"Sister of the soil and tender of the table" Amy tells us about becoming a farmer, getting the community involved in growing vegetables, how the changing seasons keep her energized, and the advice she would give a girl like her.
FAST FACTS ABOUT AMY
Where she’s from: a small town in Wisconsin
Grew up with: mom, dad, older sister, and younger brother and sister
Education: Bachelor’s degree in Horticulture and Soil Science from the University of Wisconsin in Madison
Where she lives now: Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Growing up she wanted to be: a veterinarian
Now she’s: Produce Manager at Hunger Task Force Farm and owner and farmer at Amy’s Acre, her own farm
Tell us about yourself growing up!
I grew up in a small town in Western Wisconsin, a town of a little over 1,200 people. I was very shy when I was younger. Having three siblings there was always someone to play with. I had a couple of close friends and we played outside a lot. My best friend’s backyard went into this wooded area so we spent a lot of time down in there. There was a little creek that went through so we’d play in the creek. I was very involved in Girl Scouts, and I did a lot of camping and outdoor activities through my Girl Scout troop. We did a lot of bike riding. I always had rollerblades and roller skates as a kid. I was not a natural athlete of any kind, but I liked playing softball because all of my friends were on the team.
How did you get interested in farming?
My parents always had a large garden and a lot of what our family ate was homemade, made from scratch. Both of my parents grew up on dairy farms in Wisconsin. Some of those skills they brought with them and then passed on to myself and my siblings. It was mostly in regard to growing vegetables. But then my mom had always made homemade bread, so she’d have us help make bread. She did a lot of canning, and that’s something that I kind of just picked up from watching.
How did you get started working in agriculture?
I graduated with a double major in horticulture and soil science.
I worked for two seasons at one of the University [of Wisconsin] research stations. They have a 15-acre trial garden where they grow perennial plants, but also annual fruits and vegetables and it’s always open to the public. And the whole point of the garden in the station is to grow all sorts of different fruits and vegetables, flowers, grasses, berries, trees, what have you, to show the general public what they can grow in that part of the state.
I saw a posting where they were looking for interns in the garden. I thought it would be a good opportunity to work within my major and get some job experience and also spend the summer outside.
I think that’s where I really started to feel like, okay, now I know how I can take my college degree and turn it into a career.
Now you’re with Hunger Task Force Farm working as the Produce Manager. What does your role as Produce Manager involve?
My role as Produce Manager is to work with both the director of our farm and my co-manager, who is operations manager, to put together an annual crop plan which lays out what crops we’re growing, how much acreage of each crop, when we’ll be planting them. Some crops we’ll plant multiple times throughout the year so we have a longer harvest window.
During the growing season I work with our staff of eight at the farm. We’re a small staff and we’re doing a lot of acreage. We all enjoy working with one another so it doesn’t really feel like work most days. We oversee thousands of volunteers throughout the season.
“WE GET THIS GREAT OPPORTUNITY TO SHOW Volunteers WHAT LOCAL AGRICULTURE LOOKs. ONE OF MY FAVORITE PARTS OF THE JOB IS GETTING TO ENGAGE SO MANY NON-FARMERS IN AGRICULTURE."
How do you work effectively with so many volunteers?
There’s a lot of quick training that has to happen because we’re usually getting different people every day so we’ll give a rundown of the task at hand, explain why we’re doing that in the context of the farm, and then get to work. During the growing season I’m usually out there all day with people working in the fields. I get to work with people that don’t farm and this might be the first time they’ve been to a farm. We get this great opportunity to, through hands-on experience, show them what does local agriculture even look like? How does it happen? One of my favorite parts of the job is getting to engage so many non-farmers in agriculture.
How do you know when something will be ready to harvest?
I find that just walking the field a lot at the beginning of the day or at the end of the day in preparation for the next day is the best way to gather that information. With multiple seasons you start to learn more about the best way that you can record that information. There’s so much information you can take in from your fields. I give credit to my experience at [the research station in] West Madison where I had to write down in the same way every time I was collecting information. Now it’s just second nature.
What goes into creating a plan for the farm?
We’ll put together projected harvest dates so our food distribution team has an idea of when they can start seeing farm produce and when they can incorporate that into the food that they’re distributing to sites. That’s the off-season part of my job.
I have a lot of opportunity to interact with other farmers and talk about farming, and sometimes it’s as basic as like have you grown this variety of bean before and what did you think of it?
We can look at our yield data and say, well, we grew this many pounds per acre, and it looks like based on feedback we should have this many more pounds available for this many weeks, so then we can work back and figure out how much acreage to put into that crop. It’s always evolving.
How do you make sure you’re giving the people who rely on Hunger Task Force the produce they want and need?
We actually survey all of our sites at the end of growing season, and we have contact with them throughout the growing season to gather feedback on how people reacted to the fresh produce that was available.
We’ll ask did you receive appropriate amounts of food? Did you receive enough variety of different foods or different fresh produce? Are there things that people were asking about that we didn’t have available that maybe we should considering growing? It’s tricky, but we found that making sure that the end user is involved in the process is really our best shot at trying to get it right.
Tell us about your own farm, Amy’s Acre!
I borrow land from a family that has a family-owned and operated composting facility. It has up to this point only been one acre. I’ve run that farm for two seasons now, and I grow a variety of vegetables. I sell to a few restaurants in Milwaukee, and then a local grocery store in the neighborhood I live in.
The restaurants that I sell to are fine dining farm-to-table, so it’s a very different end user than the food that I’m collectively growing at the food bank. It’s been a really great two years and I’m looking forward to this third season.
What’s new for this season?
This season I have a part-time employee, a friend and farmer, who will be helping me with Amy’s Acre. I have a hoop house that was just finished late last summer. I’m excited to do some things in there, particularly tomatoes.
With that added capacity, we’re going to be able to do a farmer’s market at one of the northern suburbs in Milwaukee, so it’s taking our farm produce out to a new customer base, which is really exciting. It’ll be eight weeks starting in June.
How do you decide what you’ll grow? What is it like collaborating with chefs versus taking produce to market?
Both customer bases like to have consistent aspects to the different foods, but with a restaurant it’s a little more forgiving. Whereas the market, people really want to be able to have tomatoes available for as many weeks as you can have them. I’m having to formalize some of my planning process which is good, because it’s really going to benefit my farm in the future, so it’s really exciting.
Then in the last year or so I’ve done a little bit more of actually sitting down with some of the chefs that I sell to, and actually lending them a seed catalog and having them take a look through it and let me know if there are things that they would like to see, so that’s been part of it.
It’s a collaborative effort to figure out what to grow and how much.
You’re really intimately tied to the change of seasons as a whole, which I find to be really satisfying and gratifying.
As a farmer, your work is tied to the seasons. How are you feeling with the growing season getting started?
In summer there’s just so much going on that you have no choice but just keep doing what you can do. And you kind of run on adrenalin for a while, but that period of time where there’s a lot of demand from the job, there’s also the longest list of benefits because that’s when you’ve got the most crops ready for harvest so you’re eating the best that you will be all year round.
That seasonal progression of the job is what keeps me going because then pretty soon there’s frost on the ground, and you can sit back and drink tea, and recharge for the next year. You’re really intimately tied to the change of seasons as a whole, which I just find to be really satisfying and gratifying.
Patience and hard work and leading by example are some of the best things that anyone can do both for themselves and for the people around them.
What advice would you give a girl like you?
If you’re not the best at something but you enjoy doing it, you should not let that stop you. If you enjoy doing it then there’s a reason for you to continue on.
Like the shy me, someday you’ll have your opportunity to blossom too, and someday you will reach that point where you’re comfortable with who you are in and out and then good things will just continue to come your way.
Patience and hard work and leading by example are some of the best things that anyone can do both for themselves and for the people around them, and it’s only going to bring good things your way and will lead to happiness and fulfillment in its own time.
What’s your advice for someone who wants to start growing her own food?
You’re going to learn more by just doing it. Gather a little bit of information and figure out maybe two or three things that will grow well where you are, and then find a little garden space that you can plot out and then go for it.
And don’t be discouraged if it doesn’t go right the first time because there are things that I’ve grown for five or six years and then they don’t do well.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Check out some of Amy's favorite books and find out more about her work!