Working with nature at Regenerative Roots
JEFFERSON – Whether using cover crops in large scale farming or “living aisles” of grass and clover between vegetable rows in a garden setting, many farmers understand the importance of avoiding bare soil in the fields.
Dennis Fiser and Anne Drehfal established Regenerative Roots in the infamous drought year of 2012. Now, five years later, their two-acre farm is thriving.
Fiser attributes their success to their effort to work closely with nature rather than fighting it.
He explains, “White and red clover between our crop rows keep the soil cool in summer, prevents soil erosion and feeds pollinators. In this wet year it also means we don’t need to walk in mud to pick our produce.”
Regenerative Roots has been certified organic since the beginning and it is part of a farming cooperative that includes a permaculture berry and nut orchard, a rabbit grazing business, and a pastured sheep enterprise, as well as a specialty seed business.
Sixty-percent of the produce raised at Regenerative Roots is marketed to Willy Street Co-op in Madison. They also have a 37-member CSA for customers in Jefferson, Fort Atkinson and Whitewater areas.
Drehfal says, “We believe it is important to sell local, organic produce close to where we live. We also market our produce at the Fort Atkinson farmers’ market.”
Learned from others
The two entrepreneurs attribute their success to lessons learned working on other diversified vegetable farms in Wisconsin before going out on their own.
Fiser, who has a degree in environmental sciences, credits one particular mentor, Steve Pincus at TIPI produce, for many of the things he learned along the way.
Fiser says one thing they took away from their earlier experiences on other successful farms is to establish a system that will mitigate the risk and uncertainty of weather.
He says, “My first year of farming was in 2007 and one week I remember we had 12 inches of rain, and we’ve also worked on farms in years when there’s been drought.”
Through those experiences they learned how the farm organism really responds to that type of climatic pressures and what farmers can do to make the best of difficult weather situations.
They established a drip irrigation system the first year in business on their own. They made sure their farm had a lot of biodiversity, recognizing the benefits of a variety of different types of covers.
They also added refrigerated storage for their produce.
They have incorporated other tactics for raising healthy vegetables that are easy to pick and maintain.
Cucumbers grow straight and are easier to pick when grown on trellises. Many of their vegetables are started in the greenhouse in spring.
Fiser says, “We get much better weed control in the garden if the plants are established first and then transplanted outside.”
Each year in October they plant 4,000 cloves of garlic for harvest the following summer.
They raise kale and swiss chard on contract and at any given time they have 1,000 bunches of fresh greens available.
Tomatoes remain their most popular crop. This year they intend to save some of their tomato seed for next year’s crop.
“We have 40 varieties of big tomatoes, including heirloom, and we are always trying new ones,” Fiser says. “Last year we sold every one we picked. We sold 15 tons of tomatoes, about half of them cherry tomatoes, and we picked them all by hand.”
The couple says people are their most valuable asset. As their business grows they add to their labor force. They believe if they treat their labor well they will do a good job and remain with them.