In western and central Wisconsin, three dozen Amish farmers grow a wide array of fruits and vegetables. In order to bring their goods to market most effectively, they work together as the Wisconsin Growers Cooperative. I spoke with Al Weinrich, the sales manager for the group, about the farms, the co-op, and his experience working with them.
It starts with the soil. At each farm, at any given time, half of the fields are growing green manure crops to fertilize the soil for next year. A rotation of buckwheat for weed suppression, soybeans for nitrogen, and winter wheat or rye for erosion control will be sown and then plowed under. Farmers may add some additional fertilizer in compliance with National Organic Program standards, but the bulk of the fertility comes from the green manure system.
Once the soil is prepared, the farmers plant every seed by hand or with a one or two row hand pushed seeder. While they may use horses to till the soil, depending on the size of the farm, they use no external inputs or electricity. About 70% of the farmers are certified organic. The remaining 30% adhere to the same practices, laid out in a group growing manual. Different farms grow different crops, but all grow a diverse array of plants. Farms range in size from garden plots to several acres.
The grocery co-ops that the group sells to call in orders early on Mondays and Thursdays. Al conveys the orders via telephone to a woman who happens to live near many of the farmers. They come in and pick up the written orders. Each farm is responsible for providing a certain amount of certain crops. They go home and harvest that exact order with their families. They wash and bundle the crops, carefully hand-packing them in cardboard boxes and labeling them with their grower’s ID number. The boxes are stored in cold-rooms that are cooled with ice, not electricity, at a handful of drop-off points. A few people will get up early the next day to sort the produce by destination and do a final quality check before Al and his daughter Kayley pick up the order. The orders come in to the grocery co-ops every Tuesday and Friday. Because the co-op only sells to local stores, Al and Kayley can do the trip in one day.
Al emphasized the level of care and work that goes into Wisconsin Growers Co-op produce. He related what a grower told him: a 40 lb case of onions takes an hour of work to get the already-dried onions ready to go. Rubbing the extra onion skin off, checking for quality control, and snipping the leaves off all take time. That’s just the packing of food that’s already grown. It doesn’t include getting the soil prepared, planting all the little onion plants, watering all summer, weeding, and harvesting by hand. If it’s not rainy they may let the onions dry in the field before putting them on a wagon to bring to the shed. Every onion is harvested by hand, carried into a shed by wagon, and carefully arranged in storage to dry safely and without damage. The amount of time it takes to do all that work in accordance to organic practice and without electricity is immense.
The farmers trust Al to negotiate prices with the grocery co-ops, which requires balancing the prices other growers are charging, the cost of growing the food, and what’s reasonable for the co-ops to pay. It’s a tension — should local produce be cheaper than California imports because of the lower shipping costs, or should it be priced higher because of the value of local food and the time and energy put in? Wisconsin Growers Co-op has no interest in gouging the grocery co-ops when they have an abundance of something that’s scarce in the market. They value their relationships with the stores too highly, and trying to make a quick buck is against their values. Al says that there’s usually someone selling the same produce for less, but also usually someone selling for more.
Wisconsin Growers Co-op operates locally because it’s the best value for their farmers. There’s plenty of demand for their products in the Twin Cities without trying to expand beyond a day’s drive. The group works together as a marketing entity to provide the volume, diversity, and scale needed to have a consistent relationship with grocery stores. Many of the farms couldn’t afford to bring produce to market in the Twin Cities without sharing the costs of paying Al and Kayley and the truck. The farmers, by working together, are able to operate at the small scales that make sense for their intensive, careful work while still meeting the needs of grocery co-ops and their consumers.
Moreover, farming in this way allows the growers to observe their faith and stay connected with their families. The farmers are able to spend time with their children. Al shared that working with the growers has helped him simplify his own life, particularly to see what he doesn’t need. It can be a struggle to make life simpler, but Al thinks it’s worth it. When I asked about Al’s favorite product from the grower’s co-op, he reminisced about ripe watermelon. Not only the fruit itself, but the experience of taking some time out of the day to sit with the farmers and enjoy it.
Wisconsin Growers Co-operative products are labeled P6 on the shelves at Seward Community Co-op, Eastside Food Co-op, and Willy Street Co-op.