SCOTT LAESER, ECO-FRIENDLY FARM OWNER AND PRODUCER

Scott Laeser, Kenosha, Wisconsin native, and co-owner of Plowshares and Prairie Farm, blends his passions for land conservation, policy, and sustainable farming. He produces and sells food directly to consumers through the FairShare CSA Coalition, all the while consciously preserving the ecosystems of their farm.

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The name of our farm, Plowshares and Prairie, reflects both the food side of our farm, but also the land management and conservation side. We are fortunate to be on a large piece of farmland and only farm a small portion of it. We do a lot of work with invasive species, wildlife habitat, and managing the landscape so it stays healthy. We want people to understand it isn’t just about growing good food, it’s about growing good food on a healthy landscape, and really sort of improving both by having them work together.

My family grew up camping, fishing, hunting, and doing a lot of stuff outdoors. I had a big forest outside growing up. I started hunting when I was twelve; it’s when you could officially hunt with a gun. The Wisconsin deer hunt is traditionally nine days. It’s the weekend before Thanksgiving and the week through Thanksgiving. It was only when I got to be nine or ten that I got to go on opening weekend, and that was a really big deal. I remember the first deer that was shot when I was along—I could take you back to the exact spot that it was. I remember when we were butchering it; it was actually a really difficult experience. I think I actually cried, I was like nine or ten at the time and it was the first time I had really seen the whole food process through. Hunting definitely gave me more appreciation and in hindsight, at least introduced the idea that not all food comes from a grocery store.

My grandparents had a big garden. I definitely grew up around the idea of growing your own food. We had some fruit trees, rhubarb, raspberries, potatoes, strawberries… I can’t say that I remember the farmers market well that I went to as a kid. It wasn’t something that I really locked in my brain. I think it was pretty similar to now, a smattering of people backed up into a parking lot selling produce. My perception now is that people have a little bit more of an understanding and appreciation for organic produce.

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I wanted to be a scientist in various degrees at various times growing up. I had my dinosaur phase like I think most kids do. My dad was a science teacher, so that defiantly contributed. I ended up going to college and majoring in biology, did some research, which in turn led me to do environmental policy work. My undergrad education—having an understanding of ecology and biology and an appreciation of land management—along with growing up with a garden, gave me the basics of what would be needed to start and work on a farm. I did do a work share on a farm in Seattle in 2011. That was a really good learning experience, and it was really the first time that I got some hands on experience on a farm that was similar to what we have now.

Land is one of the biggest challenges when getting into farming, and we are fortunate to be on property that is owned by my family. I think rural Wisconsin and a lot of rural parts of the country right now are experiencing transition or even upheaval as farms become bigger in many cases, and require fewer employees. There is a lot of change going on. This part of the state has a decent amount of retirees like my parents who didn’t grow up here, but appreciate the landscape, small town feel, and our movement here. There is a lot going on here demographically in places like this. There’s a lot of farms and farmers. There aren’t very many that do what we do, sell and produce on a commercial scale. We are part of that.

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We decided that we were gonna start our farm. Garlic is something that you actually need to plant the fall before you harvest it the following summer. So I came back for Thanksgiving in 2012 and planted 1000 heads of garlic or so. Then it was over that winter that we moved here, and the following spring was when things got started on our farm. We didn’t have a lot of help the first year. My parents would help out a little bit and they still do on occasion. They have a tractor so we really haven’t had to make a substantial capital expenditure. The second year we did hire a little bit of help. We have an Amish family next door, and some of their kids came over and worked a couple of hours two or three times a week for the past couple of seasons.

There was a lot going through our heads when we started. There was a lot of uncertainty. I think one of the important things about doing something like this is that you have to be willing to learn and try things and go with the flow, while creatively problem solving. It helped a lot that we are fully capable of doing this and it helped a lot that we had the right mindset.

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Planting tends to happen when we start seeds indoors in early to mid March, and continue to plant and grow a lot of transplants indoors through April. We start planting in the field in April, direct seed. Some things like broccoli and tomatoes, we grow the plants inside before we move them into the field. Other things like radishes, beats, carrots and corn, we plant the seeds directly outside. By the time we get into May, a little bit of harvesting starts. In May and June its peak weeding time, that’s when [weeding] starts to take up more of our time.

June is when the CSA [Community Supported Agriculture) starts, so we are full on planting, weeding, and harvesting. All three of the main things that we do are going on in June, which makes it very chaotic. By the time July rolls around, most to all of the planting is done, the weeds are still fairly aggressive, but they do start to back off especially towards the end of July, but we are really in full harvest mode., We do the last of the planting in early August and the weeds seem to be a little better as we move through August and September.

Our trajectory through the first two seasons has been good. You get a chance to look back and try to appreciate what you did well and how to do it again. It’s also a time to understand what you did wrong and what you are going to do differently. I like that part of it, and the challenges of things constantly evolving. There [are] always new things to figure out and even when you have something figured out, it could fail the next year and you have to go back to the drawing board and figure out why.

We are doing a lot of cover plants this year; this is the first time that we have engaged in them a lot. Those basically help improve and maintain soil health, they help reduce erosion, run off, and they can help suppress weeds for the future. All of the cover crops we are growing right now are sort of a pre-growing, so that next year if things go well, it will help put nutrients in the soil, reduce weed pressure, and in some cases help break up cycles of insects. That is something that can take up a lot of time in the fall, but will be very much be worthwhile in the future.

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We really like the model of marketing that we are most focused on [CSA] because of the interaction it allows with customers. Getting comments or compliments at the market, or when we do on farm events, pot lucks and things like that, knowing that we must be doing something right, because people are enjoying eating the stuff we’re growing, is great.

We have had absolutely spectacular cauliflower this year. When you get a really beautiful crop—we had some three-pound heads of broccoli this week, which were the biggest ones we ever had—it feels great. You know that maybe some of it was beyond your control, but at least you did something right. It also depends on the time of year. Sweet corn is great, I don’t know if there is anything I would love to have all the time, all season, the transition is nice. When you get your first zucchini of the year it’s kind of nice, but when you get your fifteenth, you’re kind of done with them. The same goes for greens—you’re always excited to get the first spring batch, but by the time June comes around, I have no desire to see another salad for months.

Being able to be outside so much is also really great. When I find myself sitting in an office or sitting somewhere for two or three days, I go a little stir crazy. I realize that it’s something we don’t appreciate enough. A good number of people spend their entire working week inside, sitting down. I think that would be hard to go back to now. That isn’t as I said something we always appreciate in the moment, but it is something that especially during calmer times of year we can really look back on and appreciate. We’ve still got a lot to learn and a lot to figure out, but it really has brought together different parts of different professions in my life, and that’s been enjoyable.

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— Jonathon Rodriguez

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