CSA NOTEBOOK: Harmony Valley Farm, Wisconsin

Over-Abundance: Mid-Summer at Harmony Valley CSA
AUGUST: What you DON’T put in your box may be as important as what you do. And having other markets that can absorb overproduction are essential.

By Linda Halley, Harmony Valley Farm



Harmony Valley Farm
Viroqua, Wisconsin

Location: About 90 miles northwest of Madison and about 30 miles south of La Crosse

Years farming: Since 1973

Total acres: 75 (approx. one acre per crop)

Crops: Over 60 berries and vegetables, from wild leeks and celery root to raspberries and pumpkins.

Season: Start harvesting in April, finish in early November. CSA deliveries start the first Saturday in May, and extend into December.

Regenerative practices:
Extensive cover cropping
Annual applications of compost, permanent hedgerows as habitats for insect predators
No-till vegetable production to reduce erosion and improve soil structure
Detailed record-keeping

Marketing: CSAs, farmers markets, wholesale distribution, restaurants, farm stand, local retail stories



August 22 , 2003: Everything is a little late here in the upper Midwest. Normally we have picked a few watermelons, corn and tomatoes by now. This year, the first full week of August finds us just on the cusp of those revered symbols of summer. Over all even the hot days are a bit below normal. Nights have often been unusually good “sleeping weather,” rather than ripening weather.

Besides being just a bit cool, it has been more than a bit dry. Moisture has been very spotty, with some areas getting floods while others nearby are parched. We have had only ¼ inch of rain in the past 20 days. We have two crew members dedicated to full-time irrigation. Except for the 3 acres on raised beds with plastic mulch and drip tape, we use two movable aluminum pipe systems with sprinklers on risers to cover the farm. At this point we have 50 acres in production or slated for planting within a few weeks.

Extended periods of dry weather are the exception in Wisconsin, and we consider it a mixed blessing; leaf diseases are lessened, weeds are much easier to control. However, yields are never as good as they could be with a natural, steady source of moisture. And, because we plant successions of many crops to have a steady supply for our CSA, every week finds us planting some crop or another, right through August. That means germination can quickly become an issue. At what point do you switch priorities from irrigating the existing crops to pre-moistening the fallow fields in preparation for stale bedding or getting your seeds to sprout? If we had a crystal ball, it would be much easier. Nevertheless, all the crops are primed to burst forth and there is no doubt that we’ll be inundated soon enough. We’ll have to make decisions about what to put in the CSA boxes and what to leave out.

What we put in our box this week

Our goal is to supply our members a varied box with a value close to the average $20 per weekly share cost. Spring boxes are less, late summer boxes have a greater value. We also strive for one that is appropriate in its amount for a small family for a week. Single person households can either share a weekly box or receive one every other week.

This week’s (Aug. 9th’s) box includes:

• 1.5 pounds carrots
• 10 ears bicolor sweet corn
• 2 slicing tomatoes
• 1 pint cherry tomatoes
• 1/2 pound edamame soybeans
• 4 zucchini
• 1 pound sweet Spanish onions
• 1 bulb Italian garlic
• 1 pound broccoli or 1 head of cauliflower
• 6 ounces mesclun mix
• 1 Yellow watermelon
• 1 Butterscotch cantaloupe
• and an option to add one of the following herbs, delivered in bulk on the side: cilantro, parsley, savory

What we did not put in the box:

Cucumbers: They have been in every box for several weeks in abundant quantity. Now the plants and the quality of the fruits are declining.
Beans: Everybody loves beans but they have been in the CSA box 3 weeks in a row and there are many more good bean crops to come. We opted to include edamame instead because this is the first edamame harvest of the season. Also, beans and edamame must be pre-packaged before packing into the share box. We only have so much crew time for packaging. There are two other pre-packaged items already planned for the box this week in addition to edamame – cherry tomatoes and mesclun mix.
More than 4 zucchini or summer squash:
Yes, we could give more, but, ask yourself, “Would it be an asset?” We believe that 4 nice sized zucchini are all a family wants to handle in a week. Overloading, just because we have plenty here on the farm, just creates food guilt when it ends up going unused and gets thrown away.
More than 1 bulb of garlic:
Why not 3 or 4? They may already be cleaned and ready to go, but we like to spread them out for the length of the season, especially when there is already such variety. When the yield allows it, we include up to 3 bulbs in a November or December box.
Fresh cipollini onions:
We still have some of the fresh crop on hand but decided to switch to the large, sweet Spanish simply for variety. Cipollini have graced the box for three weeks. Members are ready for a change and, besides, the cipollini are in demand by our wholesale accounts, while they seem to already have a source for Sweet Spanish.
Sauté Mix: We mix, wash and pack young Asian greens and chards for an easy stir-fry. It’s a convenient and tasty addition to any CSA share box, however, it gets bagged by our crew and we have to take labor into account. Sometimes we opt to deliver it through the “choice box” system, in bulk as an option for members to add to what they get in their box. Since last week’s box included sauté mix, we are choosing to skip Sauté altogether.
Bunched chard or kale:
The bunched greens that require some cooking are great additions to the diet and, ideally, each share would include a cooking green, however, this week we are skipping this item. Because of their nature, kales and chards are long term crops that can be picked over and over for many weeks. As such, they could be included in the box nearly every week. But, few of our members want one or the other every week so when the box is full and varied, we take a pass on the greens. We include them perhaps 1 out of every 4 weeks, either in the share box or as an optional “choice” item. We resist the urge to use these bulky, ever available, cheap-to-grow crops as “box fillers.”
We plant successive crops of beets all season long, so they are almost always available to include. Another root crop, carrots, already is on the list. Carrots are an easy choice over beets since they won’t keep their sweetness as long either in the field or in the cooler. Also, this week the beet greens just aren’t as nice as we’d like them to be so we harvested them as bulk beets. Bulk beets don’t look nearly as pretty in the box and don’t have delicious greens as a bonus. We’ll wait on the beets until the next crop comes in with fresh tops.
Basil is a perennial at our market stand during the warm weeks. However, with basil making its way into the CSA share for many weeks now, we think cilantro, parsley or savory will be a welcome break. Basil will be back for many more weeks.
Raspberries: The first fall variety is just beginning its production. As with many beginnings, it is still sparse. It won’t yield even ½ pint per share so we’ll pick what’s there and take them to market.

To avoid waste, and guilt, cultivate alternative markets

Ah, that is the key to deciding what goes in the box – having alternative markets. If you have no other markets you may be forced to decide what goes in the box by virtue of what is ripe and can not wait. That could mean a glut of cucumbers or zucchini. As you know from farming experience, annual summer crops start small, go crazy with production, then taper off, like an imperfect bell curve. To have enough to supply your CSA you have to plant an amount that invariably inundates you at the peak and provides too little at the margins of production. Without alternate markets, your range of options include:

  • Just picking enough zucchini for your members to get a comfortable amount, but it will surely cause the production of the crop to taper off abnormally soon, with all the overgrown fruits telling the plant to shut down the blossoms and speed up the seed maturation.
  • Giving your members loads and loads, risking that members will waste them and forever be burdened with food guilt, eventually dropping their membership to cleanse themselves of their sins.
  • Cutting them off and leaving them in the field or giving them away.
  • Beginning a “gleaning” program for the hungry, (if you pull this off, let me know how you did it; it is my fantasy.)

A better option would be selling the excess. We sell through several different venues, none by accident, all by very intentional cultivation of relationships. We have long-time relationships with regional distributors, local stores, and a couple of seasonal cuisine restaurants. We know which crops can be profitably sold to them and, in fact, plant in sufficient quantities so we have some to sell to them regularly. Then, when we have excess because we’ve decided the box didn’t need it, those accounts can often absorb more.

Then there is the weekly farmers’ market. We’d never just count on making “CSA cast-offs” the basis of our market stand. It would be difficult to cultivate a devoted customer base. We cater to customer needs, keep an eye on trends and plant varieties that aren’t widely represented at other farmers’ stands. But, we also can include, at a smaller volume and more irregularly, some crops that we really grow especially for the CSA. This week, the small amount of raspberries and the excess amount of zucchini are two good examples of that.

Having alternate markets upgrades the contents of our box. It evens out the boom and bust character of farming. It allows us a depth of variety to draw upon because we grow crops for those other markets. It would probably not be worth our while to grow parsley or ground cherries or jalapenos for our CSA if we didn’t have a good outlet for them elsewhere. You could argue that few would notice if such items were missing, but our members tell us time and again that the variety astounds them and keeps them coming back. Not only do they get freshness that they can’t find any where else, they can’t find the variety, either.

Yes, we know Community Supported Agriculture, as it was first envisioned, is supposed to be about sharing the abundance or scarcity of one farm, but our 10 years of experience says many, especially new members, are not ready for the realities of food production. We consciously insulate them from the most dramatic shortages or production peaks that are a normal part of growing produce. We routinely plant twice as much as would be needed for the CSA boxes. If we only get ½ a crop of broccoli because the heat came on early and strong, our CSA members are still satisfied. If all the varieties produce nice heads, we sell half the crop.

You get the picture? We find our members need a regular supply of basic favorites, sprinkled with some new and exciting varieties or crops, accompanied by recipes and uses for them. We don’t want to spend our winters recruiting new members so we do what we can to please our current members and bring them back.