Organic Broadcaster

Madison market farmers take home 2016 Organic Farmers of Year award

By Jody Padgham, MOSES

Beth Kazmar and Steve Pincus of Tipi Produce in Evansville, Wis. are the 2016 MOSES Organic Farmers of the Year.
Photo by Paul Sloth

Longtime organic farmers Steve Pincus and Beth Kazmar of Tipi Produce in Evansville, Wis. (near Madison) are the 2016 MOSES Organic Farmers of the Year. This prestigious award recognizes organic farmers who practice outstanding land stewardship, innovation and outreach. Steve and Beth received their award recently at the 2016 MOSES Organic Farming Conference.

Steve and Beth run a 76-acre MOSA-certified organic vegetable operation with several long-term employees, marketing to wholesale accounts and a 500-box CSA in and around Madison and Milwaukee. They focus on crops and varieties suited to their ever-improving soil, creating efficiencies, and providing livable wages and working conditions to workers. This has kept the operation thriving in various locations for over 40 years.

Steve first connected with farmers as co-founder and manager of Outpost Natural Foods in Milwaukee.

“I fell in love with farming, and then just jumped in,” Steve explained. “I had to learn everything. But, my family’s history of small business, and my love for independence, being outdoors and machinery made it a perfect fit.”

Steve learned farming and developed Tipi Produce over 13 years on a steep ridgetop near Gays Mills, but then moved the operation closer to his primary market in Madison.

“That ridgetop wasn’t a good vegetable farm,” Steve said. “And, I wanted to go to school, and be closer to my market.”

He found a 20-acre fertile farm to rent just outside Madison city limits that had been used for a u-pick and had an irrigation system. Farming there and selling at the Dane County Farmers’ Market, Steve attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison, earned a horticulture degree, and met Beth, a researcher in plant pathology. Beth joined the farm, they married in 1999, and soon were expecting their first child. Now their kids are teenagers; Sophie is 17 and Ari is 13.

In 2001 Beth and Steve were “busting at the seams” on the rental farm, and began the process of finding a place they could buy and expand their operation. With a criteria of good vegetable ground close to Madison, they settled on their current 76 acres outside of Evansville after three years of searching. Most of the farm had been fairly well managed, although 40 acres had been in corn for 17 years with no amendments applied.

“This farm had the right soil type, but medium fertility,” Steve noted, claiming organic matter was less than 1.5 percent.

A solid commitment to organic practices showed in Steve and Beth’s approach to bringing up the soil health on their new farm. With no livestock, they used cover crops extensively to increase organic matter and strengthen fertility.

The first year they continued raising vegetables on the rented land and planted 15 acres of cover crops on the new farm. Continuously cover cropping, (sweet clover, rye, and hairy vetch), they added several acres of vegetable production each year. Some fields were continuously cover cropped for seven years.

Steve now claims that organic matter levels are generally over 2 percent, up about a half percent over the entire farm. A few highly erodible areas were left to stay fallow, and now the vegetable fields are interspersed with uncultivated areas that are in bloom regularly, supporting pollinators. They have added poultry manure, compost, and maple leaves brought in from the city. After 14 years, now they can’t tell the difference between the abused corn ground and the rest of the land. While they do occasionally run soil tests on the farm, Steve claims that they know by the crops that the soil is active and strong.

“The crops now are so much healthier,” he said. “It took five or six years before we really felt this land was working as an organic farm.”

“We can see the organic matter digesting faster,” Beth added. “That is telling us that there is more biological life in the soil.”

Workplace Success
Beth’s passion for plants and Steve’s love of machinery meld into an ideal farm partnership.

“It would be very hard to be a solo owner and manage the diversification that has helped us succeed,” Beth noted. They also credit their success to several long-term employees.

“Some of our employees have been with us for 14, 15 years,” she said. “They have helped create this farm with their work and their personalities.” Without these stabilizing workers, and their long memories, Beth claimed that it would be difficult for the farm to be as successful as it is now.

Beth and Steve made an intentional plan to pay a livable wage, provide year-round work (now for six employees), and as much as possible to keep work hours from 9 to 4:30 or occasionally 6 p.m. Monday through Friday. Some long-timers make $20 an hour, and a few have bought homes and are raising families on their farm wage.

“We are committed to not wearing people out,” Beth said. “We want them to have a life off the farm.” They also are committed to sharing responsibility, and have a crew manager and crop managers.

“Steve is 68 now; he wants to work less,” Beth explained. “That means our crew is even more valuable to the farm.” With 15-20 employees each year, they do see worker transition, but generally for good reasons.

“One of the proud legacies of our farm is the many young people that we’ve encouraged, that have started their own farms. We are helping to train the next generation of farmers,” she added.

What Grows Best

Steve Pincus tours the fields of Tipi Produce.
Photo by Beth Kazmar

Steve pointed out that, while they pay employees well, they are known in their markets as providing excellent organic produce at a reasonable cost. He claimed that they can do this by concentrating on “growing what is best suited to this farm,” utilizing numerous efficiencies and balancing their markets.

“We concentrate on what grows well here—carrots, melons, peppers, zucchinis—that is what we are known for in our wholesale markets,” Steve said. Broccoli doesn’t do so well for them, and though they do grow some for the CSA, they let other farms provide it to their wholesale accounts.

“Carrots are about 30 percent of our wholesale crop,” he noted. “Our markets count on us for good carrots.” This concentration justifies creating systems that work well for this crop. For instance, they just went in with another farm to import a $50,000, 8-year-old carrot harvester from Sweden.

“We retired a 55-year-old piece of equipment, after thinking about it for a few years, now it made sense.” Steve laughed that he doesn’t make these kind of big investments lightly. “We’re low-cost producers, we’re not artistic about it.” He pointed out that they plan to produce carrots for a long time, and so the expense of this harvester makes sense.

“We make investments very carefully, we have always chosen a low-end path.” He also explained that they are set up to manage heavy loads, with strong trucks and end loaders. “Carrots weigh a lot more than salad mix,” he laughed. “We’re set up for heavy stuff.”

Market Diversity & Stability
When Steve moved the farm to Madison he was selling at the Saturday Dane County Market, a great venue for Tipi. But, after 27 years of success at the Madison market, they decided that Beth should quit her off-farm job and concentrate on a transition to a CSA. They ran their last full year at the Madison market in 2003 and started the CSA in 2004.

“I was pregnant. We were running two farms. We were moving. We needed farming to be simpler,” Beth explained. She was able to concentrate on developing the CSA, managing all of the logistics. Within two seasons, sales through the CSA surpassed their farmers’ market sales.

“The balance of the CSA and the wholesale markets are what really make the farm work,” Steve claimed. The CSA accounts for 45 percent of sales, and wholesale makes up 55 percent. They grow a wide diversity of crops for the 26-week CSA, and don’t use any season extension other than careful storage.

“If we grow too much of something for the CSA, like green beans or squash, we can sell it to our wholesale markets,” Steve said. He feels this flexibility protects the CSA, and allows them to maintain a larger reservoir of produce. If supply is short, the CSA gets first dibs.

Tipi has maintained long relationships with its wholesale markets, and meets annually with buyers that they’ve been working with for many years.

“We have store staff regularly come out to the farm for a field day, there is a lot of back and forth between our wholesales and the farm,” Steve said. Tipi ships produce 10 or 11 months of the year, with 15-20 percent of the farm’s sales between Thanksgiving and April. “We intentionally store and sell produce so that we can support employees through the winter,” he added.

Sharing What Works
An openness and commitment to sharing is the bedrock of Tipi Produce philosophy. Steve and Beth have hosted numerous field days on the farm, and have regular visits from a diversity of groups, including Beth’s favorite, a cohort of scientists and students from Latin America. Beth’s background as a plant researcher is valuable in many ways, including building connections with several UW Researchers who have done projects on the farm. Tipi has hosted on-farm carrot variety trials, and a grad student is currently doing organic carrot seed research.

“With new, younger scientists coming in, we are seeing organic getting more respect at the UW,” Beth said. “There is a lot of interest in the biology, in finding organic solutions to problems, in interpreting the science.”

They love having CSA members come out to the farm, and are especially enthralled by the children. “These interactions with kids are really important,” Beth said. “We can show them how farming works, how food is grown.” Three annual u-picks for CSA members are very popular, with 300-400 people coming out to the farm to pick berries or collect pumpkins. The farmers specifically plan six to eight crops each year for members to come out to pick for their freezers.

The couple loves sharing what they have learned and helping others succeed, and regularly do presentations at conferences and other educational events.

“For everything we pass on to a new farmer, we have learned two things from someone else,” Steve said.

“Learning from other farmers, relying on that community, has been critical to our success,” Beth added. They noted that groups such as Home Grown Wisconsin Co-op, and Madison Area Community Supported Agriculture Coalition (MACSAC, now FairShare CSA Coalition), as well as events like the MOSES Organic Farming Conference help to coalesce farmers, to bring people together to share ideas.

“This is not something we have done alone,” they chimed in together. “We are part of a much bigger movement.”

Jody Padgham is the financial director for MOSES.

From the March | April 2016 Issue

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