Pack-shed or people? That’s the question Les Macare and Els Dobrick are grappling with on a dank day in mid-March as they brave a biting wind to inspect the garden plots, cover crops, and outbuildings on Racing Heart Farm in western Wisconsin. With the exception of some onions sprouting in one of the hoop houses, little sign of the coming spring is in sight, but the vegetable farmers need to decide soon how they will approach the 2021 growing season. Like many Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) operations, COVID-19 launched Racing Heart on a bit of a roller coaster ride in 2020. Demand for shares exploded as the pandemic fueled concerns about the food system and people were spending more time at home, cooking.
“We had a hard time saying ‘no’ last year. We capped it at 100 members and then opened it up again when we were hearing everybody’s CSA was filling up,” recalls Macare. “And also we heard that one of our farmers’ markets was going totally online.”
As a result, the CSA portion of Macare and Dobrick’s farm more than doubled from 70 to 200 shares in one year. The vegetables produced for those shares were shifted away from what they had been selling through two farmers’ markets they serviced on a weekly basis, so they didn’t have to cultivate more land to meet the requirements of the expanded CSA enterprise. But there was one downside to the CSA-centric shift: preparing more share boxes means more time in the packing shed and less time with customers.
“We like the efficiency of the CSA but we also get a lot from the farmers’ market — it’s exhilarating, it’s fun, we get to have face-to-face interaction with the people who are seeing the vegetables right in front of them and oohing and ahhing,” says Macare.
Would 2021 be another mega-CSA year, or would they shrink back that portion of the enterprise to provide more face time at farmers’ markets? Fortunately, Dobrick and Macare feel equipped to make such decisions thanks to the training they received through the Land Stewardship Project’s Journeyperson Course. Through that experience, they learned that when making farming decisions, it’s not just about dollars and cents, productivity, and efficiency — it’s also about meeting the needs of every aspect of the farm in a holistic way, from the health of the soil to the quality-of-life of the farmers themselves.
That training has given them the tools to regularly “check in” and assess whether the decisions they are making contribute to the overall success of the farm or are leading them down unfruitful side roads.
“We can actually take a particular piece out if it’s not working for us and that’s okay,” says Dobrick. “We don’t have to just get so focused on one enterprise or spreading ourselves too thin, or focusing on something that isn’t working out.”
From Sand to Soil
The couple has been thinking a lot about how to stay true to their values since launching a small vegetable operation in Minnesota on a half-acre of rented land in 2014. They concede that first foray into farming together was a flop agronomically — it was on extremely sandy soil with a pH level only a pickle maker could love. But it helped them realize they liked farming and that they could work together raising food.
Neither Dobrick nor Macare grew up on a farm, although they both have grandparents with farming backgrounds. Macare, 38, grew up in Connecticut and has worked on vegetable operations on both the East and West Coast. Dobrick, 45, grew up in Minneapolis, lived in Seattle for a dozen years, and came to farming through an interest in native plants and small-scale gardening.
After the first year on the “sand farm,” they rented land for two more seasons on another piece of ground in the Twin Cities area. Through that experience, they gained more confidence in how to raise vegetables on a larger scale for a combination of farmers’ markets and CSA customers. But the couple felt they still lacked the business acumen needed to make farming a fulltime career.
“We had no idea how to do the finances and just having some structure sounded really nice,” says Dobrick.
In 2015, they enrolled in LSP’s Journeyperson Course to get grounded in nuts-and-bolts financial management. The year-long Journeyperson Course is designed to support people who have several years of managing a farm under their belt, and are working to take their operation to the next level. It provides advanced farm business planning, a matched savings account, and a mentorship, as well as guidance on balancing farm, family, and personal needs.
In a sense, Journeyperson is a good “post-graduate” step for people who take LSP’s Farm Beginnings course. However, like some other Journeyperson participants, Dobrick and Macare are actually not Farm Beginnings grads.
They found Journeyperson’s focus on Holistic Management particularly useful. Holistic Management, which was developed four decades ago by Allan Savory, focuses on “big picture” decision-making and goal setting processes. Savory’s expertise is in the area of livestock grazing, but over the years Holistic Management has helped farmers of all types, as well as other entrepreneurs and natural resource professionals, achieve a “triple bottom line” of sustainable economic, environmental, and social benefits. In a Holistic Management system, a farmer’s quality of life is put on the same level as the health of the soil or the operation’s economic viability. Holistic Management relies on a process of constantly monitoring whether a certain decision on the farm is helping meet long-term overall goals, or is just an off-ramp toward something that in the end may undermine a farmer’s values and needs.
For Macare, who studied “non-violent communication” some years ago, Holistic Management was a bit of a homecoming. Founded by Marshall Rosenberg, non-violent communication is based on the idea that every person has the same basic set of human needs, and every action that we take in life is an attempt to meet one of those universal needs.
“Basically, Holistic Management is non-violent communication for your farm,” says Macare. “When you think about holistic goals, you’re really talking about your needs, your values. Conflict only arises when we’re trying to meet those needs or values with a specific strategy.”
To reduce that conflict, one needs to keep in mind not only their own needs, but the needs of who they are farming with, as well as neighbors and the wider community, say Macare and Dobrick, adding that when they started farming together their romantic partnership was new. That meant having a framework for talking about bigger personal/farm business visions and goals was even more critical.
“Farming is very much a lifestyle, so having language to talk about that within a structure that we’re trying to create together is key,” says Macare. “It isn’t just about our relationship with the land, it’s also about how we interact together.”
A Useful Delay
Such relationships became even more real to the couple in 2017 when they purchased 36 acres of a former dairy farm in Wisconsin’s Dunn County. The farm is an hour-and-a-half from the Twin Cities and 25 miles from Menomonie, Wis., providing good access to markets. However, Dobrick and Macare ended up with more land than they need for their garden plots. They grow about 1.5 acres of vegetables — the rest is pasture and woods. The farm was sold to them by landowners who had listed it in LSP’s Seeking Farmers-Seeking Land Clearinghouse because they were looking for someone who would use it as a farm and a home, rather than just bulldoze the house and outbuildings and make it another corn-soybean field. Thus, the sellers were patient as Dobrick and Macare went through the eight-month application process of getting a USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) Beginning Farmer Loan.
Beginning farmers often express frustration over the lengthy FSA loan process, but Macare and Dobrick say the delay actually helped them become convinced they were ready to be landowners.
“After the second season of renting, I was ready to have our own place to invest in,” says Dobrick.
And the loan application process gave them a chance to put the Holistic Management financial plan they had developed through Journeyperson to good use.
“We could just hand over the spreadsheet to our loan officer and it made sense to her, it wasn’t just my chicken scratch note-keeping,” says Macare.
Having organized financials has also paid off since they moved onto the land and applied for other grants to help with developing infrastructure. In the past few years, they’ve received another FSA loan along with a private grant through the Lakewinds Organic Field Fund to help build a pack-shed. Macare and Dobrick also successfully applied for USDA Environmental Quality Incentives Program support to erect a second hoop house in addition to the one that was already present on the farm.
“It seems like every year we have occasion to organize and submit our finances to somebody,” Macare says.
In general, the news that those spreadsheets are relaying is good. Through expansion of markets and putting aside money on a regular basis (something they got accustomed to through Journeyperson’s matched savings account program), Dobrick and Macare are at a place where they aren’t relying on off-farm income to get by. This has provided them the ability to take a longer view of what they, and the land, need.
As the farmers walk the land on that March day, they point out areas where they want to establish more pollinator and other natural habitat. They also describe the no-till production system they are establishing as a way to build soil health and shield the land from the extreme weather that’s become more common as a result of climate change. With a combination of hay mulch, cover crops, broadforking, and utilizing landscape fabric to deny weeds access to sunlight, they’ve been able to avoid intense disturbance of the soil without using chemical-based weed control.
Long term plans include possibly using the rest of the farm as an incubator for other beginning farmers. They are currently letting a neighbor hay their extra open land, and there are possibilities for other enterprises. Dobrick and Macare feel that when they were launching their own farming operation, they benefited from having access to land through low-cost rental arrangements — now they’d like to pay it forward. After all, because of the topography and soil type present on the farm, they don’t see themselves raising vegetables on much more than the few acres that already make up the garden plots — that leaves a lot of real estate for other enterprises.
“It hasn’t been revealed to us yet what exactly we’re going to do,” says Dobrick. “We’re in the listening phase.”
They are also getting a chance to listen to other farmers in the region who are dealing with similar challenges and opportunities. Macare and Dobrick get together regularly with a group of other producers from a six-county area who direct-market what they raise. The group communicates via an e-mail listserv and holds “mini-conferences” every-other-year or so — the last one drew 50 to 60 people.
“It’s been really valuable to connect with other folks in this region,” says Dobrick. “I didn’t really know what we were getting into when we moved out here from Minneapolis. I was sort of worried about moving away from something, and I was so pleased to realize I actually moved towards something.”
…And Back to that Decision
So, fast forward: once the growing season arrived, where did Racing Heart Farm land on the question of spending more time in the pack-shed or with people? In some ways, it was a harder decision than what they faced in 2020, when the pandemic shut-down limited choices.
“In 2020 it was like, something happened, and we have to make decisions now, now, now,” says Dobrick, punctuating the words with a slap of the hands.
If the decision was based on pure economics and efficiencies, a 200-member CSA might have been the way to go. But in the end, after considering quality-of-life issues and what really excites them about farming, the vegetable producers went with an option somewhere in the middle. When they got word that at least one of the farmers’ markets they had served in the past would be open to in-person access, they decided to go with 120 CSA shares in 2021, which gave them the time and resources needed to still have face-to-face contact with customers at the market stall.
In this case, they didn’t just listen to their bank account, the land, or even the community — they also listened to themselves.