Interview With a Farmer: Garden to Be
by Ali Seiter
This post serves as the third of my “Interview With a Farmer” series. Through this series, I hope to cultivate a deeper relationship with small-scale, organic vegetable farmers, both in the Madison and Poughkeepsie—my hometown and my college town—areas, and to offer insight toward the staggering importance in supporting these hard-working, noble individuals, who act as the backbones in the fight against overly-industrialized agriculture.
While I don’t interact with Scott Williams of Garden to Be as often as I’d like to during the summer, I look forward to seeing his smiling face every weekend at the indoor farmers market in the winter. Scott’s baby shooted vegetables including peas and sunflowers, as well as his microgreens, often grace my daily salads, reminding me of the honorable work he performs both as a farmer and as an activist for social justice. A beamingly positive and optimistic attitude in the face of unpredictability on the farm and the responsibility of raising two children inspire my ardent admiration of Scott, who truly understands and effectively elaborates on small-scale agriculture as a means of social change. In addition to his primary endeavor of supplying produce to restaurants and grocery stores, Scott also offers a “storage” CSA share that provides large quantities of vegetables commonly used for pickling, canning, freezing, and other forms of preservation.
Farmers Market Vegan: Tell me about your farm—where it is, what you grow, if you have a CSA, etc.
Scott Williams: We’re 20 miles southwest of Madison, near Mount Horeb, right in the corner of Dane County. My wife, April, and I own seven acres and rent six more directly adjacent to us from Roger Sponem, one of the original owners of the land. He lives at a farm across the road; the land was his wedding present back in the 50′s. It’s really cool to have that connection with a heavily experienced farmer, to see his old tractors, and to have his blessing shining down on us. All our land is certified organic. We have two greenhouses that are roughly 1,200-1,500 square feet each, and operate one of them year-round to grow the microgreens and pea shoots that we sell at the Dane County Farmers Market, the Willy Street Co-op, and Metcalfe’s. But since 2000, we’ve sold primarily to restaurants in both the Madison and Milwaukee areas.
FMV: You mentioned your organic certification, about which I’ve previously spoken with a couple other farmers. Do you find it difficult to maintain the certification?
SW: No, we do really well with it since I’m meticulous about record-keeping. I don’t find any of the rules too overly cumbersome, but it does involve a lot of paperwork. I used to do it all by hand—no computer or email for our first few years—but once we got Quickbooks in 2005, everything became much easier to keep track of. The application is fairly long, but our farm doesn’t do anything suspicious in terms of the questions to which the certifiers pay the most attention—our methods don’t change that much from year to year; we don’t use very many off-farm inputs other than seeds, potting mix, and compost; we don’t buy much in the way of chemicals, organically approved or not; and we don’t have both organic and non-organic production to keep separate. Everything we do is dedicated to organic production and we use really reputable sources for our seed and supplies. I like our certifying agent, MOSA; they’re easy to talk to and have always sent pretty good inspectors. I think there’s a twinge of cynicism in organic certification since the USDA is involved, and we all know that they are influenced by large corporate farms that do whatever they want—if they get help up in litigation for a supposed offense, they’ll just continue with it and call it organic, usually without USDA interference. But large farms are not specifically our competition. I’m happy to say that most people who buy from us can easily meet us—we’re at market during four months of the year, the restaurant chefs know us really well, and they introduce us to their staff—which makes for lot of interim trust and well-cultivated relationships that set us apart from those industrialized “organic” farms.
FMV: What originally brought you into the world of farming?
SW: Food politics and social responsibility. April and I were vegetarian for a super long time, and I recognized diet, food production, and food transportation throughout the world as political issues pretty early in my life—probably in high school, like you! [Motions to me.] At that point, I started gardening and working in social justice businesses, nonprofit organizations, and cooperatively owned businesses until I found myself in Madison and met Steve Pincus, the owner of and farmer at Tipi Produce, as well as one of the original founders of Outpost Natural Foods in Milwaukee and one of the most senior members of the Dane County Farmers Market. I had worked previously on a farm in Michigan, but the concept of small farming as a political statement didn’t make full sense to me until I started working with Steve on a farm in close proximity to a rather large city. I recognized that he was growing food for real people and deeply admired the amount of attention that he paid toward stewarding his little corner of the world. Steve worked with a lot of retailers and grocery stores, but only a couple of restaurant chefs would come and buy at the farmers market, like Odessa Piper, the original owner of L’Etoile. As a single young man who ate out for most of his meals, I didn’t want to hunt halfway around the world to find tasty, local, organic dining options, and became interested primarily as a farmer in collaborating with restaurants. The philosophy that April and I have always shared is that we all have a responsibility to one another other and to the land we live on, so sliding toward the world of farming and expanding that responsibility to restaurants seemed quite natural.
FMV: Can you talk a little bit more about how farming connects to the social justice movement?
SW: I think at this point, I see that who we are, how we’re connected, and how we take care of each other is intrinsic in being able to take care of ourselves—food is a huge part of that. Take the programs April and I are involved in, for instance: we’ve always been members of the Fair Share CSA Coalition, we host farm tours for school groups, we hosted Bike the Barns a few years ago, we’ve served on the committee to start the Partner Shares Program that helps provide CSA shares to low-income families, and April is currently serving as a consultant for the Spring Rose Growers Cooperative, which is a co-op of Hmong- and Latino-American farmers who are trying to branch out and sell their produce at other outlets besides just markets around the city. April’s role is to create better marketing solutions to make the farmers more profitable and and their businesses more sustainable.
FMV: What would you identify as the greatest rewards and hardships about farming, respectively?
SW: Maybe I could start with the hardships. I think it always strikes people that where we live doubles as where we work. It’s sort of an adage, but there’s always something to do on the farm, and it’s a little difficult to manage work and leisure time, especially with a family. This year, for example, we didn’t see rain for two months and I had to run irrigation constantly. I can put off moving sprinklers and setting up drip lines by 15-20 minutes here and there, but otherwise it’s a very scheduled process. My alarms were always going off reminding me to go move the irrigation, go turn off the sprinkler, go turn that on—interrupting story time, bath time, or lunch. So one of the hardships is trying to balance separate aspects of life, because you’re right on the farm all the time. There’s also hardship in trying to grow food when certain factors are not entirely predictable. But even when some things aren’t working out, some things are, and it’s really rewarding to hear how much people enjoy the food, especially when the restaurant chefs to whom we supply our produce are recognized. To know that we provide one of the elements that’s a part of a chefs’ palate in creating these awesome menus, dinners, and experiences for somebody dining out is when I can truly say, “Oh, I’m so proud of what we do!” It’s an honor to work with artists and scientists who are very successful in such a competitive business field. Plus, it’s awesome to see my kids getting involved with food and showing interest in the farm, whether they’re playing on the tree swing or in the creek, or actually harvesting the produce and eating it. My son loves to cook, and to watch him learn and grow is so rewarding.
FMV: How long have you sold your produce at the farmers market?
SW: Garden to Be became a member of the Dane County Farmers Market in 2000 and started selling regularly in 2002 since there was a two-year waiting list. But by 2004, we started scaling our market stand back and shifted to selling primarily to restaurants, though we do still go to the winter market and have been for two years.
FMV: Even though you don’t attend the market as often as the farmers who sell every weekend year-round, do you enjoy selling there?
SW: I really do. I love the interaction and seeing regulars. For example, Johnny would buy the same thing every week. Then one day, he changed his mind and bought something new! I asked him, “Oh, what’s happening here?” He told me, “I’ve been in a rut. This week, I’m not buying the same of anything.” After that, I had a fun time asking myself, “I wonder what he’s going to buy this week!” I always think about that close connection with people that we meet and get to know at the market. I love the atmosphere and the spectacle of the market outside; it’s so exciting.
FMV: What are your thoughts on the food culture in Madison and the people who visit the market?
SW: First of all, what I tell my family and friends who live outside of Wisconsin is that Madison is so supportive of the important aspects in getting on the right track toward a healthy and sustainable food system. People recognize the importance of healthy food and taking care of our land in a sustainable manner, then they spend their money on it. They could be spending their money on anything other than food because, let’s face it, good food is expensive. But 10,000-plus people show up at the market every week and spend their money with local businesses on better food—raw food—that they then prepare themselves. It’s just amazing. The market’s been here since 1972, and I think what might be considered a regional cuisine has been forged out of relationships made at that market. For instance, Odessa Piper opened L’Etoile in 1976 and became the first chef in Madison to shop at the market from local farmers; now you see dozens of chefs bringing wagons around the market every week. That market has helped shape what has become a growing trend. I mean, how many cities do you go to where there’s that much attention paid to what produce is in season?
FMV: Do Madison’s qualities make you hopeful that similar attitudes toward food will expand to the rest of the nation?
SW: Yes, and they have. For example, in the time that Madison’s been involved in the sustainable food movement, the food scene in Chicago has changed dramatically. The Green City Market has grown, there’s dozens more markets there, and their attention toward food has now shifted from that of other big cities. The shift has started in other places, too. April and I visit family in the Cleveland, Ohio area, which is still sort of desolate to me in terms of where to eat, but there are a lot of great things happening there right now—farmers run CSA’s and deliver to restaurants, which they’ve never done before. I think that the Saturday market on Capitol Square has had one of the biggest impacts on the food scene in Madison in the last 40 years. It’s done so much to shape our restaurants, our co-ops, and our grocery stores, and has started a national organic trend.
FMV: As a small farmer, are you encouraged or discouraged with the current climate of food production, both in Wisconsin and beyond?
SW: I remain pretty encouraged and try to keep a smile. We still have to improve the energy usage and transportation portion of food production. But large-scale industries are turning toward smaller suppliers now—Target, for example, carries organic products—and I’m definitely leery. Prior to having organic certification standards and knowing what any particular label might mean, we had to read a lot, and now we’re reading again. Alright, so a product is “certified organic”. But are they asterix-ing certain ingredients? It just reminds me how much responsibility rests with us as individuals to constantly push the envelope. Though, it’s really nice to know that, at the very least, there’s more attention paid to the types of chemicals used and more public money supporting energy efficiency in food production, s0 hopefully we’ll see more of that.
FMV: You mentioned earlier that you supply your produce mainly to restaurants and grocery stores. Can you talk more specifically about that?
SW: Yes, we supply to about 30 restaurants and grocery stores around Madison. Both of the Willy Street Co-op locations and two of the Metcalfe grocery stores mainly carry our microgreens and young shooted vegetables like buckwheat, sunflowers, and peas. As for restaurants, we offer larger quantities of produce, both pre-cut and still in the flats. The latter way, the chefs can cut as they want it, which is nice, especially for certain places like Shinji Muramoto’s restaurants—he can put the flat right out on the sushi counter and display the food that his diners will eat at that very meal, which is exciting. (You can find a full list of restaurants and grocery stores to which Garden to Be supplies here.)
FMV: What advice would you give to aspiring farmers?
SW: Go to the MOSES Organic Farming Conference. Work part-time or full-time on a farm. Do some research, pick a farm, and work on it. Read This Life is in Your Hands by Melissa Coleman. It’s a very honest, no-nonsense look at the nostalgic feeling that everyone gets from her father, Elliot Coleman—the master of organic market gardening right now. He’s written these manuals and workbooks that every CSA and small organic farm has copies of. Melissa’s book is a lot more about the hard work involved in farming and how much of your life you have to devote to it. There are a lot of jobs that require the same amount of work, I think, but farming is definitely as much a lifestyle as it is just a job—April and I hadn’t anticipated that. By the time we started realizing it, we were knee-deep in the farming world and completely addicted. But it’s a lot to consider—you’re a business owner, you need to understand so many things that you don’t think of in terms of personal gardening, you’re taking your passion out of a hobby realm and into a responsible business realm. I’d recommend reading anything that provides some sort of insight into the balancing working and living on a farm, as well as how to make sure you’re meeting your needs. Also, you need to have some experience. There’s nothing harder than being a beginning farmer who’s started a CSA and has taken both money and memberships, then spends their entire first year overcoming weeds and getting discouraged or despondent. It’s a really good idea to figure out a lot of those fundamentals while working for somebody else—they can cover for you, direct you, and guide you. Luckily, there’s a lot of resources for aspiring farmers to gain experience—the Fair Share CSA Coalition’s website offers all sorts of resources for first-time farmers and is updated pretty frequently. Michael Fields also offers internships and workshops, as well as links farms together so that interns or just agriculture-curious people can tour farms for a day.
FMV: Do you think that the Madison/Wisconsin area serves as a good place to start a small farm?
SW: I think there’s still tons of room, tons of business, tons of commitment toward, and tons of demand for local, organic food in Wisconsin. People here are very creative and open to both new ideas and really old ideas that haven’t been tested in the area before. It’s nice to see people who aren’t of Southeast Asian descent buying Asian melons and gourds from Hmong farmers out of curiosity, or experimenting with interesting herbs usually grown in Mexico. The average shopper in Madison and at the farmers market is savvy—they watch the Food Network, read cookbooks, pick up copies of Edible Madison magazine, and read restaurant reviews. They have direct access to what Tory Miller is doing inside L’Etoile. They can experience all these creative uses for food that they think they knew all about. It’s a great place to be and to grow food.
FMV: What is your favorite fruit or vegetable growing on the farm?
SW: That is really hard to narrow down. Every year, I’ll have my annual favorites. Last fall, for example, I randomly started growing salad turnips for the first time in a while—really sweet, white turnips with young, tender greens. I have this salad mix seeder and I decided that I would plant them really thick with baby turnips; they turned out so delicious. For about two months, I ate them all the time and decided that they were my favorite vegetable. But in this really weird way, I have always loved growing peppers and potatoes, even though they aren’t greatly marketable crops for us. I thought that for the amount of labor and space put into those crops, I couldn’t effectively charge as much as I would need to. But after the few years that we didn’t grow potatoes, I thought, “Man, why did we ever stop growing potatoes?” I love harvesting them, digging them, watching them grow, and trying to outsmart potato beetles. Peppers, too. There were years when I was growing just one or two plants of thirty pepper varieties—I just love their diversity. Those two vegetables, longevity-wise, are my favorites.
FMV: I’ve never heard anyone talk so passionately about potatoes and peppers.