy-Bilt tiller for his tilling system. He also lays 1.5 acres of black plastic by hand. For anyone who has laid plastic by hand, this is an impressive amount of area to be covering in this manner. However, the plastic was taut and well secured, rivaling plastic laid by a mulch layer.
Erik may in the future purchase a plastic mulch layer. However, he purchases equipment with care, striving to find balance between farm efficiency and over-mechanization. Recently Erik purchased an Eco-Weeder to help with weed control on the farm. An Eco-Weeder is attached to the back of a tractor, with one person sitting on a seat and operating the cultivating arms. Since a person is maneuvering the arms, this implement is forgiving in rows that aren’t completely uniform. The Eco-Weeder model at Patchwork Green works great for single rows but weeding double rows gets more complex. Erik can make it happen by making two passes. Some Eco-weeder models are more ideal for double row weeding.
Patchwork Green has grown tomatoes in their high tunnel for eight years straight. Erik remarked that some claim growing tomatoes in succession is good, others promote crop rotation. So far tomatoes on tomatoes has worked well for this farm. The tunnel is covered in a single layer of plastic, there is no supplemental heat, and a 30% shade cloth is used in the summer to minimize heat.
Erik uses cover crops extensively to reduce weed pressure and build soil. He also plants tomato beds into clover to keep inter-row weeds to a minimum. Patchwork Green customers purchase a lot of zucchini and summer squash, so the farm raises a multitude of varieties. They grow it on plastic, cover the plants with row cover to keep pests out, and remove row cover at flower. Floating row cover is also used on other cucurbit and brassica crops on the farm.
The farm raises ½ acre of potatoes. Erik tills the plots with his Troy-Bilt tiller and plants the spuds 8-12” apart. When the plants are 5-6” high, he uses the Troy-Bilt to throw dirt onto the plant bases to create hilling that keeps the growing tubers from becoming exposed to sunlight. Erik has invested in a root digger to harvest the potatoes.
After the farm tour, Erik presented on their CSA structure. Sweet Earth Farm’s Meghan Spees and Anne Bohl presented on their structure, and Ann Bushman of Annie’s Garden and Greens presented on her CSA program. A handout with CSA summaries and sample newsletters for Patchwork Green and Sweet Earth Farm can be found here. In addition, Patchwork Green Farm’s website has more information, http://patchworkgreen.com/PatchworkGreen/Home.html, as does Sweet Earth Farm’s: http://www.sweetearthfarmdecorah.com/. Annie’s Garden and Greens offers a wide variety of fruit and vegetable shares. Annie also offers market shares, where customers can purchase a share in advance and use their credit to select what they want from a market stand during the growing season. More information on both options can be found on her website, http://anniesgardensandgreens.com/csa-shares-available.html.
A thunderstorm cut the roundtable a bit short. On the bright side, the farm received two inches of much needed rain. We reconvened in the neighbor’s garage, but the downpour was so torrential that it was extremely hard to hear.
We did get the opportunity to network in small batches, and we did hear from Luther College on their effort to promote CSAs to their employees as part of their wellness and sustainability initiatives. In 2013, 97 shares have been purchased by Luther employees from the three farms discussed here. Luther offers 50% discount up to $100 for shares purchased. In return, they ask employees taking advantage of this discount to attend two educational events during the season. This year Luther has organized 28 classed focusing on nutrition, cooking, etc. More about the program is available here: http://www.luther.edu/sustainability/food/education/csa/.
It was great to hear different perspectives on how CSAs are operating in eastern Iowa, as well as to hear from the audience how CSAs are going in their areas. This conversation is a good one that will continue at future PFI events.
Practical Farmers has been doing some outreach on behalf of CSAs across Iowa. If you would like more information about this, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.