Organic Broadcaster

Thriving farmer looks to mentorship to increase production, efficiency

By Tony Ends

It’s an incredibly soggy, late season for many growers across a broad region, but Lovefood Farm’s spring greens and herbs laid out in their farmers market stand look beautiful. It’s growers David and Abby Bachhuber’s 5th year in business in the Madison area of Wisconsin. Their Lovefood Farm’s herbs and vegetables are in four stores, three weekly markets, more than 100 subscribers’ shares and a dozen restaurants.

So why would David pay now to be mentored by another grower through MOSES?

“I’m 41, so I know I can learn a lot by experience,” said David, answering questions between conversations with customers at Madison’s Eastside farmers market. “But if I mentor with someone, I can cut years off the learning process. A single tip that increases production by one percent or increases efficiencies by 5 minutes on a task, over the course of my farming career, the $350 fee is negligible. Truth of it is, I’ve probably already made it back.” Since the $350 cost of the MOSES Farmer-to-Farmer Mentoring Program also covers admission to the annual MOSES Organic Farming Conference at both the start and end of the mentorship—a $600 value—the mentor program is a wise investment, he added.

David’s mentor through the MOSES program is Steve Pincus, who, with his wife, Beth Kazmar, operates Tipi Produce just south of Evansville, Wis. MOSES honored Steve and Beth as Organic Farmers of the Year in 2016—the 40th anniversary of their own growing operation.

Steve Pincus (top) prepares a field for carrots at Tipi Produce near Evansville, Wis. David Bacchuber (bottom) of Lovefood Farm near Stoughton, Wis., persuades shoppers to buy his organic greens at the Madison Eastside Farmers Market. Bachhuber has signed up for the MOSES Farmer-to-Farmer Mentorship to gain insights from Pincus.
Photos by Tony Ends.

 

 

 

 

This is Steve’s third time to mentor a grower through the program, which aims to help build strong organic communities throughout the Midwest. MOSES makes mentorships available in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, North Dakota, and South Dakota. Learn more at mosesorganic.org/mentor-program.

Mentors help guide new organic farmers as they modify their operations to meet organic standards. Mentors share practical information about organic farming methods and USDA regulations. They offer insights that come from years of experience.

“I’ve got to pass this on, and not just to folks doing Community Supported Agriculture,” Steve said. “I’ve always been very committed to wholesale. We want to see these food co-ops keep going. We want to see farmers big enough and efficient enough to supply wholesale markets (with produce).”

Steve, Beth, and their staff grow organic vegetables on 45 acres. To accomplish that work, Tipi Produce keeps a payroll of 25 people busy tending and harvesting fresh produce enough to pack more than 500 CSA subscription boxes. Equipment and storage techniques focusing on 15 crops, especially root crops and cabbage, keep Steve and Beth busy almost year-round with wholesale accounts, too.

“The best thing somebody who wants to do this can do is go to work on a successful farm, ask lots of questions, spend time there,” Steve advised. “Arrange life so you can do that. Take advantage of the information that’s available now. Go to workshops and conferences.

“The current state of organics available to a person with a fresh start and ability to absorb information quickly in an area like Madison is that you can make it work. Interest is there; markets are there for supporting local, high-quality food.”

Experiencing the scale and infrastructure necessary to meet such a market self-sufficiently can help a young grower more than visualize a personal vocational future. It can help him or her experience important survival skills in a changing climate.

“We have nine active tractors, three for cultivating, but mostly general purpose,” Steve said. “We’ve added skilled employees and trained them up. At one point this past week we had five tractors running at the same time.”

Heavy rain well into June delayed planting and transplanting all around the Midwest. Yet Steve’s farm equipment and a capable staff to use it helped Tipi Produce catch up the instant the weather broke.

“We filled up 8 acres with the transplanter, and did a lot of cultivating,” Steve said. “We started on a Thursday afternoon, worked Friday, Saturday and then the rest of the week. It only took part of the crew to do it. With the right equipment and the right people to operate it, you can get a lot done.”

Steve’s new mentees, the Bachhubers, worked very hard at professional jobs in Madison and transitioned from the work into farming. These incomes helped them capitalize their initial operation. They also shrewdly took advantage of an incubator project at the Farley Center, which shepherds young growers in the Dane County area of Madison into farming.

Through the farm incubator, aspiring farmers get support with land, tools, education, and marketing assistance in the county’s only farm incubator. All production is certified organic through Midwest Organic Services Association. An adjacent neighbor contributes an additional 10 acres that came into production and cover crops in 2010.

At the Farley Center, aspiring entrepreneurs farm on about 16 acres. The growers cultivate a variety of vegetables, fruits, flowers, and herbs, including many Latino and Asian specialty crops.

“I also hired [a consultant] for help with marketing and labels through a USDA value-added producer grant for planning,” David said. “It helped us study feasibility to grow from tiny to totally self-sufficient with raw vegetables and fresh herbs for grocery stores.

“We’re searching for that ideal gross that yields enough for a good quality of life, and balance out for risks. The first-year volume was $18,000, the second was $26,000, and it doubled every year after that. We’re in our 5th year now.”

Being able this year to grow crops on a single property, which they now own near Stoughton, the Bachhubers have already received the first visit from their mentor.

“We talked about soil fertility a lot and Steve’s strategies that have and have not worked over the years,” David said. “We talked about a super simple farm layout and workflow. We bought a 4-wheel drive tractor this year, and we talked a lot to Steve about tooling and implements.”

Steve recognizes that it is his growing and soil improvement skills of more than 40 years that can best help David aspire to higher volumes and scales of production. Wholesale crops that are his and Beth’s specialty are very different from those the Bachhubers grow.

“His focus on herbs and more perennials is quite different,” Steve explained. “We focus on a very small percentage of perennials and herbs. He’s packaging herbs with a nice label. We let stores do the merchandising.

“I’ve advised him to start mechanizing—cultivating, transplanting; what’s appropriate to now and to where he wants to be in the future and how long it’s going to take to get there. I’ve talked to him about how to plant cover crops, spread compost from cattle and leaves.”

For carrots, for instance, Steve staggers planting and harvest for both CSA subscribers and wholesale markets by storage over the growing season and on into winter. Portions of an 8-acre cover crop of oats are worked up on a precise schedule, timed for the cover to break down, then plant to carrots with firm, reliable harvest dates.

An 80-inch Maschio rotavator with a roller/soil firmer provides finishing. It crumbles the clods after Steve works up the ground initially with a chisel plow. The soil firmer sets depth for smooth transplanting or planting. With sections of carrots 50 feet wide and 600 feet long, such mechanization is vitally important.

Steve keeps up with the latest in equipment for specialized uses through workshops and the trade show at the annual MOSES Conference. “The new European cultivating tools are amazing; Kult Kress, German-engineered fingerweeders, in particular, are very good,” he added.

On his farm mentoring visit, Steve also went over a soil test for the Bachhubers’ new place. They reflected together on the history of the land. Steve gave them ideas about where to go for organic soil amendments that Steve and Beth have found to be effective, as well as fair in price.

“David’s got an impressive herb packaging and distribution system. I think he’s got a great sense of business,” Steve said. “He’s got to get the farming down now if he wants to grow. He’ll need to spend time here gaining experience with equipment in the coming year.”

For his part, David greatly appreciates his mentor’s deep experience.

“You can make money when you are small, direct marketing and doing most of the work yourself,” he said. “But then comes the ‘trough of despair,’ and you want to grow past this in as short a period of time as possible without falling apart.” Also known as the trough of sorrow or trough of disillusionment, it’s the crash most growers feel following that inflated initial enthusiasm or exhilarating expectations when a novice must wade through ineptitude, fatigue, and the mistakes that come with a startup business.

David recommends the MOSES mentoring program to other beginning growers, adding that it helps new farmers through the climb to profitability and productivity by minimizing the pain of punishing mistakes faced alone.

Tony Ends and his wife, Dela, have been growing for CSA and markets for years at Scotch Hill Farm near Madison.

The MOSES Farmer-to-Farmer Mentoring Program takes applications for the 2020 year now through Oct. 31, 2019.

From the July | August 2019 Issue

 

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