We spent the last two weeks of September at Millsap Farms, an idyllic patchwork of fields and greenhouses about 20 minutes north of downtown Springfield, MO. Curtis and Sarah Millsap run the farm with help from their nine children plus various interns, CSA members, WWOOFers and farmhands. (Yes, I said nine, all of whom are girls but for one baby boy!) I’m not sure if it was the perfect combination of timing, personalities and farm biz or what have you, but my experience there crystallized certain lessons I was just beginning to learn about farm management, encouraging fertility and building community.
Millsap Farms consists of about two acres of garden fields and several hoop- and green-houses, all of which are packed with food. And for good reason! In addition to their own large family, the Millsaps are feeding 90+ families through their CSA (Community Supported Agriculture – it’s like a subscription for fresh food), the farm interns, work-traders AND the folks at the bustling Farmers Market of the Ozarks each Saturday. It’s an amazing operation!
Each weekday morning, the hands meet at 8am to review the To Do list and strategize about how to tackle it. Curtis leads these meetings with a laid-back calm that belies his 30-something years. “It’s always something” could be the tagline for any farm, but at Millsap this understanding seems to drive the stress-free atmosphere. Farming is actually quite demanding what with managing hands, planting and harvesting schedules, ordering supplies, repairing broken equipment, figuring out organic ways to deal with pests, keeping up with consumer needs and participating in both the farmers market and broader community. Having a regular schedule and devoted interns helps keep the Millsaps on track.
At lunchtime, kids and adults gather in the basement dining hall, give thanks and chow down. We found it to be a leisurely time and quite enlightening as Curtis was peppered daily with farming questions and everyone who had something to add jumped in. Often, we were a big crowd – 9-10 kids and 8-12 adults. JC, with his love of conversation and communal meals, was in heaven!
Tuesdays are CSA day, so the morning is filled harvesting vegetables, cleaning them and organizing everything for the afternoon distribution. About 2/3 of the CSA members come to the farm and pick up their shares – either a half- or full-share – from bins at the farm stand. The rest either have their shares delivered to their house or they pick up their box at a local market. The first time I helped with the CSA pick-up process, I was surprised by the clientele – these are not hipster foodies and New Age yoginis. These are regular folks with jobs and kids and mortgages. It gives me hope to see so many people taking the extra time to pick up organic produce. I wish they could tell their stories all across America!
During the warmer months, Thursday nights are Pizza Night. Just before we arrived, the Millsaps completed building a second clay oven. On our first Pizza Night, they received a record-breaking number of reservations and we served 140 handmade pizzas! That sounds like a lot, but the Millsaps are flush with volunteers. Four of us rolled out dough and an ever-evolving matrix of kids, tweens, teens and adults dressed them up with fun toppings Sarah had devised while JC and Curtis fed the pies into the gaping clay ovens. My favorite was a pie made with fingerling potatoes, white sauce, mushrooms and dill. Delicious! Meanwhile, hungry folks gathered at picnic tables beneath strings of whimsical lights and musicians played down-home music. It proved to be a wonderful way for the community to hang together for a group dinner and for those newly interested in the CSA to take a peek at the farm.
Saturdays, the farmers market opens at 8am but if you are a vendor and want to be able to drive your truck directly up to your stand location, you’ve got to be there by 6:15am. That means the Millsap team has to wake up at 4:45 to load veggies onto the trailer at 5:15! The morning I worked the market, a storm had just rolled into town and rain blanketed the chilly dark. Luckily, the Farmers Market of the Ozarks is a
modern, bustling affair with a permanent steel pavilion stretching over it. 30+ vendors show up every Saturday to sell everything from Gulf of Mexico shrimp and authentic empanadas to incredibly smooth, locally distilled bourbon and some of the cutest upcycled clothes you have ever seen! Seriously, I could’ve bought three of everything from the Birchtree & Lula booth. Unfortunately, you can’t get their items online. You have to visit the market!
While Tuesdays are spent harvesting for the CSA and Fridays are mainly spent preparing for the Saturday market, the rest of the weekdays are full of “farm tasks”: weeding, planting, maintenance, making repairs and more weeding! I had a chance to make soil blocks with Ryan, a farm hand nearing the end of his 2-year stint on the farm. Luckily, you can find pictures of the process at Jesse and Hannah’s website (because I failed to take pictures that day!) At Millsap, their planting soil is derived on a recipe from Elliott Coleman, an innovative organic farmer from Maine who has inspired and educated millions of gardeners large and small. His most popular book, Four-Season Harvest, seems to be de rigueur for organic farmers. The Millsap mix uses mainly compost and peat, with some sand, lime, feather and bone meal thrown in. The ingredients are mixed with water to produce a damp (not soggy) mix. We used a special metal tool to make the blocks but there is a lot of information on-line about how to make them yourself. (More on soil in a future post!)
It took several tries before I was able to make the blocks stick together, but I finally got the hang of squeezing the right amount of water out of the blocks before dropping them onto the trays. The blocker creates a little indentation on the top of each block to hold the seed. The interesting thing about this method versus direct seeding (planting seeds directly in the beds where the plants will grow) is that you put just one seed in each block and you don’t have to worry about the ones that don’t sprout, you just transplant the ones that do. It also means that when you plant the seedlings in the bed, no thinning is required! (I always hated thinning, especially lettuce! It always seemed like such a waste of time, not to mention the problems you could create disrupting the roots of the to plants remain in the bed.)
We planted lettuce in the soil blocks that day and the seeds were coated in a bit of clay to make them easier to differentiate from each other. Coated seeds are more expensive but yousave on seeds and labor by planting one to a block. And, since the seeds are coated, you don’t need to cover them with soil or vermiculite(an amazing puffed silicate material that helps keep air, moisture and nutrients in the soil). When the seedlings are a few inches tall, they are planted in the ground, soaked with water and doused with a squirt of fish emulsionsolution. To make properly dispersed holes in the row, Curtis uses a hand drawn “dibbler”. Sooooo hard to make straight rows! The Millsap system developed over years of tinkering and it surely does pay off. Just look at the fields!
September on the farm is a time for marveling at the Fall harvest and planning for the Winter. I’m so glad we were there at that time of the year. I learned so much! Right off the bat, the sheer length and density of crop rows needed to feed 90+ families was eye-opening – clearly the Millsaps plant excess as a hedge against unexpected factors. It also means that the retreat center can be easily supplied by two acres of gardens. There is not only diversity in the crops grown, but also in the methods used to grow them. Certain fields are no-till: they use straw to help keep the weeds down and to build the soil season after season. Other fields are tilled with a small tractor. Still other fields are devoted to perennials like asparagus and trees. Additionally, crops are grown in a variety of greenhouses which help to extend the growing season in a locale where winter temperatures dip into the 20’s. Experiments are vital to farm management. Every acre of soil is different and there is no universal playbook. The tests that work produce new strategies. The ones that don’t are quickly discarded. And the process is ever-evolving.
Perhaps not so coincidentally, Millsap’s is the only farm we worked on that is close to being economically sustainable as their sole source of income is derived from selling farm produce. I learned a lot from Curtis by watching him manage the CSA – calculating to the penny how much value was going into each CSA share of produce while at the same time managing his crew and customers with a genuine homespun generosity. He brings in homemade bread, eggs, beef and fruit shares from other farms in order to offer his members a broader range of goods and to support other farms. It’s not easy being a full-time farmer in this day and age and actually make ends meet but the Millsaps seem to be doing it exactly right. Farming requires a broad range of skills, heaps of common sense and a flexible management of resources. Especially when it comes to labor. If you are going to depend on a volunteer workforce, organization, recruiting and communication are key but I think it’s also vital to maintain an atmosphere that is open, caring and most importantly, fun.
The Millsap CSA members are required to work on the farm 12 hours per season, or about four hours per month. These short hours on the farm, mainly spent harvesting veggies for the shares, connect people to the farm and their food. The members I spoke with loved it. They loved bringing their kids with them. They loved being intimate, even in small ways, with raising their food. They loved the sense of community. And they didn’t feel like the work was a burden. On the contrary, it seemed to lift them up.
When Curtis and Sarah first moved onto their farm on Emu Lane in Springfield, Curtis tried to farm seven acres of his property. He found himself working constantly, late into each night, every day of the week. At some point he realized that if he wanted to spend any quality time with his children, or with his wife or friends, he would have to work fewer hours. And, if he worked fewer hours, then he would have to farm fewer acres. So, that’s exactly what he did. From out here, it looks like it worked out perfectly.
Perhaps, letting go of what doesn’t work is the most essential lesson of all.
There’s more on Millsap’s Chinese high tunnel in my article on thermal mass.