Even though he has 15 years of farming under his belt, Neng Lor of Madison is still learning the tools of the trade. Which is how Lor came to help build a “farm cooler” last week, a no-frills way to preserve produce with just a household air conditioner, a $300 device called a “CoolBot,” some lumber and a few sheets of insulation.
The result was a homemade, walk-in refrigerator, key to making organic farming profitable, explained Janet Parker, who runs the farm incubator program at the Linda and Gene Farley Center for Peace, Justice and Sustainability, a novel 43-acre exercise in local food production outside Verona.
“Some immigrant farmers in our area don’t have a cooler, and they have to pick each morning before farmers’ market,” Parker said. “Coolers can be expensive, but we’re showing how to do it fairly low cost.”
The lesson was practical but also symbolic of the Farley Center’s emphasis on simplicity and ingenuity, and its mission to give fledgling growers tools to create a successful small farm business.
Despite its quiet rural setting, the center is a bustling place, training “beginning” farmers (those with less than 10 years’ experience) in organic farming; matching growers with landowners; and developing savvy ways to get produce into the hands of paying customers.
Key to it all: A “green” cemetery for natural burials to raise money for the center.
Overlooking 15 acres of fields that by summer’s end will yield herbs, honeys, vegetables, fruits and flowers is the home of Gene Farley, who came to Wisconsin from Denver in 1982 to chair the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Wisconsin Medical School. Along with his wife, Linda, also a family physician, Farley was a longtime social justice activist with a special interest in a national health care plan modeled after the Canadian system.
Opening up the land
Farley and his sons built a passive-solar home aside a hill on their property in the town of Springdale. The family offered garden plots to friends to grow vegetables and, after meeting Parker at their Quaker church, began inviting Hmong families to garden there.
After Linda’s death in 2009, Farley’s sons made a proposal: Rather than inherit the land one day, they wanted to see it converted to a place that would carry on their parents’ values. The Farley Center was created and today works in close partnership with Madison’s Community GroundWorks, which employs the farm incubator’s five staff and outreach workers, including Parker.
The farm incubator, funded in part by a one-year $146,825 USDA grant, is aimed at providing business skills to “socially disadvantaged farmers” — a USDA term that includes farmers who have been discriminated against in the past, such as women, minorities and recent immigrants.
Immigrant farmers in particular often bring with them strong agricultural skills plus “generations of traditional knowledge of how to grow food with low input, low chemicals and maximum productivity in small spaces,” said Parker, who’s recruited participants for the program in part via Spanish-language and Hmong radio.
The center focuses on teaching about organic certification, marketing and adapting to the Wisconsin growing season. “Helping people transition from household gardening to farming to sell — that’s a niche where we’re really stepping in,” she said.
To create an endowment to sustain its operation, the center has also created a “green” cemetery known as the Natural Path Sanctuary and expected to open this summer.
Located on 25 acres of woodland and meadow on the Farley property, it will have no concrete vaults or embalming, and burial containers — such as simple shrouds or blankets — must be biodegradable. About 90 burials are expected each year, for a total of 2,700 bodies at the site. Full-body burials will cost $3,500, and cremain placement for ashes will cost $2,750, with fees benefiting the work of the Farley Center, said cemetery project manager Susan Corrado.
“We’re going to leave it forever wild,” said Gene Farley, “and as a burial ground, we’ll have centuries to watch it.”
In addition, the Farley Center is helping to organize a new CSA, or community supported agriculture program, the first in the area run by local immigrant farmers. And its first Green Cart — modeled after New York City hot dog carts that have been converted to selling fresh produce — is expected to debut in Madison’s Allied Drive neighborhood in August.
“If this was just my sons and me, I’d be sitting here, wondering, ‘Now what do I do?,’” Farley said of his property. “Instead, it’s everybody’s.”