Jun 24, 2019
CSA lists guide operators to meet demand at Coneflower Farm

Preference lists filled out by their customers guide Dennis Zehr and Ellen Davis-Zehr of Coneflower Farm near Princeton, Illinois, to grow and deliver produce that best meets the members’ needs.

That’s important because Princeton is largely rural and many CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) members already have small gardens of their own. “We have CSA customers fill out a preference list, and as much as possible, tailor the contents of their boxes to their preferences. It works well for them and we’ve made it work for us for over 20 years,” Ellen said.

CSA members rank choices from one to four. A one means the CSA member likes the item a lot. A two means the member could use the item a number of times when it’s available. A three means the member is willing to try the item or use it a few times during the season. A four means the member doesn’t use the item or has another source for it.

The preference lists itemize the more than 50 vegetables grown on Coneflower Farm. The list includes the traditional favorites of asparagus, green and yellow beans, broccoli, carrots, sweet corn, peas with edible pods and peas to shell, radishes, spinach, summer and winter squash, and several types of tomatoes, onions and watermelon.

The CSA member preference list also has items that are not normally in the boxes, but which members can get by special request. This list includes items such as pickling cucumbers, dill, rosemary and sage. Jams and jellies are also occasionally put in the CSA boxes.

Everything that Coneflower Farm sells is grown or made on the farm. “We sometimes have supplied other farmers if they were starting a CSA – to fill gaps in what they offered,” Dennis said. Coneflower Farm also grows apples, pears, strawberries, raspberries and rhubarb. Honey, popcorn and free-range eggs are also available.

CSA participation is about 30 boxes per week. Most participants pick up their boxes at the farm, but a few boxes are delivered to Princeton every week.

There are also a number of regular customers who place orders that they pick up. A weekly email tells customers what’s available. Coneflower Farm also sells at the Princeton Farmers Market.

The journey to developing Coneflower Farm has been a long one for Dennis and Ellen.

The path led to a rural village in the southern Africa nation of Lesotho.

Dennis and Ellen served as development workers in Lesotho from late 1987 through 1990 through the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC). The MCC is a faith-based organization that strives to foster relief, development and peace.

Lesotho is completely surrounded by the Republic of South Africa, but is separated from that country by mountain ranges. Lesotho is a poor country with most of the rural population involved in subsistence agriculture.

“We lived in a rural community and affirmed the strengths of community,” Dennis said. “We developed friendships and pitched in – like helping with gardening – where we could.”

The final year in Lesotho brought up the question of what to do next. “We decided to develop a small, produce farm,” Ellen said.

Friends in Illinois were willing to split a parcel off their farm for Dennis and Ellen to buy.

The acreage included a house and some outbuildings. Since Dennis had always been interested in the prairie plants native to Illinois, the farm became Coneflower Farm.

Produce is grown on about 3 acres of the 13-acre farm. There is one high tunnel, which is used for several crops, although its main purpose is for tomatoes. The high tunnel is mulched with straw for weed control and driplines are used for irrigation.

Coneflower Farm uses organic practices, but Dennis and Ellen have chosen to not to pursue organic certification.

“We have a long history of selling here,” Ellen said. “Many of our customers have known us for a long time and know how we grow our vegetables.” When asked, Dennis and Ellen give customers more detail on their organic practices and how they control weeds and insect pests. Biological products are often used. Bt, for example, controls common green worm on cabbage and broccoli.

“There is a demand for safer products,” Dennis said. This is especially important since Coneflower Farm keeps honeybees.

The list of fertilizers used includes soft rock phosphate, gypsum, soybean meal as a nitrogen source, and wood ashes as a potassium source. “We heat with wood,” Dennis said, and that’s the ash source.

Coneflower Farm also has some laying hens, dairy goats and sometimes a few steers, and composted manure is also used as fertilizer.

Dennis uses a David Bradley walk-behind tractor for shallow tillage. Tillage is shallow so it doesn’t bring new weed seeds up to the surface. The David Bradley comes with different attachments and uses very little fuel. Dennis frequently modifies the walk-behind tractors and recently retrofitted one with a new Briggs and Stratton engine.

Moldboard plowing is used in the fall with a rented tractor when hay or pasture ground is being prepared for vegetable production.

Oats is the main cover crop used.

“Oats are so inexpensive and also winterkill,” Dennis said.

Nearly 85% of Coneflower Farm’s gross farm income is from produce; the rest is from beef, eggs, honey, milk and other farm products.

Dennis and Ellen’s three children grew up working on the farm. They each had his or her own garden and sold their own produce.

Luke, the oldest son, has a graduate degree in entomology and is doing entomology research at Michigan State University. The other son, Simon, helps on the farm and daughter Anna attends Hesston College in Hesston, Kansas.

Coneflower Farm has also had interns from the MCC international volunteer exchange program. Young adults from the area have also been hired as needed.

Dennis and Ellen are in their 29th growing season at Coneflower Farm. It takes a lot of work and that is bringing change.

“We’ve made a commitment to have this much diversity on the farm,” Dennis said. “But at our age, how do we start to not work as much? Diversity can be good, but there can be too much diversity and you lose efficiency.”

The story of Coneflower Farm isn’t over yet.

– Dean Peterson, contributor

Above: Dennis Zehr and Ellen Davis-Zehr of Coneflower Farm tailor the contents of their CSA boxes to the members’ preferences. Photo: Dean Peterson

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