By Richard de Wilde
It’s time to wrap up another year and move into the next! While we’ve already been planning and planting for the 2023 growing season, this is the time of year when we simultaneously reflect on where we’ve been as we lay out plans for the year ahead. We look back on 2022 and are grateful for all the things we were able to accomplish on our farm, the families we were able to feed, the tons of vegetables our fields produced and the 45 plus families our farm supported through bi-weekly paychecks. Overall, it was a pretty good year and we close out 2022 knowing we did the best we could, learned new things and will come back ready to do a better job in 2023! Before we officially close out the year, we wanted to share a bit of our reflections with you as well.
|Row covers laid out for |
frost protection spring 2022
You know farmers like to talk about the weather and I am known to check the weather multiple times a day, so let’s start there. We have come to accept that weather challenges are now the norm, and we continue to find ways to be resilient as we navigate whatever hand we are dealt! Looking back at our 2022 growing season, we started the year with the latest spring ever in my 40 plus years of farming. Not only was it a cold, late spring, but it was one of the windiest springs as well! It is not uncommon to for us to use row covers for heat gain in the spring, but this year we found ourselves using more than usual to protect some of our vulnerable early spring crops and transplants from a late frost. It’s very difficult to put out covers in high winds, but there were times when we had no choice but to struggle through the process as the window of opportunity to get the cover on before the temperatures dropped was pretty narrow. We also had to use more hoops under the covers to prevent abrasion injury to the plants and had to secure the covers in place with extra sandbags. In fact, we had to fill over 1,000 more sandbags just to secure covers on the most essential crops!
|Manuel, one of our head irrigation guys--doing|
his rounds to check for leaks in irrigation systems
Once the season got going, we switched from cold to very hot temperatures! Our late summer months were characterized by very dry, drought-like conditions. While dry periods can be very intense and demanding as we try to get enough water to plants to keep them alive and producing, we actually prefer dry conditions over wet. We had to invest a lot of crew time into irrigation, but thankfully we were able to keep all of the crops in the game. One plus to having dry conditions is decreased disease pressure. Humid conditions, especially in our valley, breed leaf disease which affects the health of the plant in the field, and, by default, production yields are usually lower. When disease pressure is low, yields are high, and harvests are typically more efficient.
|Brussels Sprouts plants in early summer|
All in all, 2022 was as good as we can expect. We had some crop losses, as we will every year, but thankfully we did not experience any devastating losses. As with every growing season, we had some shining star crops (such as our fall Brussels sprouts!) and some crops we’d prefer to forget (Parsnips). We were prepared to put out covers when we needed to, had equipment ready to irrigate when it was necessary, and did the best we could to prepare for weather events to minimize the impact. We had a very productive fall and left our fields in good condition as we tucked them away for the winter. Most of our fields went into winter with an established cover crop in place and we were able to execute fall applications of minerals as well. We planted garlic, horseradish and sunchokes which means we’ve already made significant investments into another year! Our strawberry field looked great going into winter with a nice rye straw mulch cover. We also mulched the garlic field and covered it with row cover for the winter. Our overwintered spinach field is covered and fenced to keep the deer from nibbling on it over the winter.
Last year we acquired 40 acres of new land that we were able to certify for organic production. Some of this land we were able to purchase, and the remainder is leased. Any time we acquire new land there is likely some work that needs to be done before we can put a crop on it, but thankfully we were able to put much of it in production by the end of the season. We spent a lot of time this fall trimming trees around the fields, which yielded greater access to the sun and gave us a year’s supply of firewood along with enough brush piles to create several tons of biochar for next year! We still have a lot of improvements to make on this new property, but have made significant headway in a relatively short period of time. Our hope is to secure better resources for irrigation options for this land which will offer us more flexibility in what we can plant on this property in future years.
After weather, the next topic of conversation in many business circles these days is likely something around the topics of inflation and the economy as well as labor. These are big topics for us as well and linger at the forefront of our minds as we try to forecast what the new year will hold. As we reflect on this past year, it will come as no surprise to you that we are still experiencing obstacles in the supply chain that have made it difficult at times to source supplies, fertilizer, etc. Thankfully, we did ok without too many issues, and we were able to get the majority of what we needed. We tried to order early to allow for delays and did our best to manage tight inventories. We’ve always tried to take advantage of volume discounts when purchasing supplies but have pushed the limits on this over the past 1-2 years in an effort to get the best pricing possible in the face of very steep increases in the cost of supplies. In 2022 Andrea invested in a 5-year supply of the twist ties we use to bunch vegetables and purchased 3-4 years’ worth of other supplies in order to bump up to the next level of volume discounts. Thankfully we have appropriate storage space to keep these supplies clean and in good condition, so they’ll be just like new when we take them out for use in 2025!
|Black gold....the potting soil we use to |
grow transplants in the greenhouse
Part of being able to weather the inflation is by trying to continue to take advantage of any discounts available to us by paying in advance for seeds, supplies, fertilizer and fuel. We already purchased and accepted delivery on the potting soil that we’ll need to produce transplants in the greenhouse and by doing so we were able to secure 2022 pricing! We are closing out 2022 in a pretty good place financially despite experiencing inflated input costs ranging from as little as 3% to as much as 43%!
But our biggest challenge for 2023 appears to be labor! The majority of our farm crew is comprised of seasonal workers who come on H2A visas. Over the past few years, they have been contributing more by offering suggestions for new production improvements and by building their skills so they are able to achieve record setting harvest metrics! We have one of the very best crews we could hope for! They are dependable, skilled, efficient, timely, willing and eager to learn, and are overall very respectful, pleasant, positive people to work with. Our situation is unique in that the Department of Labor (DOL) sets our wage rates because we participate in the H2A visa program. The DOL has generally raised the wage by 3% per year for many years. However, this year they are requiring an 11% raise for Wisconsin H2A employers! The wage rate will be increasing by about $2 per hour to $17.43 per hour, in addition to our obligation to provide housing, transportation and visa expenses. Our crew members work hard doing physical labor that many others cannot and do not want to do, but someone has to do this work or we don’t have food to eat!
|Most of our vegetables are harvested by hand, |
including bunched herbs, greens, radishes and more!
Farmworkers deserve a raise and should be compensated fairly for the work they are doing. However, as employers we are faced with an extreme challenge as labor represents about 40% of our expenses and is by far the largest expense, we incur in vegetable production. We also hope to hire two individuals to fill two vacant support positions, one in the packing shed and one to assist with office work. One of these positions remained vacant for the entire of 2022, which was not ideal. We could really use the help to assist with record keeping, social media management, and other office-related tasks that are necessary to help us meet the requirements for government programs and general good business practices.
|Harvesting ginger in early November|
As we look ahead to 2023, we do so with optimism. Yes, we face challenges, but we also know that the work we do is important and valued by you, our CSA members and our community of eaters. We take pride in being the best growers in the Midwest and we are committed to continuing to offer our CSA members a level of freshness, quality and variety that is not readily available. We also remain committed to supporting you by providing community, transparency and dependability. Local food systems are essential to the sustainability of both farms and eaters. Participating in CSA is one of the most economical ways to purchase food as the value you receive is nearly always greater than the price you pay. That’s part of the relationship we share—you take care of us and we take care of you. We plan to continue our unique potato, squash, tomato and pepper varieties as well as abundant sweet potatoes and sweet corn that prove to be member favorites year after year! We are also planning to continue growing our carefully selected variety of edamame and hope to grow baby ginger for you again. We are in the midst of ordering our seeds right now and are contemplating growing some special dried beans, globe artichokes or something else of interest that catches our eye and will keep things interesting.
We are now accepting CSA Sign-ups for the 2023 CSA season and hope you will be joining us for a spectacular year of vegetables! You’ll find current pricing and a list of all of our CSA pick up locations on our website. Speaking of website, we are currently working on a new website which we hope to take live early in 2023! Not only will we have a fresh, new look, we’ll also be able to offer you the convenience of signing up online along with the option to pay using a credit card. We are also planning to enhance our vegetable resources to help you when you may have questions or need a little help learning about a new vegetable.
Enjoy the final days of 2022 and we will see you in the new year!