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Interview: Anna Zimmer, Grow & Gather Farm at Camp St. Croix

Monday, October 24, 2022
Anna Zimmer, Program Director for Grow & Gather Farm at Camp St. Croix in Hudson, Wisconsin, joins us to share more about the farm and what fall celebrations look like on a farm.

Can you share more about Grow & Gather farm?

It’s the farm that is on the north property of YMCA Camp, St. Croix in Hudson, WI. All of Camp St. Croix is about 400 acres, and it's a mile and a half of riverfront property. There are thousands of people here through summer camps and events and retreats and programming, but the farm is over on the north property and it's about 8 acres.

Our mission on that farm is to be able to connect youth and the community to the source of their food, teaching them where their food comes from. It's a working educational farm. And then also, to help alleviate food insecurity in the valley. Our main sponsor is the River Valley Charities, and we work closely with them, donating most of what we grow to the backpack programs. It’s a win-win situation because we're able to bring kids and families out and do education with them on the farm; they're working hands in the ground, planting, growing and harvesting that food. And then we're giving it away to people who need it.

We're not competing with the local farms who are doing this for their livelihood, we're not. It's not our goal to be doing CSA or things that would put us in competition with those people.


How long have you been in your role?

I’ve been in my role going on three years. Yeah, I've been working in the garden here for seven years total, but I've been full time for three and we put up the high tunnel in 2019. So, it's grown fast in three years. It’s turned from a garden into a farm!


Do you have a farm background?

I have a garden background; we grew up growing our food at home. We had an apple trees and big gardens and things like that, but I didn't quite have the background in the production scale that we're doing now, farm scale is what it is. Some farms can have animals, but they can also just be when you're farming vegetables.

Resting on what I learned growing up from my folks, and then finding community partners that mentor and help has been really valuable.


How much will the farm produce this year?

We're on track right now for 8,000 pounds of food. We have the fall harvest to pull out yet, which will be that whole third season: like lettuce, spinach, turnips, carrots from the high tunnel.


How does that compare to years past? Or if you can give some like perspective of that means…what does 8,000 pounds look like?

8,000 pounds is like four elephants. Last year was 6,000 pounds and the year before that was 4,000 pounds.


So you add about 2 elephants each year?

Yep. And we're in the middle of a site plan right now, master plan development. We’re putting up more tunnels so we can grow more food and then start to expand raspberry production in the field. So, we have fruit coming as well as vegetables. Plus, this year we put up a bigger chicken coop which makes our work so much more efficient. We have 40 egg layers now. In the spring, once we hit 10 hours of light again in about March, we'll be able to start donating eggs to the backpack programs as well.


How is the food packed for the backpack program?

We pack it out on the farm. We have a wash and pack, so most things are washed and bagged. We staple it and put a label on everything, and then it goes out. It’s like something you'd get in the store. I try to put a recipe on the label so families know how they might use with something like a kale or chard. Sometimes not so much a recipe, but how to use it, how to cook it. We want to make it as easy to eat as possible for a kid or a family who might not know what to do. 


What kind of like refrigeration and transportation operation do you have to support this work?

This year we received a grant and through our partnerships with the River Valley Charities and we got a walk in. So we have an 8x8 cooler right outside of the high tunnel now. We fill up that cooler and the backpack communities, Hudson and River Falls, come to get up their produce on their designated day, we have it marked on the shelf and then they pick up and go.

Yeah, it's pretty neat to involve community partners. We have community volunteers that come in on Tuesdays and Thursdays in the summer and the educational programming is a large part of it. The kids do the work. They’re guided through education and lessons and experiments and eating. They learn while they're out there doing it. But we also have community volunteers that come Tuesdays and Thursdays for two hours.


From a farm perspective, what comes to mind for how you celebrate fall? What are those feelings?

It's the busiest time and it's the most abundant time. It seems like there's a build up throughout the whole summer. Where June and July are kind of slow as far as produce, and then August it starts picking up. September in people’s minds is when summer is over but that's when the harvesting peaks. We don't preserve so much here, but on a normal farm and growing up, the amount of harvesting and preserving and preparing for winter is just intense. The fall is a time of abundance, preparation, and celebration. It’s celebrating your labor and your work all the way from April.


It must feel like an extra sort of celebration because you're giving the food away and you're educating kids and families along the way?

This is why I'm so passionate about not being at a place of competition with farmers and other farms, because we're getting grants. To have this job, we better be giving food away because there are people out there who do this work and are trying to make ends meet. Farming is hard. I have extreme respect for the farmer.

Something we started doing last summer is having farmers market nights one Thursday a month where we invite farmers out to sell their produce. We have family nights for summer camp and some of these weeks of day camp be of 500+ kids. Capturing that audience, the parents and kids and have a place to sell their produce is huge. 

And new this year, we started pizza nights. We received a grant for a pizza oven and invited farmers or and local businesses out to sell each part of the pizza and we incorporated it into the farmers market. So, families come and get a box from us and that's their ticket to cook a pizza. Then they go to the crust vendor who's local from River Falls and they get their stone ground flour from Wisconsin and they family learns where it grows. Then they get their sauce from the farm that’s just down the road. Then they get their cheese from our animal lead; it's his family's cheese business. Then they get their meat from a local meat place. And finally, they the veggies from our farm. The family puts it together in the barn, cooks it and eats it in the barn. Once they’re done, they compost their pizza box in the compost pile because it's cardboard and it breaks down. We’re bringing in all these farms and having an outlet for farmers to sell their product.


The pizza nights, are those still going on or are they wrapped up?

We just had our last one in September. They’ll be back next June, June, July and August.


Is there a need for more help, students, or volunteers?
We're always seeking volunteers. Our community volunteer days are coming to an end here at the end of October, but we'll start up again in March. There are opportunities for those consistent, regular volunteering on Tuesdays and Thursdays. There are also opportunities for large groups to come out, whether it's a corporation, business, or school to do a service day. We are also seeking out more schools who want to come out and do agricultural education days and more. Our target is 4th and 5th grade; that's what the curriculum is written for, but we can accommodate any school group or education group.


Do you feel like that the community at large understands the significance of what you're doing?

I think that each year we're helping to make it more known. It's still relatively new, we started in 2013 and the amount of growth in the last three years has been exponential. Between farmers market nights and then in the summer when we have three full-time staff and the garden is it like peak beauty,

I do two weeks of tours and open house. Between that and farmers markets, I think I think we're getting there, but there's definitely more we need to do in our community and helping people know that we're out here.