A Fresh Take on Old Fashioned Farming

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MTT News's picture
Matt Geiger
Cassie and Mike Noltnerwyss, owners of Crossroads Community Farm.

A young woman, her swarthy arms taught as she hoists two pails of hog feed, her t-shirt stretched thin by a belly in which a baby spends its final weeks before entering the world.

A bearded man, his eyes shaded by an askew baseball cap, picking spinach with astounding dexterity, shoulder to shoulder with field hands who range from college freshmen to retirees, from hipsters to grandmothers.

An old barn floor, nodding buoyantly as families stomp their feet to live bluegrass music.

A flaxen-haired toddler, tumbling again and again, then taking her first steps on the wooden porch one sweltering afternoon.

This is work. This is home. This is everything in between.

This is life at Crossroads Community Farm.

“The thing I like most about farming, and it’s actually something I hated at first, is that it’s a lifestyle,” says Cassie Noltnerwyss, who owns Crossroads with her husband, Mike. “There is no clock-in, clock-out. This is our home, this is where we work, and this is where we raise our kids.”

“What I love – and I guess hate – the most about farming is that there is never a day when something doesn’t go wrong,” Mike adds with a wry grin, “but at the end of the day, even if five things went wrong, you get to look out and see what you’ve done. And it’s usually a heck of a lot.”

Now entering its 11th season, Crossroads is something of an elder statesman when it comes to sustainable, small-scale, organic agriculture in Dane County. What started in 2005 with a modest 35 shares has blossomed into a business that provides 350 weekly produce boxes for members who increasingly hail from diverse demographics. In addition to those shares, Crossroads sells its fruits and vegetables to area restaurants and offers them at seasonal farmers markets.

Had you asked most people a decade ago what CSA stands for, you would have been likely to encounter a befuddled stare. Today, it’s an increasingly common component of the nation’s vernacular. (CSA stands for “Community Supported Agriculture,” a model in which customers purchase – or work in the fields for – a seasonal share of the food produced by a single farm.  Supporters tout it as a more environmentally friendly alternative to industrial agriculture, as well as pointing out its ability to connect food producers and food consumers within the same community and keep money circulating within the local tax base.)

It’s a philosophy through which customers and farmers share in the inherent risks of farming. The upside, of course, is that they also share in the land’s bounty.

Mike’s path to a life in agriculture began in middle school. The son of a father in agribusiness, the Middleton native became increasingly interested in gardening, and by extension small-scale farming. He combined extensive traditional schooling with hands on tinkering, peppering the few CSA farmers who came before him with questions about what worked – and what didn’t.

Cassie had already worked on multiple farms before she and Mike met, married and started a family together.

“I was his first employee,” she chuckles. “I paid myself, because he didn’t know how to do payroll.”

It’s an irony of the times that Crossroads is both an ode to an ancient way of working and land, and a progressive experiment.

“Everything we grow is harvested by hand,” explains Mike. “But for me, it’s not the bending over and touching the ground that gives me satisfaction. It’s the end result - producing food for people - that I find the most rewarding.”

The result is that portions of the Noltnerwyss family farm would look familiar to a homesteader 300 years ago. The heritage breed pigs snuffling their way through discarded veggies. The red hens clucking in the side yard. The workers lugging freshly picked crops back to the barn.

But other components of the farm – like the solar panels that blanket their barn and home and power a cooler that helps keep food fresh longer - would leave farmers from even a few decades ago scratching their heads.

“I love constantly trying to figure out new ways to do things,” Mike says. “I enjoy the scientific trial and error of farming.”

Like those solar panels, and like farmers for thousands of years, the Noltnerwyss family, which includes Cassie, Mike, Zea, 5, Edie, 2, and a little sister due in a matter of days now, live their lives according to the sun.

“There is a real seasonality to it,” Cassie says. “I love how at the solstice the fields are going nuts, the weeds are going nuts and we go nuts. Then it all slows down at the same time in the fall. It’s all centered on the sun.”

While they can’t control the sun or the rain, they have worked over the past decade to design a farm that can withstand nature’s fickle tendencies. The result is less risk for the farmers, and less risk for their customers.

“In 2012 we had a terrible drought,” says Cassie. “The result was that so many young CSAs just couldn’t fill their boxes. But we were established enough to irrigate, and the dryness actually helped to keep diseases down, so that year, the year of a huge drought, was one of our best ever.”

A typical summer share, which provides weekly boxes of food (or boxes every other week), includes a cornucopia of vegetables. From comfort food staples to exotic items that nudge customers into a little experimentation in the kitchen.

In all, a summer share includes more than 60 types of fruits and vegetable, from arugula to zucchini. From celeriac to sungold tomatoes.

Crossroads hosts several events for its members, from a strawberry picking day to a barn dance celebrating the harvest.

They also receive an increasing number of questions from a new generation of farmers. People barely out of their teens who want to follow in the Noltnerwyss family’s footsteps and live a farming lifestyle.

It’s a new role for Cassie and Mike, who are only in their mid 30s, but it’s one they embrace.

“It’s weird when people portray us as that, because we feel like we’re just copying the people who came before us,” Mike says.

“It’s also one of the most rewarding things about what we get to do,” Cassie adds. “To pass on what we’ve learned so far. To try to be as generous with our time and advice as other farmers were with us.”

Located at 4144 County Road J, Crossroads Community Farm can be reached online at www.crossroadscommunityfarm.com or by phone at 608-798-0219. Most health insurers offer substantial rebates for people who are CSA members.


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