On September 1, 1987, God spoke to Renee Randall. She was watching her farm, which had been foreclosed, go up for auction at the Crawford County courthouse in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin.
"I was on the courthouse steps trying to stand proud," she says. "The bank and my neighbor were bidding against one another. I heard a voice say, 'Bid.' I thought it was me talking to myself, so I dismissed it."
But the voice came again. "'Bid, I said.' This time it got my full attention. 'But I don't have any money,' I said. The voice came again: 'Bid, I said. I'll take care of the money.'
"I felt this surge of power, so I put my foot up on the bench, like Joan of Arc, opened my mouth, and I bid. Soon my neighbor had dropped out, then the bank, and I heard the sheriff say, 'Going, going, gone. Sold to Renee Randall.' I was just as surprised as the rest of the crowd."
Actually, she's not sure if the command to buy came from a higher power or her own subconscious. But she's glad she obeyed. She got the money--how much she won't say--in the form of private loans from family and friends. "I felt the farm had been given back to me," she says, "and I've held it in trust ever since."
That alone is no small feat. "Farmers have been in a kind of ongoing economic crisis since the 60s," says Fred Kirschenmann, director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University. "Farming as an occupation is no longer even on the U.S. census. Farmers are a little less than 2 percent of the population. In 1982 we had almost three times the number of farmers under age 35 as over age 65. By 1997, that had exactly reversed. In the meantime, agriculture is being more and more concentrated, with farmers simply becoming raw-material suppliers to multinational firms."
But Randall has gone a different route. Her 120-acre Sweet Earth Organic Farm in Wauzeka, Wisconsin, is one of seven or eight farms that provide Chicagoans with fresh produce under a system known as community supported agriculture, or CSA. About 130 shareholders make an annual payment to Sweet Earth; in return they get a box of produce delivered to a local drop-off point once a week throughout the growing season. (For information on how to buy shares, call 608-875-6026 or E-mail email@example.com.) A full share--three-quarters of a bushel box weekly--costs $470; a partial share, which gets you half a bushel box, costs $325.
Shareholders are asked to take some of the risk along with the rewards. If the harvest is good, a shareholder might get extra corn or watermelon. If the weather is bad, the growing season might be shorter, or a shareholder might get different produce or a leaner share than expected. "A CSA is not for someone who counts how many tomatoes they receive each week," Randall says. "It's for people who want to keep chemicals off the land while preserving local economies, family farms, and wildlife habitat." (The 35 acres of woodland on Randall's farm support meadowlarks, bobolinks, chickadees, woodpeckers, red-winged blackbirds, robins, red-tailed hawks, turkey vultures, and bald eagles. There are also white-tailed deer, red and gray foxes, opossums, raccoons, skunks, bobcats, and coyotes.)
CSA was developed in the 60s in Japan, where it's known as teikei, which translates as "partnership." It spread from there to Europe, and in the mid-1980s finally came to the east coast of the United States. Today there are an estimated 1,000 active CSA farms in North America, according to the Madison Area Community Supported Agriculture Coalition. CSA practitioners frown on the use of chemicals and ask consumers to take an active role in streamlining the path food takes to their homes. Randall invites her shareholders to inquire about her methods--what do you put on your soil? how do you keep bugs off your tomatoes?--and sometimes to work on the farm.
Thirty years ago Randall herself had never set foot on a farm, much less considered running one. Separated from her husband, with three kids under ten, she was attending Wright Junior College, studying chemistry and hoping to create a major in therapeutic nutrition in line with the teachings of popular nutritionist Adelle Davis. Exhausted by juggling school and child care, she took a trip to Crawford County, in southwestern Wisconsin near the Iowa border, to recoup.
"I fell in love with the country, the 'million dollar views,' the wildness of it," she says. She made up her mind on the spot to get herself a farm. "I thought farming would be an extension of my interest in the quality of food and how it grows. It was not enough to study therapeutic nutrition--the use of vitamins in foods to heal--I wanted to grow therapeutic nutrition. I also wanted my children to see my work and not be latchkey kids."
She considered renting. Then she came upon a dairy farm with an old house, two tumbledown barns, a gravel driveway, and a working well. No chemicals had ever been used on the land. Randall won't say how much it cost, but she figured out she could afford to buy it if she found partners. Six months later, she had partners who only wanted to use the farm as a weekend retreat. She loaded her kids, Buttermilk the cat, and some of their belongings into a truck and left Chicago. "It was like the original pioneers going west," she says. "We took what was necessary."
Suddenly she was a dairy farmer. "I didn't know a milk cow from a beef cow," Randall says. "To me, a harness looked like a pile of spaghetti. Everyone was talking about 'Alice,' so I kept looking around for a woman." They meant Allis--a tractor made by the Allis-Chalmers Company in Milwaukee. Her partners soon lost interest and allowed her to buy them out. Now it was just her--plus three kids, a cat, 16 cows, two draft horses, a pig, and assorted goats, chickens, sheep, and geese.
Unsure how to proceed, she approached the "old-timers," local farmers who were eager to share their methods with a willing student. "They taught me to plow back crop residue to enrich the soil rather than leaving it barren," she says. At first she farmed with the horses. "Horse machinery is low to the ground and doesn't tip easily on our rolling hills," she says. Later she learned to drive a tractor. She also learned to mix cement: "I threw cement with my bare hands in fistfuls between these big old rocks to fix my barn."
Waves of hippies, doctors, and trust-fund babies were returning to the land at the time, but Randall was one of the first outsiders in her area. The locals called her the "hippie on the hill." By 1974, her farm was certified organic--it was easy, she says, since the land had always been chemical free. Today, the organic market is growing at least 20 percent a year, according to Barbara Haumann, a senior writer with the Organic Trade Association in Greenfield, Massachusetts. But in the 70s in her area, Randall says, organics were a very small niche market promoted largely by grain farmers. "In the midwest, people identified organic produce by how bad it looked," she says. "If insects chewed on it, you knew it was organic."
Then came the 80s, when, Kirschenmann notes, three factors made it particularly hard for small farmers to hold on: "Interest rates skyrocketed, land values went down, and banks started calling in mortgages." Randall says "organic farmer" still wasn't an attractive vocation to bank officers. "And it didn't help that I was a woman farmer," she adds.
One day while she was in town, the police pulled up beside her and informed her that as part of her impending foreclosure the sheriff's department would be by to take her livestock and machinery in the morning. "I was determined to save Dusty, the children's pony, by hiding her in the woods," Randall says. "I tied her to a tree and started to walk home, confident that she was safe. Suddenly, I heard a thundering of hooves. I turned around to see Dusty passing me by, eager to get back home. Poor Dusty didn't get it."
After her epiphany on the courthouse steps, Randall got her land back, but the cows and the machinery--and Dusty--were gone. So she grew vegetables--at first tomatoes, peppers, and green beans for the wholesale market. Within a few years she was marketing produce for Amish growers in the area. Eventually her produce and theirs was showing up at Whole Foods, Fresh Fields, and Dominick's and in high-end restaurants in Chicago and Madison. But by 1999 she'd decided that CSA was the way to go. "I learned about it through the grapevine and by reading," she says.
In February, with snow still on the ground, Randall flips through a seed catalog while baby-sitting her four youngest grandchildren in Chicago. She's contemplating watermelons called Moon and Stars, lettuce called Red Leprechaun, cabbage called Mammoth Red Rock. "You have to read through the hype," she says. This season she intends to grow at least 15 varieties of lettuce, avoiding those characterized as "pleasantly sharp." Scanning the radishes, she decides to take a pass on the white ones. "I don't do white because the pigment carries the antioxidants and nutrition," she says.
She likes heirloom varieties, grown from seeds saved by farmers as far back as colonial days. Randall sees herself as part of this tradition. Long ago, she says, a woman in France might have saved seeds from the best flavored, sweetest round pink tomato she'd raised. Through that process, repeated over and over, that sweet pink tomato has survived--and evolved. "Now, I'm that woman in France, in spirit at least," says Randall. Since her predecessors already selected for taste, now she's selecting for disease resistance.
She takes a similarly personal approach to the soil in which she grows her seedlings. She starts with sand, peat moss, and compost, then adds earthworm castings, seaweed, and an organic mineral blend, tossing them together in a motorized soil mixer. She often invites local children to her farm to help. "Kids love making dirt," she says. "The soil is so fluffy and delicious smelling. When you're done, you're just in love with the stuff."
As early as late February, she starts planting seeds in 392-cell flats. First up are cabbage, celeriac, parsley, and onions; later she does tomatoes, cucumbers, and hot and sweet peppers; still later cantaloupe, winter squash, and red and yellow watermelons. She'll nurture these in her greenhouse and then, after the first true leaves arrive and grow larger, transplant them into bigger containers, feeding them kelp, molasses, fish, and compost "teas" through the leaves in a process called foliar feeding. Randall is an evolving practitioner of biodynamic agriculture--a sort of homeopathic system for healing the earth developed in the 1920s by Rudolph Steiner, the Austrian Goethe scholar also responsible for the Waldorf School movement. "It's a lifelong learning process," she says. "So far, I've used dandelions, chamomile flowers, and nettles to energize plants and soil. But I do biodynamics in my own way."
Biodynamics involves stirring various preparations into water to create a series of vortexes. "You're animating the water," she says. "You stir in one direction, then reverse the motion, then stir, then reverse again. This produces a kind of 'magic' very much like the energy sensed near a waterfall. It's too weird for some people, but those who farm biodynamically get wonderful results."
Farming isn't an occupation that ever really gets easier, but Randall gets by on a combination of flexibility and faith. "Last year straight-line winds blew down my greenhouse with all my transplants," she says. She built a new one. Last year the shaft in her 500-foot well collapsed, so while she saves up to have a new one dug, she's trading hay to her next-door neighbor for water, which she hauls back in a 400-gallon tank hooked up to her tractor.
Randall delivers her produce in a 1989 Hino FB turbo diesel refrigerated truck, purchased in 1999 from an eccentric millionaire who sold it "cheap enough." It broke down within the year. After she had the engine rebuilt, she named it Frodo, "after the character in Lord of the Rings who appears to die but comes back to life in the next book.
"Immediately after," she continues, "I drove it into the parking lot of my favorite deli, where a bus full of rabbinical students were engaged in some activity. I went over to them and asked them if they could bless my truck. They looked surprised but said, 'Sure. What is it called?' I was surprised too, as I had just named it, and I told them, 'Frodo.'
"The great part is how their prayer kept ending with the languorous refrain 'Froooough...doooough, Froooough...doooough.' Now every time my truck breaks down, I remember this truck's been blessed in a parking lot by davening rabbinical students chanting, 'Froooough...doooough,' so how can I lament my fate or ever get too mad at this truck?"
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Paul Merideth.