Out on Sunny Sky Farm, a beautiful scene unfolds. This morning I stand near the barn with the other members of my class looking out over the field, still green despite the cold nights and chilly winds of fall. The wind whips at our faces as we stand huddled together listening to our professor introduce to us the man whose hard work made all this possible. Surveying the scene, I feel much like the poet Wordsworth did over 200 years ago. From here, I can “see into the life of things.”
Seventeen years ago Mark Anderson started this farm because he wanted to do something that interested him, and he wanted the freedom to be his own boss. “I am a botanist at heart,” he says as he shows students of the UWSP Ethnobotany class around his farm on a chilly October morning. You can tell that he loves what he does by the way he talks about each crop he grows. This year on his five acre farm he has planted bok choy, cabbage, lettuce, carrots, cauliflower, kale, collard greens, brussels sprouts, rutabaga, broccoli, radish, garlic, and the list goes on.
Anderson considers himself an organic farmer although his farm is not certified organic. He uses his knowledge as a UW Madison college graduate to make his farm be as fruitful as possible without the use of pesticides. Techniques like crop rotation and planting flowers and cover crops that help enrich the soil and attract beneficial insects are all common practices on his farm. “The crops all get rotated every year. Stuff doesn’t get back to the same place for about four years,” Anderson says. He also uses super aged manure and plants legumes like peas and beans that help put nitrogen back into the soil. It is as much an art as it is a science the way he has his crops arranged. Sunflowers lift their golden heads and look out across a field of green organically raised vegetables.
Farming is a lot of work he tells the students, but you can see that for him, it is very rewarding. This year in particular has been difficult for farmers because of the hot, dry summer. “ [You] can’t always control the weather,” he says optimistically. “Actually it’s better to have too dry of a year because if it’s dry, you can water, if its too wet, you can’t do anything.” At Sunny Sky, Anderson uses a drip irrigation system so that no water is wasted. Its a lot of work to set up, but its very efficient, he says. All the water goes directly to the base of the plants and right to their roots.
Sunny Sky Farm is also one of the first CSAs in the Stevens Point area. CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture, and it is a program where people buy a share in the farm in exchange for food. It is a way to connect people back to where their food comes from, Anderson tells the students. Being part of a CSA is different from buying your food from a grocery store. Instead of going to the store and choosing any fruit or vegetable year round, you get a box full of whatever is ripe and in season. “[It’s] really more about educating people to change their eating habits,” he says. Sometimes this way of living comes as a shock to people who are so accustomed to buying produce like tomatoes at any time of the year. “We don’t loose members because they are not happy with the food, we loose people because they are not able to change their lifestyle and they don’t know what to do with it,” says Anderson. However, the change is worth it, he assures us, because his crops are not bred for long shelf life or beautiful appearance. Instead, they are cultivated for their flavor and fertility.
Being part of a CSA also includes spending time working at the farm itself. Members are asked to help with various tasks such as weeding, watering, or planting. Many members find this very rewarding. Virginia Freire the Ethnobotany professor is herself a member. She says that she particularly enjoys weeding because many of the weeds are edible. For six years now she has been brining her class to Mark’s farm to show students first hand a example of the successful interaction of people and plants.