A life on the land

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Traveling to Otter Creek Growers on an unseasonably warm October afternoon is a sigh-inducing, bucolic experience, the sort that causes city dwellers like myself to consider a permanent move to rural Western Wisconsin. The breeze blows gently, bringing with it an autumnal scent and the fluttering of orange and yellow leaves drifting down like confetti over the winding, hilly two-lane road. Ahead is vista after vista of brilliant fall colors, fresh-grown pumpkins, and rich dark loam. It’s an idyllic rural heaven.

I’m driving out to meet Don Roberts and Joni Cash, two longtime urban expatriates who have put down roots on a lovely patch of land about 30 miles north of Menomonie, where they hope to support themselves by growing vegetables for a select few Twin Cities restaurants, a local food co-op, and a few neighbors. “We’re happy to be here,” Cash says. “We’re really happy to be here.”

As idyllic as their life may appear, though, Cash and Roberts face serious obstacles to their dream of sustainable living on the land, not the least of which is the difficulty of rethinking the American farming model.

Insight and Innovation
For many years, Cash and Roberts ran a landscaping service in South Minneapolis and ran a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) operation in their spare time on a patch of land in Western Wisconsin they owned called Elsie’s Farm. It was a large operation: They had numerous families who owned a share in the farm and who came out to help on weekends, as well as three full-time employees and an intern. The farm provided vegetables to many Twin Cities restaurants, all the families who joined the CSA, as well as enough to stock a booth at the weekly Kingfield Farmers’ Market at 43rd and Nicollet.
The farm was a success in many ways—it built strong community ties, provided wholesome vegetables for hundreds of people, and offered Cash and Roberts a chance to experience the hard-working, rural lifestyle. But problems arose, mostly due to the amount of money and work required to sustain such an undertaking.

“If you do everything by the book—pay everyone fair wages, workers’ comp insurance, employee withholding—if you do that, you can go broke pretty fast,” says Cash. She went on to tell me that during their last year working Elsie’s Farm, everything went fantastically: Members of the farm were helping out, they got the right amount of rain, the crop yield was beyond what was expected, and none of their equipment broke. And yet, after they did all the accounting, they still found themselves in the red.

After seven years of cultivating land and growing vegetables, though, Cash and Roberts couldn’t give up life in the country, so they decided to scale back: They’d buy a smaller place, live and work there themselves, and hope to sell just enough produce to get by. Because money is tight, they’ve had to follow in the long tradition of growers who use all sorts of clever techniques to conserve energy and resources

“The future of farming—especially for small farmers—is going to depend on innovation,” Roberts explains. Using a technique popular in the American Southwest, Cash and Roberts expose huge, sealed-shut jugs of water to sunshine during the day and use the collected heat to keep a small greenhouse warm. Cash demonstrates how she begins growing many of her seeds in small growing trays inside the house, so that when one crop needs to be uprooted after its growing season, she can replace it with another crop that’s already been growing inside for a month, which allows the incoming batch to reach maturity faster.

They use a washing machine to dry out their spinach. According to Roberts, it’s a fairly common practice among small-timers: You disable the water mechanism and just use the spin cycle to dry out the leaves. “The actual industrial machinery for this sort of thing is quite expensive,” he says.

A Moral Responsibility
Over tea and cookies, Roberts talks about his vision of many thousands of small community-oriented farms and growers across the country, all of whom are committed to sustainable practices and fair trade. He and Cash agree that if such a large-scale movement were to take place and become financially viable, the farmers would all have to cooperate with each other.

The Internet, Roberts notes, is one of the most effective facilitators of communication and cooperation, and farmers need to embrace it if they want to adapt, use alternative technologies, and figure out ways to cut financial corners without skimping on the product. Cash points out that family farms would have to be strongly connected to nearby cities, both to save on transportation costs and to find loyal and appreciative supporters and customers.

Cash and Roberts aren’t working the land because they’re stuck in the past or because they have no other means of making a living. Rather, they’ve found a way of life that, as Cash describes it, “gets in your soul.” They not only get pleasure out of working their land, but they also feel, in some small measure, that they’re upholding a moral responsibility—a responsibility that, to them, is no burden.

The couple describes their life as full of hard work, but also natural beauty. The smell of the earth, the cultivating of the vegetables, the camaraderie of the neighbors—for Cash and Roberts, this is it.

Perhaps Roberts says it best: “Some people retire and they sit in a lawn chair or a beach chair in whatever city they go to—Miami, Phoenix, I don’t know—and they’re fairly sedentary and want to be entertained. We don’t do that. For us, we want to be outside working, growing, experiencing—so that’s what we do. That’s life for us.”

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