Harmony-area family works together to grow beneficial, organic produce
Thursday, April 18, 2013 3:15 AM
"We plant a seed and God makes it grow."
Chris Syverson shows the green pepper seedlings in his family’s greenhouse, in addition to readying various other vegetables for planting in the spring, bedding plants and hanging flower baskets.
For the Syverson family, the garden reflects not only their passion for fresh produce, but their lifestyle and the character of their family, as well.
The family of 11 lives on a rejuvenated Amish farm that was named PlainSong Farm. It is located a few miles northeast of Harmony in the heart of the local Amish community. While abiding by the values and principles they have developed with gardening, the family has also been growing the business end of their work.
The Syversons have regularly brought their produce to farmers' markets located in the vicinity, but they are quickly becoming more involved with Community Supported Agriculture (CSA).
There are many motivations to sell the produce and share the lifestyle they feel comes with it, explained parents Jim and Laurie Syverson. They also added that those motivating factors continue to be cultivated.
Jim was exposed to gardening when he was young, but only had the chance to learn more about it during the summers he spent on his grandparents' farm. He claims he had always wanted to live in the countryside.
He met and married his wife, Laurie, who had grown up in the country, and learned from her mother many gardening and sustainable living practices.
"I grew up on a farm, so having a garden was what you did," she shared, adding she and Jim wanted to have their family have the same experiences associated with growing a garden.
Their first child, Chris, recalls the first time he started gardening. "I was 5 and I had a little four by four plot. It was enough to spark my interest."
Chris, now 27, was only the first of an entire family who have green thumbs. With how much work needs to be done every year, the many hands make the work lighter. The ages of the children range from 7 to 27 and the responsibilities are split up accordingly.
"Everyone gets to do something," said Laurie. The workload is sure to increase with the plans they have in mind, but that doesn't faze them.
The Syversons began taking their homegrown vegetables and fruits to local farmers' markets in 2004. They lived on a property with less acreage near Greenleafton at that time and were unable to produce what they now can.
They have taken produce to Lanesboro, Cresco, Rochester and other towns' markets as well. At each location, they would rent stalls to set their produce in and hope the weather would cooperate.
Chris recalled one experience in Rochester where they had finished setting up and watched dark clouds gather overhead. "We thought we would be okay, but it poured. There are times when we ask ourselves, 'Why are we here?'" he stated.
What made the markets worthwhile are the relationships which were built between other farmers and with consumers. Chris and Jim shared they have gained many tips and ideas on better soil and weed management, among other things, at the markets. The family's involvement in markets soon expanded to include wholesale markets and selling to local grocery stores. It was during this time that the Syversons learned more about CSA.
CSA works by the producer selling shares to people who want to buy into the garden/farm producing the food. In return, they receive a predetermined amount of fresh produce or product from the farm every week during the growing and harvesting seasons.
Jim said they had some friends who were involved in CSA when the family still lived near Greenleafton. After the move to PlainSong Farm, they began to try it out for themselves. The first year, they had about five people buy in.
"They put up with us," laughed Chris. However, their clientele has grown. They served 30 last season. They are currently collecting shares for the upcoming season, and have goals of being able to serve 200 to 250 people and possibly even 500 in the near future. The number of acres they have to work with does limit the number of people they can serve, and being good stewards of the land is a top priority for the Syversons.
"We'll continue to go to markets, but we're trying to focus more on CSA."
There are many reasons the Syversons have for starting a CSA. For Laurie, she said part of her inspiration came from remembering how she was raised. "I think every mother wants what is best for her children when it come to food," she shared. "We want to help customers feed their families the way Mom fed her family."
Helping educate people on the importance of fresh, healthy vegetables in a daily diet is also a goal. Part of that education is to help people realize what kind of food is in season.
PlainSong Farm sells bushel and half-bushel per week shares and what goes in the box is what is being grown and harvested at that time. "Early on, you get a lot of lettuces. In the middle of the summer, you get peas and beans, and in the fall you get melons," shared Chris. "That's the exciting part, is finding out what is different every week."
With buying a share, as Jim pointed out, you also buy into a lifestyle choice that focuses on organic and locally grown food.
PlainSong Farm is a certified organic farm, which means they have passed stringent standards in production. They are inspected and recertified every year. These standards deal with the seeds, pesticides and other growing methods they use.
The Syversons start selecting and purchasing seeds in December and January and recheck their equipment in January and February. In February and March they start collecting shares and lining up drop-site hosts in various towns in Fillmore County and the surrounding counties.
The seeds are not GMO, which means they are not a product of a deliberate genetic modification.
They then start planting in February and utilize two greenhouses to get a head start in growing the many plants.
"The greenhouse helps us be more cost efficient in starting with seeds," shared Chris.
The longer winter this year has postponed the time when the Syversons would normally begin planting in the field. When they do start, they lay down a sheet plastic, or plastic mulch that keeps weeds down and keeps the ground moist when watered.
In keeping bugs and animals away, Jim said simply, "We have two dogs."
The bugs are managed more easily with organic products that can still be used under organic certification. If there is ever a question that they have, Jim said their neighbors, who are mostly Amish, have given them great insights.
Being organic farmers has actually caused the Syversons to be more thoughtful of what they eat. "We are more label-conscious. We are more discerning with what we pick up to eat," shared Laurie.
Part of the education and lifestyle they feel comes with CSA is the conscientiousness needed to make healthy choices when it comes to food.
They feel the general public is already becoming more thoughtful about food. "People at stores want to see and buy organic produce," said Chris.
"The mainstream culture is picking up on it a bit. What we are working against is the instant lifestyle that is very common," added Jim.
Preparing vegetables to eat takes time, so patience is an important characteristic of the lifestyle Jim spoke about.
"We ask ourselves 'How do we educate young people?' We've decided to do things differently because we've seen that it makes a difference," he said. "We are choosing what we eat and we know why we eat it. I think the community is going to respond well to this option."
Jim said that CSA can provide another option for people looking for that kind of food. He also said that PlainSong Farm would look forward to working together with local businesses if it helped the business, while also promoting the organic lifestyle.
Cost is often a perceived issue when it comes to buying locally. Not so, said Chris, who mentioned that they had completed a price comparison between PlainSong Farm and market chain store-only customers, which showed that a family could save almost 40 percent by purchasing locally grown produce.
A 20-week bushel share costs $585 and a half-bushel costs $400. The Syverson's also sell a dozen eggs share for another $90.
The Syverson's grow the "staples," such as peas, potatoes, tomatoes and lettuces. They also mix in a few uncommon vegetables such as bok choy, kohlrabi and cabbages. Each share will have herbs such as cilantro, basil and parsley. The bushels start coming in June and last through October. In early spring, they also sell bedding plants and hanging flower baskets.
Getting the word out is a must for a CSA to succeed. The five families that bought in the first year were friends and spread the word about the Syversons' CSA.
In expanding their business, PlainSong Farm now has a website, plainsongfarmcsa.com, where they will post weekly newsletters and recipe suggestions for obscure herbs and vegetables. They are also on Facebook. They can be contacted at (507) 421-0600 and firstname.lastname@example.org. They are also listed beside several other local CSA's on localharvest.org.
The work is plentiful, but the Syverson family has become stronger through their work. "It's brought us closer together and helped us work through tough times," said Chris.
Jim said he has been humbled by the willingness of their kids to want to continue to work in the garden.
According to Laurie, they have all grown in the same way as a garden does: with time and constant care. Their faith has been a vital influence toward the value they place on their work.
"Our faith drives everything that we do," said Laurie. It fits with working together as a family, providing beneficial produce to others, and protecting the integrity of the land through organic practices.