Paul and Chris Burkhouse, the owners of Foxtail Farm, put it simply: “Our goals as farmers are to grow a lot of great food, train farmers, and restore and take care of our land.”
Foxtail farm is a 317-member CSA farm in Osceola, WI. Nestled in the heartland of conventional corn and bean farming, Foxtail is not certified organic (although it once was) and in my visit with him, Paul was very forthright that this is a political choice. He calls Foxtail “Morganic” – as in “More than Organic” – and he's critical of the USDA organic standards. He tells people that a label is no substitute for visiting the farms their food comes from. If you’re visiting Foxtail, you’ll find it welcoming. They’re very open about their production practices. When I arrived, the crew was just sitting down for an early lunch and a lively conversation about the state of agriculture in the area. Every day the cooking crew rotates, making for varied meals and spirited cooking. It was a great meal, and a busy time – the day after my visit, hundreds of children would descend on the farm as part of Foxtail Farm’s annual “Kids Day.”
Paul Burkhouse is proud of the way sustainable farms are developing in the Twin-Cities area: “There is more going on here than people think; there’s a huge organic movement here in the North Midwest.” Wisconsin, just behind California, has the 2nd highest number of organic producers in the US, with over a thousand operations. Paul quickly counted up over 60 CSA farms in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area, plus ten to twenty doing wholesale, and 13 food co-ops in the twin cities – many with multiple locations. And, he says, these aren’t small co-ops with a tiny storefront; these co-ops are what a modern consumer would expect of a grocery store.
As the market share for organics increases, the marketplace competition that happens looks distinctly different in each region. Paul contrasted the Wisconsin/Minnesota market with that of California: “In California it’s [organic] apples fighting [conventionally grown] apples. Here, all the conventionally grown produce is canned or frozen.” The way he sees it, this leaves a sizeable opening in his region for growing fresh local produce that is up to his “morganic” standard. Since the local conventional farms aren’t bringing produce to the local markets - their products go straight into the processed food industry – it leaves consumers who want fresh vegetables with two options, eating from local small organic and sustainable farms, or buying imports from either conventional or, as Paul put it, “shallow organic” farms in other parts of the country.
Paul is excited about how that market is growing, and how organic producers in his area are stepping up to the demand. “The small organic producers are a subculture of agriculture here, and a different species entirely; the small farms here are hardcore organic. We’re developing an entirely new infrastructure. ... Cooperatives of farms selling to larger institutions are in their infancy.”
Within that subculture of small “morganic” producers, Foxtail has its own niche, and an extremely loyal customer base. “At this point we don’t have much turn-over in our CSA,” he says. Chris and Paul's CSA always sells out early and thier problem is one of managing the wait list. “We’re trying to hold at 300 members … we’ve maxed out our infrastructure and management capability … but there’s always the person who calls three weeks late and says, ‘Didn’t you get my check?, I sent it in!’ and because you know them, and they’re a long-time member, you let them in.” Over time, Paul says their CSA members have become more loyal because they’ve self-selected to be members who like what he and Chris do and what they grow.
“We have an obsessive focus on quality and value. We don’t have the highest or the lowest price but we insure that all of our CSA members – who are mostly families – get a good value for their money. We’ve never played the CSA card, where we’ve had to [make excuses] and say, ‘Well, this is organic food’, or tell CSA members that bought a share that they’ve taken a risk [of crop failure]. We always have a backup… It’s like planning a Thanksgiving dinner for 300 families every week.” Having a backup means planting around 25% more than needed for his CSA shares and then finding a market for the extra. After harvesting for the CSA members, the ends of the rows that are left either go to Foxtail's market stands or Minnesota’s Emergency Foodshelf Network.
When asked what their biggest challenge has been, Paul doesn’t hesitate, “The change of weather patterns. Maybe it’s just anecdotal, but the last 5 years I feel like we’ve had to duck with the punches. From tornados and big hailstones in the spring to drought to record temperatures and dew points in the middle of July, the weather has been difficult. … We’re also constantly running to work up the fertility of our soils. … . For the farmer, it’s like fixing your car while it’s moving. Fitting your cover crops into the rotation is always a challenge.
Paul and Chris have mentored more than 50 interns at Foxtail Farm, and Paul says that he knows that at least nine of those have continued farming. Foxtail was an early adopter of MESA Stewards in 1999 when they hosted Vilma Gutierrez from Honduras and Peter Kubui Githaiga from Kenya. They’ve gone through a lot of transitions since then, including moving farm locations, and after a hiatus are now back to mentoring MESA Stewards. They got back in touch with MESA after a recent trip Chris took to Guatemala where she was inspired to work with international Stewards again. “When we were looking at the MESA candidates this year we wanted to find somebody who really wanted to be a farmer, not a recent graduate, not an academic or community organizer.” That is what they found in Juan Quispe, a 2011 MESA Steward from San Mateo, Perú. “He really wants to go home and farm."
Juan is partially funded by a SPRIG grant that he and Foxtail farm received together to help develop capacity on Foxtail farm in vermiculture and casting production. The goal for Foxtail is to scale up the operation to produce 3-4 tons of castings per year. Juan says the beginning of the project is going very well. “Since May, the number of worms has already quadrupled. I really like this project. I’ve always wanted to do it, and here I’ve had the chance to do it. It’s a really great project. The compost on my farm in Perú was doing well, but with the addition of worms, it will do much better. It’s really difficult to get worm castings in my town, you have to take a truck to the city, and it’s one of the most expensive soil amendments. In a few years I hope to be able to produce enough worm castings for my own farm and perhaps for other farms as well. I also won’t have as much of a problem with overwintering, because my climate is more temperate.” Juan says the samples of humus they have produced so far seem to be very good, and he’s looking forward to making the first large harvest this weekend. The next step is developing ways to overwinter the worms through the cold Wisconsin winter.
“This program is really great,” Juan says, “Each day one learns new things about the harvest and the different varieties. Now that the rain has ended, we’re doing drip irrigation. I’m glad to have experience with it. I’d studied it in the organic institute in Perú, but I hadn’t used it.” He now has plans for adapting their use with gravity-fed systems on the sloping lands he farms.
However, Juan has at least one reservation about his time in the US: he misses playing soccer. According to Juan, there are "No Sports In Wisconsin."