Aug 18, 2008Luna Circle Farm Keeps its Owner Busy
On the road toward a master’s degree in accounting, Tricia Bross took a detour and arrived at a somewhat different destination.
Now a grower and marketer of organic vegetables and herbs from her small Wisconsin farm 25 miles northeast of Madison, she displays a different set of skills.
Not only has her farm prospered, she’s an adviser to state government on organic vegetable matters and, in a university-sponsored workshop, instructs others who think her footsteps worth following. She’s been at it nearly 19 years. She started her first farm in 1990 and it was certified organic in 1991.
She sells produce most every Saturday at the Dane County Farmers’ Market, a vibrant market occupying eight city blocks on the grounds of the state Capitol in Madison. She also operates a 70-member subscription farm, delivering boxes of vegetables on Tuesdays for 20 weeks each summer and fall.
She grows about 50 crops on 4 acres and keeps another 4 or 5 acres tilled or in cover crops while she fights to suppress weeds like quackgrass and build soil quality until she rotates vegetables there.
Besides these things, every Monday she devotes time to writing for her farm’s Web site, a well-organized and highly readable vehicle she uses to communicate with her CSA clients. Her weekly Web site newsletter from “The Radish Buncher” lets them know what to expect in their weekly vegetable box and what to do with it.
When tomatoes came out in July, for example, her sprightly narrative started this way:
“Out with the peas and in with the cherry tomatoes and basil. It is a tasty trade. The cherry tomatoes are primarily the orange Sungold variety. I call them farm candy as they are such sweet, tasty treats. You also got a few pink grape tomatoes and maybe some black cherry tomatoes.
“Now we pick the cherry tomatoes slightly under ripe. I know this disappoints some people because they want us to pick them fully ripe. But by picking them a little under ripe we get to eat the tomatoes without some critter taking a bite out of them first. This means letting the tomatoes sit on your counter until they are fully orange, pink, or purple. Then you can fully enjoy these little bites of heaven.”
She continues by telling folks not to refrigerate tomatoes unless they’ve been cut and then offers some recipes. Everything on the Web site gets stored so past newsletters can be retrieved, and navigation bars along the side direct people to storage tips and recipes.
The newsletter is useful, too, in explaining how nature and farming interact. This year, after three years of drought making life difficult on her sandy soil, torrential spring rains and floods delayed planting – and one of the latest spring freezes ever May 28 further set back potential harvest dates.
Sometimes she ghostwrites a column from Riley, her dog, or from “the kitties,” giving their views of what life is like on her farm. In this appeal to kids, she figures if her dog likes vegetables, they should, too.
The Web site address is www.lunacirclefarm.com.
While the Web site reads like a personal letter from Bross to her CSA clients, her relationship with them is not as deep as it might be. She hosts some gatherings at the farm and offers a few shares-for-work, but, she says, “They don’t always come to events. I never see some of the CSA members. They come to distribution sites and pick up their vegetables.”
Since three of the four distribution sites are well away from the farm, some members don’t take advantage of the close personal contact with the farm that they could have.
On the plus side of the CSA, “I get money from them when there’s snow on the ground,” she said. A key benefit of Community Supported Agriculture is the payment in advance that provides working capital. She charges $525 for a share that provides a box of vegetables sufficient to feed one or two people every week for 20 weeks starting in May. She does offer a four-installment payment plan, but wants postdated checks in her hand by April 15 for the coming season.
But for sheer vibrancy, the Dane County Farmers’ Market on the Square is the place to be.
“I love the people, the carnival atmosphere,” she said.
The downside is the traffic, the conflict with other events happening near the Capitol, the demanding hours. But the plus side is 10,000 to 20,000 potential customers moving past the stall she has occupied on Saturdays for 19 years. She estimates that 60 percent of her income comes from the farmers’ market, 40 percent from the CSA.
How she started
Tricia grew up on a Wisconsin livestock farm. While in graduate school, she began to have “health issues,” and she noticed she felt better when she lived and worked on a small vegetable farm during the summers. It wasn’t long before she began interning on organic farms on the East Coast.
“Then things came together,” she said, and she began her own farm on rented land 100 miles north of Madison. Then, she bought land.
A lot of vendors at the farmers’ market drive in, she said, but she found the 100-mile trip tedious. So in 2002, she bought 20 acres 25 miles northeast of Madison and had to start the organic certification process all over. In 2005, the land was certified.
In describing her farm, she proudly states that “Luna Circle Farm is woman-owned and operated.” While she’s the sole proprietor, she gives credit to two full-time and four part-time hired workers (three are high school students there for the summer) and the four or five CSA members who choose to work one morning a week for their share of the vegetables. People who help her maintain her Web site get paid in produce as well.
“Luna Circle Farm began in 1990,” she says in the description she provides at the Dane County market. “Over the years, the farm has grown and changed and even moved from one patch of earth to another. Our commitment to low-input, small-scale agriculture has remained constant throughout the years. All of our produce is raised without synthetic pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers.
“Techniques such as rotating crops, using living mulches, growing cover crops, providing beneficial insect habitats and seed-saving help us to move toward a self-sustaining farm ecosystem. At Luna Circle Farm, we strive for high-quality, tasty food that reflects the beauty of the place where it is grown.”
Vegetables include beans, beets, bok choy, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cantaloupe, carrots, cauliflower, cucumbers, eggplant, garlic, gourds, greens, kohlrabi, leeks, lettuce, onions, green onions, peas (shell and snaps/pods), peppers, potatoes, pumpkins, radishes, spinach, edible soybeans, winter squash, summer squash, tomatoes, turnips, broccoli raab, fennel, kale, parsley root, pea tendrils, salsify, parsnips, Swiss chard, tomatillos and sweet potatoes.
“I don’t grow sweet corn because it takes too much space, and I don’t grow rutabagas,” she said. “I don’t grow things I don’t like to eat.”
Her approach in growing is to organize her crops into four fields, grouping plants of a similar family into an area and then shifting them the next year to achieve a four-year crop rotation. That’s the theory, anyway. Flooding this spring required making some adjustments.
Dane County market
“The Dane County Farmers’ Market is a fantastic market, and I owe a lot of my initial success to it,” Tricia said.
On its Web site, it’s claimed to be “the largest producer-only farm market in the United States.” The market keeps tough rules about participation – producers only, no resale – and it’s located across the street from city property that hosts arts and craft vendors.
The market was started in 1972 by a city mayor who championed the cause to get it and who gathered support from the Chamber of Commerce and Dane County Extension. It has about 300 vendors, but only room for 150 on a given day. It’s open Saturdays all year and Wednesdays during the summer.
Those with seniority can have stalls for the season, but they must arrive between 5 and 6:15 a.m. for set-up or their stall will be rented to those who want daily stalls. Fees runs about $20 a day for a 16-foot stall. Wednesday is cheaper.
The market operates in three segments – summer Saturdays, winter Saturdays, and summer Wednesdays. There are some “missing” weeks when the market doesn’t operate.
Tricia doesn’t have enough produce to carry through the winter, but she does rent some daily stalls early in the winter to sell sweet potatoes, potatoes, squash and some cold-hardy vegetables like broccoli, kale and Brussels sprouts.
In additional to her field-grown crops, she operates two (soon to be three) double-layer plastic 30- by 95-foot hoop houses in which she does an extended season on tomatoes and is able to get an earlier start on the spring season. She also grows all her cherry tomatoes inside. The new hoop house going in this year will be for greens, ending the conflict with tomatoes for space.
Learning and teaching
Tricia’s long association with organic farming has given her experience and credibility.
She was appointed as the vegetable representative on the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture’s Organic Advisory Council, which means giving up a full day “quarterly” for a meeting. Actually, she said, the council has been meeting seven times a year.
She also teaches in a three-day workshop in January called “school for beginning market growers,” organized by the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems at the University of Wisconsin. Tricia finds the students are very receptive to her practical knowledge.
Still, she doesn’t have all the answers. She works at trying to find organic solutions to organic producer problems.
This summer, for example, she is trying to find a better way to suppress quackgrass on her open land. A third of the land is being tilled repeatedly, a pretty standard approach to depleting the vitality of quackgrass rhizomes. Another two-thirds was planted to sorghum-sudangrass, a vigorous cover crop. Half of it will be mowed to evaluate whether that will suppress the quackgrass better than the cover crop alone.