Learning from the ground up

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Margaret Plevak | December 4, 2016

WILLIAMS BAY — Casey Medema's organically grown vegetables and herbs have not only graced the plates of diners at Pier 290, a lakeside restaurant in Williams Bay, but they've shown up in area food pantries and at farmers market stands.

This is Medema's second year as operational manager of Farm 290, where this past summer she worked about an acre of land owned by the restaurant's president, Bill Gage, and supplied Pier 290's chef with fresh produce for the menu. She also has a greenhouse on the property to help her expand the growing season.  

The Delavan-Darien High School grad, 25, a passionate organic farmer, raises everything from edible flowers, lettuce, radishes and herbs like parsley to broccoli, Brussels sprouts and the ubiquitous kale.

“I'm the only one out here,” Medema said. “I had to convince (the restaurant owners) this was going to work, and for the most part, it's definitely been very successful.”

Graze on this slice of life with Medema.


Getting started at 290

Someone had told me the restaurant manager was really into the whole idea of farm-to-fork and I jumped on that. I built a kind of a business plan, because (the owners) are all about the numbers. And they decided to let me try it.

Digging in

We had to figure out how to turn the land the first time. I was kind of working with Tim (Huth) and April (Yuds) at Lotfotl (a community farm near Elkhorn). They were helping me figure out what was next. I think a lot of the reason I was successful was the quality of the soil, and because of Tim and April.

We started actually turning over the land in May, which is late, but I kept saying, “It's gonna work. It's gonna work.” We had to clear everything. Take out all the trees. I had a 17-year-old farm boy come all the way — I think it was half an hour from his house — bring his tractor all the way out here. He plowed. And I had another farmer plow again and then we had someone come in and till. Then we were ready to go. The only piece of equipment I have is that tiller. So I use that and a steel rake primarily.

Finding markets

Last year I had 500 to 600 tomato plants. That was too much for the restaurant so we started exploring other options. Like we tried to do little markets within the restaurant on Saturdays. This year, I ended up dropping off a lot at local food pantries. I ended up canning a lot and freezing a lot of my own, but it's just kind of like that balance, how much the restaurant uses.

I grew things in here that the restaurant didn't use, like kale, and I had hundreds of pounds of these big, beautiful red onions. For one reason or another, they just didn't have the menu items. I think I've gotten a lot more confident in deciding for myself what they'll use and what people like and the amounts.

Discovering the passion

I went to the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh and got a degree in environmental studies. When I was in school I didn't really know what I wanted to do, but I knew it either had to be doing something helping people or helping the earth. I started doing a nonpaid internship at a farm in Ripon. That's when I really started to know this is what I loved to do. Then I got hooked up with Lotfotl and I just absolutely was in heaven. To this day, that place is my favorite spot in the world. I love it there.

I thought I would go into nursing, but it turns out I really don't like that. I tried to be a (certified nursing assistant) for a while and I was like, no, I need to go back. That was when I got hooked up with Lotfotl and I thought, “This is better. The plants don't talk back. I can just take care of them.”

Finding a niche

I think at first my parents were a little bit skeptical. This wasn't like the conventional job. My stepfather tells everybody what I do. I think my mom's pretty proud, too. We had cameras down here when a film crew was doing a farm-to-fork movement video. I could see my mom in the background, and she was crying. She said, “I can tell this is what you really love to do!”

Living with nature

When things went wrong last year it was like the end of the world. I was like, “Oh, my God, I found this bug and it's going to kill everything.” I was crying. This year, I was like, “Well, I can't do anything about it. That's just how it works.” I guess that's helping me be successful because you just have to have the determination really and try again and again.

Enjoying the bounty

The pepper plants were absolutely incredible this year. It was my favorite crop. I harvested like 200, 300 pounds. I didn't do them last year, so it was exciting. I did like 15 different varieties. It was fun cooking with the jalapenos. There was this one variety of banana peppers — just this beautiful color yellow.

I did sweet corn this year. I didn't do that last year, but that was pretty fun and the restaurant was pretty excited about that. The corn came up in time for their fat tire bike event, so I think I gave them close to 1,000 ears.

You can't see it, but over there in all those weeds, this spring I did 300 crowns of asparagus. And past that, there was a little plot that had 4,000 onions in it.

Keeping busy

I have a couple of different jobs. I'm the (part-time) marketing director at Gage Marine. I'm a caregiver for a girl three days a week and I still had my (worker) share at Lotfotl this year. In the winter I work at Alpine Valley as a ski instructor for 3- to 4-year-olds. I like having multiple jobs because I feel like I would get really bored if I had one job. It's always kind of been that way. It's not a straight path.

Putting life in perspective

The girl that I do caregiving for is blind and she's got autism and she's got Tourette syndrome. But I love her. She's great. She's actually a year older than me, so it really helps me keep things in perspective. She teaches me so much. Some days I'll be having the worst day and I'll tell her about it. Her reaction is not something someone would (typically) say. When she gets upset, for instance, she says, “I have to light my lantern within and that's for patience.” So she says to me, “You just need to light your lantern.” 

We're doing a trip this winter. We're going to Boundary Waters (Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota), Kelsey, her mother and me.

Marking her territory

I have a slight obsession with foxes. I have a lot of fox stuff in the house. My roommates are like, “Don't get anymore fox stuff.” I tried to use a stencil of a fox to use on all the harvest crates, but that didn't work. I still have the stencil, so just for fun, I started marking everything as my territory.

Caring for the earth

I really care (for) and respect the earth and what it can do for us. And I really believe that mono-agriculture is the wrong direction. It's really wrong for our health. I think it's wrong for the earth. I don't think it's a sustainable way to go. I think organic is going beyond a trend, that's for sure.

If you go to a restaurant that's just supplied by Sysco (multinational food service distributor), what are you supporting? I like to know where my food is coming from. I saw this post on Facebook on supporting a local business that said you're putting somebody's kids through dance class. You're doing so much for a small business rather than throwing money at a corporation.

Looking ahead

Next year, I'll probably have much of the same: basil, parsley, lettuce, beets, radishes, cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, peppers again, definitely tomatoes and sweet corn again. Right now, I'm like, “Just give me the seed catalog!”

This is kind of my own, but it's not my own land really. Still, (the experience) is definitely a good tool to bring to an operation that would be my own. Lotfotl's Tim and April — they're kind of like vegetable gods to me. I hope that I could do what they do someday. I guess we'll see what happens.

Reaping rewards

I feel extremely lucky. I mean this kind of opportunity where I get to be salaried, there's little risk for me and it is incredibly rewarding. There's so much work leading up to a harvest.  You're working hard. You're working in the sun, which makes you feel good. But there are definitely days where I think, “If I have to pull one more weed” or days when it's raining or you step on a thistle, or things don't go right and all of a sudden all your tomatoes get wiped out. Yet when you finally harvest, it's like something singing inside of you.

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