If ever Richard DeWilde questioned the loyalty he's developed with the members of his community-supported agriculture program, the catastrophic flooding that devastated his and other farms in southwestern Wisconsin in late August has silenced any doubt. "Being a member of your CSA has meant more to me than I can say," writes one of his members. "I find it an extraordinary privilege to stick with [Harmony Valley Farm] for the long haul."
"It brings tears to my eyes to read the letters," says DeWilde, who distributes weekly boxes of produce to CSA members. "I can't let these people down. We're feeding thousands of people every week."
DeWilde, the owner of Harmony Valley, in Viroqua, lost 45 acres to the flood waters that tore through his area, a crop loss of $750,000. Using some of the crops normally sold to grocery stores and restaurants as well as crops they wouldn't normally distribute, such as sorrel, Harmony Valley has managed to continue to fill its nearly 900 CSA boxes each week, if a little less full than usual. Members have also pitched in, donating $45,000 to the recovery of the farm.
The heavy rains and flooding that hit southwestern Wisconsin in August came at a critical time for most farms. Farmers were just beginning their last plantings, and the late summer crops in the fields were ready for harvest. Late summer is when most farms start to make a profit and can pay back the operating loan that sustained them through the early part of the growing season. The regions hardest hit, the Kickapoo Valley and southwest Wisconsin, are also home to some of Wisconsin's most prolific organic farms.
Driftless Organics in Soldiers Grove, another farm hard hit by the floods, sustained $200,000 in damage. During some of the heaviest rains, four feet of water flowed through the packing shed there, carrying away farm equipment, depositing the haybine in the creek, and coating everything in a thick coat of mud and debris. Nearly all of the carrots and potatoes were lost, along with around half of the cucumbers and zucchinis and a quarter of the kale.
Yet despite the devastation, the farmers at Driftless Organics, Mike Lind and brothers Josh and Noah Engel, carry on, filling the boxes of their CSA members in this their first year doing CSA. "Our members have been great," says Lind. "We don't expect money from them, but they are sending it anyway and already signing up for next year."
Lind says they even hope to expand the CSA part of their operation in the coming year (Driftless Organics also sells wholesale and at the Dane County Farmers' Market). "I love the close contact you get through CSA, hearing that we've changed eating habits," says Lind. "You don't get that same feedback from grocery stores."
Perhaps the most shocking and disappointing aspect of the flooding has been the lack of government assistance. Insurance policies don't cover the loss of land or farm equipment, and federal government programs only cover commodity crops like corn and soybeans, not organic vegetables.
So in its place, organizations like the Sow the Seeds Fund out of Minneapolis have been collecting donations (online and, locally, at the Willy Street Co-op) for flood relief. And Harmony Valley and Driftless Organics, along with the countless other farms harmed by the floods, pledge to carry on because, as DeWilde notes, "our customers are depending on us, and we on them."