Back to the Land

Marcelle Richards talks with local women who work the land and harvest its bounty to share with others as they enrich their own lives, too.

Madison’s “buy local” movement connects consumers to their farmers and their products. It puts a face on the food we eat, but how many of us take that one step further, back to the land? Many of us don’t know that we can, in our own small ways, find a connection to our food by being both the consumer and producer. We all have the power to be stewards of the land, and—if we really want to—we have the power to be both producers and consumers.

The Bee Charmer

People have to start to be aware of our earth; this consciousness has started to be more widespread,” says “The Bee Charmer” Mary Celley. In addition to organic black locust/apple blossom, clover, and wildflower honey, she produces heirloom squashes and pumpkins, sweet corn, and various other fruits and vegetables. “It’s so simple, too, if we just give thanks. I get a bounty of food and all I do is say ‘thank you’ to the earth. It works,” she says.

Celley usually sells all of what she brings to the Dane County Farmers’ Market while still producing enough to sustain her own needs.

“For so many years, people have gotten sick from cantaloupes or grapes because they’ve been sprayed with pesticides or washed with dirty water. I know my stuff is safer for people, and it’s fresh. My partner and a friend pick the corn the morning of the market and bring it to me. All my other vegetables are picked the night before,” she says.

With the price of gas and oil on the rise, Celley anticipates that the market will see higher traffic as people turn to local sources of food.

“Everybody’s struggling this year, so I’ve lowered my prices. I’m going to sell a lot for a little. I’ve got everything that I need,” she says.

Celley tends to her fields and orchards and a bee house of her most prized associates on a plot of oak savannah in Brooklyn, which she acquired through meeting an older farmer at the Hilldale farmers’ market.

“He knew there was something special up here, but he didn’t know what it was,” she says, commenting on the spiritual energy of the grounds. “I consider myself the steward of this property and that’s why everything is natural,” she adds.

All buildings on Celley’s property are made of stone and wood—purposely void of metal—to stand firm in “tornado alley.” Celley, her partner, four labs, and multiple cats call a log cabin home.

Slowly, Celley has bought and rented more of the old farmer’s property, keeping the “greedy grandson’s” heavy machinery further and further away from the oak trees’ roots.

“That one out there is like the grandmother of all of these,” she says as she points out the window at a gnarly-knuckled oak, making herself sound like the Lorax of this patch of Brooklyn.

The outdoors have always felt like home to Celley. “I found comfort in being outside from a young age. I was always outdoors,” she says.

When she attended UW-Madison, Celley worked as a beekeeper for the USDA, and she’s been devoted to bees ever since.

“They’re little miracle workers: they’re organized, they’re clean, and they can live in a metropolis and function,” she says. “Bees teach people that you can get along, and you can work as a unit.”

Luna Circle

For Tricia Bross, owner of Luna Circle Farm in Rio, being a producer has created spheres of overlap between other organic farmers, farmers in general, her customers, and the local communities she’s involved in.

Bross experienced her hardest year to date last year, which she nicknames “the year of the broken equipment.” But in times of trouble, other farmers help.

“A lot of what keeps me going is I feel this deep commitment to providing good food to people, I feel a commitment to the piece of land I live on, and I really want to find ways to make good food affordable for people in a way that supports the farmer,” she says.

Bross has faithful clientele, and feels it really comes down to high-quality produce, which she also sells to L’Etoile, Harvest, The Old Fashioned, and Krista’s Café in Portage.

Although Tricia’s parents were hobby farmers, women were still a rarity in farming, and she initially started down a different path.

“I got out of high school in 1978, and it was not a time when they thought of girls in farming,” she says. “I actually got a degree in business administration, worked in San Francisco, went to graduate school, and met people there that were growing organic vegetables. I started volunteering on the farm and ended up deciding that was what I wanted to do.

”While interning, a farmer told Bross, “Women bunch the vegetables, the men drive the equipment.” She says, “I had grown up driving equipment as a kid and wasn’t allowed to get on a tractor there.

”Frustrated by how women were treated on farms, Bross created Luna Circle Farm “to train women in how to do things like run tractors, run rototillers, and how to not be terrified by a chain saw.” A short time later, she began hiring men as well.

Originally, Luna Circle was located in Gays Mills. The drive from Gays Mills to the Dane County Farmers’ Market meant that Saturday mornings began at 1 a.m., so as Tricia entered her forties, she looked for something closer to Madison. She traded the scenery of a hilly vista in Gays Mills for prairieland in Rio where, as an experienced farmer, she loves the high-quality soil.

Madison CSAs

Kiera Mulvey, executive director of the Madison Area Community Supported Agriculture Coalition says that in this area of the state, “We happen to be on years and years of old prairie soil, so we have access to really wonderful topsoil that’s rich in nutrients. If, as farmers and gardeners, we care for that soil, we can have really amazing results in our backyards, in our homes, and on our farms.

”Even in the city, growing can happen in our own backyard, or even on a windowsill.

“You can grow a little bit of food no matter what your situation is. You don’t have to have any ground, but knowing what it is you’re working with will make your experience that much more successful and satisfying,” Mulvey said.

“One of my favorite things to do, especially when I was living in an apartment, was to sprout the garlic that sat around for a little too long and started to have the green tip,” Mulvey says. “If you stick that in some soil in your windowsill, and the green shoots grow out, that’s a great chive.

”Mulvey and her partner have a home on the east side near Olbrich. A yard was one of their top three priorities when selecting a home. Systematically, they’ve been getting rid of grass and implementing more garden, hence the transitional nickname of their “yarden” which springs up with vegetables, herbs, and flowers and provides room for experimenting with food production.

On the side, Mulvey also works seasonally at Blue Moon Community Farm to maintain a direct connection to the farm experience and farmers.

“I want to be able to grow my own food; Blue Moon Community Farms allows me to do that. I work so much with farmers and community members who want to know what’s going on at the farm that it feels like a really important connection for me to be experiencing it and not just hearing about it second-hand,” she says.

For people looking for a stronger connection to the land, consider a worker share on a farm, attend CSA farm events, or ride in the annual Bike the Barns event this year on September 18, Mulvey suggests.

“There are young couples, women who are primary operators of their farms, lesbians—all these people who are coming together who are united by something that’s different from more traditional definitions of society. Everybody’s here because they’re passionate about food, so it doesn’t matter where you’re coming from,” Mulvey says.