Geneva Lakes Produce, from asparagus to zucchini

June 1, 2012

Story & Photo By Sheila Julson

Flowers, fruit, vegetables, pumpkins—Geneva Lakes Produce does it all.

Scott Koster has owned Geneva Lakes Produce in Burlington, Wis. since 1987, and grows everything from asparagus to zucchini.

The farm is comprised of 150 acres. Koster owns 4.8 acres and rents the other acreage from neighboring retired farmers. Koster also barters. Neighbor Judy lets Koster use some of her land in exchange for his plowing services.

Koster worked on his grandfather’s farm in Illinois, which specialized in gladioli. Koster left farming when his parents told him to “go to college and get a real job.” He became a salesperson for Pioneer seed company, but his passion for farming drew him back.

—photo Sheila Julson

Koster runs the farm and his five children help. His son Jordan recently graduated from UW-Platteville with a degree in agriculture and will join the Geneva Lakes Produce team. Koster’s wife Jackie used to farm, but grew tired of the hours and went back to social work.

Koster has been selling his produce at the South Milwaukee Farmers Market for about three years. His farm also has a presence at 16 farmers markets in Wisconsin and Illinois, and a farm stand at the intersection of Highways 120 and 11 where they sell flowers and produce. Koster said he tried community supported agriculture (CSA) ventures in the past, but “rather than give customers whatever I have, I’d rather have them come to the market and choose what they’d like to have.” He also has some wholesale customers.

The farm produces flowers early in the season, followed by vegetables. They also grow hay, which Koster said provides winter income.

While many Wisconsinites enjoyed the mild winter and warm spring, Koster predicts pests will be problematic this year because there was no harsh winter to kill bugs. Dealing with wild weather swings is one of the biggest challenges for farmers. “The weather is like a roller coaster. Learn not to throw up, and you’re fine,” he said.

Many small farmers use organic methods; however, while Koster said he respects organic farmers, he’s not afraid to integrate modern farming methods. He occasionally sprays insecticides, but “only when we have to,” he said. “The crops need to be taken care of. It’s just like taking medicine, but only when you’re sick.” He uses an integrated pest management system that according to Koster is an environmentally sensitive method of managing pest damage, with the least possible risk to people and the environment.

Koster uses hoop houses, a fairly new development in Wisconsin agriculture. The structures are made of heavy plastic wrap stretched over tubing. The sun’s radiation heats the interior. Hoop houses can significantly extend the growing season by sheltering seedlings and plants. The plastic sides can be rolled up to cool the houses when needed. Koster said Geneva Lakes Produce has used hoop houses for about two years. He heats his greenhouses with wood stoves. Koster also uses black plastic mulch to reduce weeds and protect young tomato plants and roses.

Willingness to try new things and be creative is crucial to keeping a small farm afloat, especially when one has to compete with commercial agriculture. “Big ag has advantages such as GPS tractors that maneuver themselves. I have a 1950s tractor,” Koster said, as he pointed to the rustic tractor his son, Corban, drove through the leek field.

Koster understands how families struggle in today’s economy, which creates another challenge for small farmers: educating consumers about why it is more socially responsible to buy from small farmers than to buy “Walmart’s $1.99 strawberries.”

Knowing your farmer is a bonus. “I grew it, I picked it. If someone gets a bad melon, they can come back to the market next week, and we’ll talk about it,” Koster said.

He receives calls about once a week from farmers-market organizers who invite him to be a vendor. He’s willing to try new markets, but pointed out that while farmers markets help fill a demand for good food, an over-saturation of markets could also be a problem for small farmers, as they may cut one another out.

Yet despite slim profits, no health insurance, and a work schedule that can extend beyond 80 hours a week—or “working until you drop,” Koster said the passion for farming drives him. “You just gotta love what you do.”

 

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