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Sharing the goods: CSA model used at downstate farm

A cherry tomato is held at a local farm in this Journal file photo. Pete and Jill Wilson of downstate Free Soil have built a farm with organic and sustainable practices using a more recently developed business method called Community Supported Agriculture. (Journal file photo)

FREE SOIL — When entering Kid Ranch Farm, it might look like something straight out of Michigan’s frontier — a log house, chickens wandering the yard and a large garden out front.

But that’s only part of the picture. Pete and Jill Wilson have built a farm with organic and sustainable practices using a more recently developed business method called Community Supported Agriculture (CSA).

CSA is when people purchase “shares” of a farm, such as “herdshares” of a dairy cow which pays for maintenance and up keep for the cow and in return they receive milk.

Pete was raised in Free Soil and his parents have adjoining property.

“My dad has always enjoyed farming, but has not always been a farmer. I grew up on a homestead-type place with a milk cow, a couple beef steers for ourselves and a large garden. I always enjoyed that stuff,” Pete said.

Jill grew up in Kentwood, a suburb of Grand Rapids. Her family was into outdoor activities like camping and hunting.

“I did not grow up in the country… and definitely not farming,” she said.

He and Jill moved back to the area about 15 years ago and established a homestead. Initially, they wanted to live a healthy lifestyle by growing their own food and raising animals.

“The business started with self-sufficiency,” Pete said. “We wanted to do homesteading, provide our own food. As different friends got to know us, they said they’d like some of those vegetables we were growing, like those who lived in town and didn’t have the time or opportunity to do their own garden.

“We have Jersey cows and one day someone showed up and said, ‘Someone told me you have Jersey cows, can we get some milk?'”

That led to Pete researching to determine if it was legal to sell raw milk and learning about the CSA sharing.

“The only way to get unprocessed milk is to own your own cow,” Pete said. “In the United States, you’re allowed to have your own cow and drink milk if you want to, however, I can’t sell someone raw milk. In 2013, there were some people pushing in the government and were able to get a law passed… where people can pay me to take care of their cows… and they come get a gallon of milk a week.”

Now, with 12 children, three gardens, several cows, goats and numerous other animals later, it’s a working farm.

“I feel really good about doing something with our work that is beneficial and healthy for everyone,” Jill said. “It’s sustainable agriculture. It’s very healthful food. With a family our size, I would love to buy organic, but we can’t afford that, but if we can grow it ourselves, it’s really good.”

Pete had worked as a naturalist for a private nature center and Jill studied to be a teacher. They’ve turned those skills into a sustainable lifestyle where there is almost no waste, which they said was important to them.

“It started really small, with only five people in our CSA,” Pete said. “There came a point where we were like, ‘This is turning into a business.’ I was not one of those people who had a 5- or 10-year plan. It just kind of happened along the way.”

Besides the cow and goat shares, Kid Ranch offers a regular vegetable share or the “Taste of the Farm” basket, which can include honey comb from their hives, homemade maple syrup, chicken and floral bouquets.

Pete raises 300 to 400 Cornish Rock hens every year to also sell at the market. The chickens are free-range and kept in a coop at night. They also raise beef and are looking to expand that part of the business.

Why is it called Kid Ranch Farm? Because it’s a family effort.

Growing up, each child has responsibilities on the farm, such as weeding the gardens or taking care of the animals. Jill homeschools the children and when they graduate, they have the option to stay on for a salary or pay rent.

“Most of the kids pitch in little bits, depending on their age, just for being family team players,” he said.

And most everyone helps during June, “the big weeding month.”

The kids also have the opportunity to explore their own interests and participate in the local fair.

Miriam has a pet rabbit business, Triple F Rabbitry — “Fancy Formal and Floppy.” She also works at Stakenas Farms in the calf barn and “knows more about animal husbandry than her father,” Pete said.

JoyEllen raises Polish chickens. Benjamin loves the ducks. Levi does the pigs. Thaddeus, 4 years old, follows his father around.

Jill and Pete said the kids love to gather food. Anything berry-shaped is fair game.

Louisa, Thaddeus and Jared helped give the Daily News a tour around the farm on Tuesday.

One of the services the farm offers is delivering the vegetable baskets to people as far south as Pentwater and north to Manistee. They deliver 28 baskets twice a week.

“I do a large variety of vegetables because of the… CSA deliveries. People have a variety of tastes,” Pete said. “Just about anything you can think will grow in a garden, we grow it.”

He’s tried growing a few unique vegetables, like striped and purple beans. But when they sell at the Manistee and Ludington farmer’s markets, people tend to want the standard types of vegetables, he said.

“There are so many types of cherry tomatoes, but when people come to my stand at the market, they want the orange ones or the red ones,” he said. “We try to find what people like, and that’s what we grow.”

The list of vegetables they grow is long — corn, lettuce, radishes, tomatoes, beans, peppers and it goes on. Even as late as Labor Day he will plant new lettuce and other vegetables when others think it’s too late.

“My horizons were expanded,” he said. “I grew up the typical Michigan gardener. Memorial Day weekend you plant your garden… and harvest throughout the season. By (September) everything but tomatoes is done. So we have enough to sell and can save as much money as possible, I said, ‘I bet I could plant beans and cucumbers again.'”

The farm uses row covers, or insect barriers made from material like frost blankets, instead of pesticides. Rotating crops also helps prevent problems with pests, he said.

“Some are soil-born pests and others, like the potato beetle, winter in the soil. So it comes up in the spring and if you planted potatoes there again, you will get decimated unless you use (chemicals),” he said.

Pete and Jill said they make adjustments and learn more the longer they do it.

“Things are always changing on our farm,” he said.

Pete built the all buildings on the 20-acre farm, expanding as needed.

“It was mostly pine woods. We carved a small spot for a barn, a little garden and our house,” he said.

He made a greenhouse to hold the transplants before they are planted into the ground in the spring.

“I built it for our own use and modified it and added shelves as our business has grown,” he said.

And he built a hoop house, a season-extender similar to a greenhouse, which allows them to get “an early start on the growing season.”

Now that fall is quickly approaching, Pete is “tucking in” the plants, tilling the land and planting nitrogen-rich clover.

“It not only holds the soil in place, but you aren’t losing any nutrients and it adds nitrogen to the soil,” he said.

The cool weather crops are coming in now. Soon the winter will usher in more of a “normal life,” Pete said.

“For us, it’s like time off,” he said.

As the business has grown, Jill has taken on more of the business management, such as communicating with customers.

Her advice for people interested in hobby farming or homesteading is “not to bite off more than you can chew.”

Kid Ranch is the only CSA farm in the county that they know of.

Though the application for CSA vegetable membership is currently closed, Kid Ranch is taking people’s information for when it reopens in the spring. The dairy shares are open year-round.

When they started out, he never imagined it would turn into a full-time business or so many people would be interested.

“When we started, I thought 30 would be a big number,” Pete said. “I did not anticipate being where we’re at today… and growing.”

They tried to cap it at 50 households this year, but there were some long-time members they couldn’t turn down, Pete said.

“We wanted to make sure we could provide well. We didn’t want to take on too much and find that we didn’t have enough,” he said.

One of his customers that has been involved for years said the farm was ahead of its time. In light of the pandemic, people are requesting more home deliveries and food that they know where it comes from.

“I’ve been doing these home deliveries for three or four years now, so we were prepared. There were more people interested because of the pandemic,” he said.

“We’re going to keep doing this. I keep making adjustments. I don’t know how long my children will want to be involved or at what level. I’m not getting any younger, so I’m think about what kind of farming things I can do that are less physically strenuous. You wouldn’t think of gardening as strenuous, but as big as we are it is.

“As many hours as I work, it would not be a good thing because I’m all about family, except that we do it together.”

People who are interested in the CSA program or want more information about the farm can visit the Facebook page, Kid Ranch CSA Farm, or the website, www.kidranchfarm.com.

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