If there’s nothing else we’ve learned from movies like Food, Inc. and announcements like this in the New York Times last week, we’ve learned there’s a lot of value in knowing about where your food comes from, how it is handled, and what ingredients and processes are involved.
From June through October, my vegetables and eggs are coming from Suncrest Gardens in Cochrane, WI (which is 20.3 miles from my house, according to Google Maps). My husband and I subscribe to a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) at Suncrest Gardens. This is our fourth season. Suncrest Gardens is owned and run by Heather Seacrist. I hadn’t seen Heather since the first year I signed up for the CSA, and this was my first visit to her farm. I wish I had visited the farm sooner. I went on a rainy Friday with Connie (of My Part) so we could see what Heather’s operation is like, and to see how and what she is doing.
I am much better for the experience. I already have entrusted Heather by eating her eggs, chickens, berries and vegetables for three years now, but I feel even better about it now, having talked to her and seen her operation. It’s clear to me that she had an excellent business plan when she started, and she’s great at implementing new ideas as things have grown. Her CSA now has 70 subscriptions, so she feeds about 150 people through weekly and bi-weekly shares from her 16 acres, though not all of the acreage is in production. (In Food, Inc., Michael Pollan quotes the average as 126 people fed per American farmer)
Heather and her crew of interns and working subscribers serve more people with her wood-fired brick oven on Thursday Pizza Nights.
Above is Heidi Carlson, a full-season intern on the farm this year, after picking asparagus from the front field. You can see part of the barn to the left, and part of the hoop house off to the right.
These are the new crop of soon-to-be egg layers, hanging out in the barn where it was warm, with the adolescent rooster who is learning to crow.
After meeting the “new recruits”, we got to see what’s growing outside the barn. I don’t have pictures of everything, but here are a few highlights.
Here is some lettuce, mesclun, spinach, and kale.
Here is a calf being raised for beef, already on its grass-only diet. I can’t remember what this calf’s name is.
This movable shelter, surrounded by electrified net fence, allows the chickens to be inside out of rain and wind, or outside, eating bugs and grass, at their whim, but protect them from predators. After a few days, Heather will move the fencing and hoop house to fresh pasture. The chickens eat up the grass and bugs, and fertilize at the same time.
The laying hens have a similar caravan and fence arrangement, but with nest shelves. I’m happy to see the birds out doing what they want to, knowing that I’ll have their eggs in my kitchen through the fall.
Here is Mama Llama (on the lookout) and her son, Rocky, who patrol the farm’s periphery, watching for and fending off predators. Mama Llama has been known to wake Heather up with her whistling if she smells coyotes, and has the claim to fame of actually killing one by stomping it with her front legs. Don’t mess with Mama Llama.
Here is part of one of the vegetable planting beds, which has about 500 lbs. of garlic seed. You can see the dog, (which is about 75 lbs). in the distance, as a scale reference. Heather says garlic seed is very expensive as seed goes, and she’s gradually increasing her stocks by saving the best seeds each season, and adding a bit more. This is all the same variety of garlic, a German type that is bred for hardiness.
In some of her vegetable beds, Heather has grown crops like alfalfa and oats as winter cover crops that are then tilled into the soil before planting to provide nutrients for the soil. In this case, she is growing the oats with the Sugar Snap Peas as a means of structure for the pea vines. As the plants grow taller, the vines will wrap around the oat plants, using them as a natural stakes to keep the pea plants upright. The oat plants can also act as mulch, preventing weeds and erosion. How cool is that?
In addition to the land that is in cultivation and pasture, an important part of Suncrest Gardens farm is the area near the farmhouse and barn, which is in production in a different way, as a place for Pizza Night. What appears to be a bit of a playground is also an area for seating, for musicians, and for the pizza creation and service. This is also an area where customers can see the animals, and learn more about how the food is grown.
These new pens are near the barn, so that the calves and chickens can hang out on pizza night and be social with the pizza customers, since educating customers about the farm, what she grows, and the way she grows it is a big part of Heather’s mission. She wants the kids and adults who come to her farm to see the animals, and see how their food is produced.
On one side of the barn’s ell, you order your pizza.
Then Heather and her crew prepare the pizzas in this room off the ell,
and it’s into the hot wood-fired oven. (We visited on a Friday mid-day, and the oven was still warm inside, after the previous night’s pizza fire. Heather also uses the pizza oven to dry herbs and sometimes to bake bread.)
On the opposite side of the ell is where you pick up your pizza when it’s done. The number you were given when you ordered your pizza will be put up on display, so you can check where you are in the order line while you are waiting. Once a month, Heather has live music on pizza night. She said she likes live music, but forgets to go out to hear it, so she has them come to the farm instead.
I’m looking forward to taking a group of friends out for pizza this summer season. I want to see the oven in action.
I don’t have pictures of the hoop house, or the cool root cellar, or the berry vines, and I haven’t told you any of the great stories or conversations we had with Heather about many more interesting things. Hopefully I’ll have more photos and anecdotes later on.
It’s hard for me to summarize all my thoughts about this visit. I’m so impressed with how well run this farm is, and about how smart, thoughtful, and careful Heather is about what she’s doing. I feel lucky to know her, and to be one of her customers. (No, I am not getting any of my eggs or veg for what I’m writing) Perhaps the best way to sum it up is to show you the sign you see as you go out the driveway.