Crossroads Profiled in Growing for Market: CSA #10 – Aug. 15, 2019
By Ellen Polishuk
Farm Profile: Crossroads Community Farm
The night before I was to visit Crossroads Community Farm, I texted Mike to make sure all was set. He texted back that he only had an hour to give me—persistent rains all spring were really squeezing him. Oh golly, I thought, this is what happens when you
want to visit a farm during planting season! So I said, “okay I’m still coming.” Mike ended up giving me two hours of his time, and I did a little exploring onmy own. I also went back and forth with both Mike and Cassie via email to get more of the farm’s details. I met Mike at their new “K” farm (on Klevenville Road). This is the first year of production, as he and Cassie and the kids moved into the house there on
Valentine’s Day 2019. It’s a 35-acre site, with mostly flat land, and no infrastructure beyond a beautiful modern house up on the hill overlooking the fields. I’ve finally determined that what I need to ask first on a farm visit is this: “What is special about
the farm? What do you want to be known for?” Mike quickly answers, “people need to be harvesting, by and large, as much as possible.” In his view, this is how their farm is going to make it financially—to spend as little time as possible on the actual growing part. Okay then, let’s see how that works at Crossroads Community Farm.
Over the 14 years since they began farming, Mike and Cassie have made a pretty sizeable investment in infrastructure and equipment. They look at the longterm labor savings, and the resale value. If they can sell a piece of equipment after ten years for half of what they paid for it new, then it’s pretty much a nobrainer. It’s a little more complicated with buildings… and they have chosen to go first class with all the barns they’ve built over the years at the home farm, the “J” farm. That property is 32 acres, and right on a major
highway. Thus, their farm name. I was impressed with the quality and complexity of
the wash-pack house and equipment barns. Inside the pack house is a vegetable washing line, multiple sinks, three walk-in coolers etc. Outside they built a dock to load the box truck with a manual dock leveler. Mike remarks that the loading dock is the best thing that they did in terms of building the pack shed. They own a wide array of tractors and implements to make all aspects of production work go smoother and faster. Here’s a sampler: several large (100+ HP) tractors, 3+ cultivating tractors (Allis Chalmers G,
International Harvester C, Kubotas), Keyline plow, two Maschio tillers, skid loader, Perfecta harrow, plastic layer, waterwheel transplanter, Matermacc vacuum precision seeder, basket weeders, KULTKress weeders, Seederman vacuum flat seeder for
At Crossroads, they are perfecting the art of eliminating hand weeding as much as possible via good cultivation practices, and knowing that some weeds just don’t matter, they will get handled once the crop is out. Mike uses many weeding tools. He loves the Kult finger weeder, which they can run at 3-4 mph through more mature plantings. They are extremely pleased with how well it works, moving soil away from pland then hilling it up again. Many crops never need hand weeding. They also use basket weeders
on the IH Super C, and a set of Kult duos (side knives) under the
belly of an electric Allis-G. They do use some green plastic mulch
on long-standing, heat loving crops like sweet potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, and cucurbits. The green color works to get the heat in the soil without necessarily having
to have the plastic contact the soil surface, which is how black plastic mulch works. They seed white Dutch clover and annual ryegrass in the aisles between plastic, and
mow regularly with a walk-behind bush hog.
Like most of us, Crossroads is a tillage dependent operation, but they are very careful about how many trips are taken across the field and how deep they till. Mike often uses the Keyline plow (a specialized subsoiler/ripper), followed by the shallowest tillage possible, with the Maschio rotovator, which has a special roller on the back
end for depth control. Mike says he learned from Gary Zimmer to avoid tilling bare ground—always be working in some kind of green residue—so that’s what he does,
going only as deep as needed to work in a cover crop (which is not mowed first).
Final tillage is with a Perfecta harrow or sometimes using the rotovator again if the moisture or trash and desired fineness of seedbed warrants it. My observation of
Crossroads is that they are pushing the boundary on working with fairly high residue, and working to accommodate a little clunkier soil condition than most farms I have
Mike with his f avorite crop, showing w hat a good job the K ULT-Kress finger weeder does in the onions. H e says, “ you have t o b e
good a t everything f or them t o ork- greenhouse management, transplant efficiency, weed control t o a T , irrigation, pest control,
curing. They do sell ell into the winter if you g et them down. I t’s hard to make any money on them, so I clearly do it orother reasons. I sometimes tell eople I base my self-worth on how well our onions are doing.”
So far, the results are good.The soils at the J farm are holding steady at 4% OM, and they are pulling great crops out year after year without huge additions of nitrogen. Mike is seriously committed to cover cropping, to the point that he is seeding some legume covers with the Matermacc, three rows per bed and cultivating them! He showed me vetch that was seeded the previous summer, in full flower now and super vigorous. He
also does this with cowpeas in the summer. Even then, he figures that they are only providing about 20% of nitrogen needs of the vegetable crops. Other fertility sources include using a dry blended starter mix, and a composted chicken manure
product broadcast pre-plant. The Matermacc has a hopper so they band 10-2-8 or 4-3-2 crumbles, at 200 lbs/ac. They don’t use fertigation, but will put some liquid fertility into the spray tank if bio control is being sprayed.
The purchase of the new “K” farm finally gives Crossroads enough land to allow for a rest period in the rotation. Mike remarks that they have been gradually farming more every year, increasing at about an acre a year. Where does that end? That ends now, he says. The limiting factors for further growth are how much tractor work Mike can handle,
and the size of the greenhouse. They don’t want to build another greenhouse, and Mike’s time is maxed out his year, so the farm will stabilize at around 20-23 acres of production.
The Noltnerwyss’ love living in the house at the “K” farm—it’s so much quieter than when they lived on the highway! But, the hard part is that now Cassie spends most of her work time away from the kids, back on the main production farm, the “J” farm. It’s the way it’s got to be for now. Maybe someday they will move the farm center to the “K” farm, but until then, they will use the pack shed, greenhouse, tunnel, barn/shop at the
original “J” farm.
So far on the new land, they have invested (about $45K) in a new well for irrigation. It has a variable speedpump, so you just dial in the desired pressure, and it can adjust from low pressure drip to high pressure overhead. I’d love to have one of those!
Speaking of the greenhouse, after Mike showed me around the farm for a while, he had to get back to transplanting with the crew. So, I drove myself back over to the “J” farm property to get a better look around and to take more photos. What I found on my self-guided tour was a rather modest-sized 1110 ft2 greenhouse. Pretty standard stuff inside tablewise, but with some strange metal bar structures hanging over the tables.
Mike told me later those are hanging shelves where at crunch times they can handle an extra 60 flats. They harden off outside by putting greenhouse tables on pallets, and then they use a skid steer to move plants into the pack shed on cold nights or during inclement weather. Right next to the greenhouse is a little standalone garage-type building, which houses the seeding operation. They use Vermont Compost Fort Vee mix and lots of cell trays. They have a Seederman vacuum seeder that I’ve not come across before. It is pretty shiny, fancy and complicated looking! Mike says this, “it was expensive but saves a ton of time with seeding flats; many growers around us have them and we eventually made the leap.” They love it. I admired the garage-style roll-up doors on both the seeding house and the greenhouse. I’m a big fan of being able to use a skid loader or tractor to move things into and out of precious covered spaces.
Speaking of precious covered spaces, Crossroads has only one high tunnel. When so many other farms are investing in more and more protected spaces, why have the Noltnerwysses taken a different path? Well, it’s easy. They don’t prefer working
in tunnels because it precludes them from using most of the specialized field equipment they’ve invested in over the years. They don’t want to do the amount of hand work that tunnels require, and then have to sell things for more than they feel good about.
Getting all the work done at Crossroads takes a village! The current hired crew is 6 . folks. The crew works 7:30-5:30 M-F. Each person works only 40 hours. Days off are staggered through the week, with all hands working Tuesdays for CSA
prep. In addition to their having regular employees, they’ve developed a robust worker share CSA program, called the Dirty Hands Share, whereby folks put in about 80 hours of work over the course of the season in exchange for
a regular share. On an average week, about 20 people work 4-hour shifts. Beyond that, after Cassie had their first child, she instituted a Baby Sitter Share. Each day a different family comes to the farm to watch the kids (bringing their own along) in exchange for veggies. Cassie says, “We’ve loved this arrangement – as it saves us lots of money and it provides the kids different playdates every day! They get excited about the farm season ramping up – even though Mom will be working a lot, they look forward to playing with other kiddos. Some families have come for many years and the kids have formed strong friendships. I’ve personally made friends with some of the parents too, which is an added bonus. I’m proud of this little brainchild; it’s worked so well for us all.”
Cassie and Mike both work very long days during the main season, whether it is technical farm work, or making sure the kids and household are healthy. Mike often goes back into the field after dinner, and Cassie often does office work after the kids are in bed. I know this to be true, because they both sent me emails at 11 PM! They do take Sundays off for family time. And, let’s not forget that both Cassie’s and Mike’s parents are nearby. They do some childcare, tractor driving, and even equipment repairs.
As I never farmed with my husband, I’m always curious how farm couples (especially those with children) divide up the duties of farm business management. At Crossroads, Cassie and Mike have had different roles over the years. They have both farmed full-time throughout the farm’s history, even after they started their family. The Noltnerwyss’ kids are now 4, 6 and 9 years old. After their third child was born, Cassie struggled with not having enough of a management role in the farm. She needed her own areas of responsibility, and to not feel like Mike was her boss. They determined a new arrangement that allows Cassie to take a lot of stress off of Mike, while letting her talents shine. So, Cassie now wears several hats: business manager, greenhouse manager, and general manager of who is where, doing what. Mike drives the tractors, and partners
in all big farm decisions, but leaves the hour by hour crew managing to Cassie. She has a background in teaching, and uses both that skill, her organizing prowess, and her excellent communication style to work smoothly with all the different types of labor on the farm. They are both grateful to be able to raise kids on the farm while participating in its ongoing work and development. And Cassie is very proud to be an example of a dedicated mom who also works full-time on the farm.
New for 2019, this is the first year with no farmers market! They were at a great one for 14 years, but they wanted to get a little more of their family time back. Here’s how Cassie describes what they did to make up for that lost income stream, and hedge their bets. “A) We brokered a deal with the 2nd generation of the big local farm that retired and dropped their CSA (Vermont Valley Farm). They wanted to keep a fruit share part of their business going. We decided to share drop sites and cross promote. That helped guide their members our way. Meanwhile we were able to provide pre-existing drop sites for them to use as well as send some of our members their way. B) We worked to increase our wholesale markets by partnering with a local grower who also acts as a distributor to area restaurants. His farm is too small to supply all these restaurants, but he has the personal connections. So he buys from us, marks it up a tad, and delivers to them. It’s all under his name, but he credits us so that the restaurants know who they are supporting. This has been extremely successful so far. C) Kept our names in the hat at Madison’s downtown market. D) Brokered a 1-year leave of absence from our longtime Westside Community Market so that if trying to grow the CSA doesn’t work, we can return to our old spot. E) Started four new drop sites at workplaces. These usually have a much smaller number of members, but we tried to work with businesses clustered on our pre-existing routes so that it’s not too big a deal to deliver.” So now they service 515 shares versus their previous level of 410. That’s quite an accomplishment in a super-competitive environment.
I can see now why a colleague urged me to visit Crossroads Community Farm. Cassie and Mike are ambitious, experienced and successful growers. The scale they’ve grown to is impressive for the size of their labor force. That’s one definition of efficiency. In terms of success, I asked Mike what that looks like for him. He replied, “our goal is to produce organic food for reasonable prices without a ton of externalities. Currently we still use a lot of diesel fuel and gasoline, but feel that we are contributing to positive change in the world and that feels successful.” Energy consumption is important for the Noltnerwysses, and they’ve done a lot to address it by installing solar panels. They have 78 panels that provide enough power to slash their electrical bills, offseting 30,000 pounds of carbon dioxide annually.
I would say that Crossroads has come up with a unique set of tools, techniques and attitudes that show they are resourceful, careful stewards, while providing bounteous nutritious food to the wider community. They are also an excellent example of how it really does take a village to run a successful family market farm.