At the Farley Center for Peace, Justice and Sustainability, the nationalities and cultures represented by the dozen farmers are almost as diverse as the vegetables and herbs they grow.
Over the first decade of the farm incubation program on the land at 2299 Spring Rose Road, growers from Colombia, Russia, Mexico, Taiwan, India, China, Laos, Nepal, Tibet and Thailand have put their time and sweat into the soil.
The Farley Center farm incubator launched in 2010, the same year the center was incorporated. But founders Linda and Gene Farley had owned the farmland north of Verona for around 15 years by that point, over which time they had already welcomed Madison area families to come farm, including Hmong immigrants.
As the program has changed its structure over time, it is now called a farm collaborative, Caroline Farley told the Press.
The collaborative invites any beginning farmers to apply, but it is particularly focused on serving immigrants and socially disadvantaged farmers. For 11 years, this has attracted recent immigrants from Asia, Latin America and Africa
The program at its outset was intended to help farmers start businesses to transform their produce into products, or to grow at a scale to sell at farmers markets, longtime member Ian Aley told the Press. Today, there is not as much focus on small business development and moving people off the land once their start-up business is thriving, so much as providing a cooperative community to support the farmers, he said.
“In the early days we were still figuring out who we were, there was some settling into what our mission was about,” Aley said.
While Aley is one of the only non-immigrant farmers at Farley, he’s one of the originals and is in his ninth growing season. Aley grew up in Madison, but lived in Canada for eight years and has dual-citizenship. In 2012, he moved back to Wisconsin, and a month later visited the Farley Center and began growing that season.
“When I first moved back, I was looking for work and places to connect with people,” he said. “My background was in food systems in new immigrant communities in Toronto. I am really grateful to be a part of a community of growers, to be able to share their background, mentored through farmer-to-farmer training.”
None of the farmers at the Farley Center actually live on the land – all have homes elsewhere in the Madison area, he said. Each is provided roughly a half-acre to 3-acre plot at the Verona property on which to grow.
Over his near-decade with the farm, Aley said has watched businesses like Tortillas Los Angeles and Little Tibet get started by his neighbors in nearby plots, and has gotten to enjoy their wares from tamales (a steamed cake made from corn) to momos (a steamed dumpling) during farmer meetings.
Besides selling at farmers markets or opening restaurants, several of the Farley Center farmers have sold through community-supported agriculture or CSAs, a subscription model where consumers purchase shares of a farmer’s harvest in advance to support the growing season.
CSAs are typically delivered to homes or there are scheduled pick-up days.
The Los Jalapeños CSA, which was started by Juan Gonzalez Torres through the incubator program in 2010, has grown to around 200 subscribers, according to its Facebook page.
Getting back to his roots
But not every farmer has as long of a history working the land at Farley, like Aley or Torres do.
It’s Sam Hsieh’s first year, he told the Press, and he found out about the program after a web search.
“Farley popped up and it looked pretty awesome,” he said. “I was pretty excited to see how diverse the farmers are, which I really appreciate in a community.”
Hsieh is Taiwanese-American. He was born in Hawaii but moved to Wisconsin when he was a kid, as his mom is from here. It’s Hsieh’s second year of farming overall – he spent one full season learning the trade at Orange Cat Community Farm in Sauk County, he said.
A University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate, Hsieh began a CSA this year, primarily for family and friends in the area, but has since expanded it to others through marketing it on Facebook.
He grows a variety typical CSA items such as of salad greens, radishes, beets, turnips, brassicas, tomatoes, eggplant and peppers, he said, but he also mixes in a variety of Asian/Taiwanese vegetables including shishito, gochu and fushimi peppers, bitter melon, winter melon, Japanese sweet potato, shisho and choy sum.
Hsieh also sells at the Verona farmers’ market most weeks, he said.
Though not definite yet, he’s considering calling his CSA Jumping Spider Farm.
“I see jumping spiders a lot and take them as a good omen,” he said. “They’re really cute, beneficial, curious and bold – and appear in times of joy or transition.”
Sharing resources, cutting costs
In the summer months, Hsieh is a full-time farmer. He spends 30 hours a week working for Crossroads Community Farm in Cross Plains and then puts in approximately 10 hours of work a week at his Farley Center plot.
But unlike Angel Flores’ business making tortillas and other corn products, or Namgyal Ponsar who supports her Little Tibet restaurant with her plot, not everyone seeks to make a business or livelihood from the incubator program.
Aley works for the University of Wisconsin-Madison Office of Sustainability, and most of what he grows is for home use and for “the joy of it,” he said.
Unlike Hsieh who spends several days a week at his plot, Aley visits once or twice a month, to check on his perennial fruits including apples, pears, grapes, peaches, honeyberry, serviceberry, pawpaw and cornelian cherry. It could take up to ten years for some to mature and bear fruit.
What makes the incubator program attractive – and productive – is its cost-sharing framework, Aley said. People share resources including the irrigation system and a shed for washing their produce to prepare it for sale, and rather than take out a loan for equipment, there is a tractor to rent by the hour. The farmers pool money to group order compost or potting mix. They share a tool shed, root cellar and hoop houses.
And for some immigrants, negotiating a land lease or purchase is difficult if English is not their first language, but the Farley Center offers a welcoming space for them, he said.
Everybody pays rent based on the amount of land they use, he said. And everybody has agreed to grow only certified organic produce.
While when Aley came to the farm a decade ago, the focus was on incubation to start businesses and see them leave, over the years growers saw the benefit of farming in community and having access to shared infrastructure. So it has shifted away from incubation to being more of a communal space, which has led to older famers mentoring the new farmers.
“You’re not just renting a square of land, there’s support through community – it’s really neat in that way,” he said. “There’s just been so many people who have contributed time, energy and care over the years – a lot of different people – it has always been a collaborative effort, and I feel grateful to be a part of it.”
That spirit of collaboration and cooperation helps everyone have access to wholesale markets, Aley said.
“Food is so important, it’s really awesome we have a resource like Farley,” Hsieh said. “Madison has a growing local foods culture and I hope we shift towards that for community, sustainability, reducing carbon footprint and community building.”