Dennis Wilcox doesn’t look like a an old-timer, but by the standards of the local food movement in the Kalamazoo area, he comes pretty close to being one. Dennis started working in Three Rivers for Sustainable Greens (supplier to a number of elite Chicago restaurants) in the late 90s, and, at their encouragement, began bringing their salad greens to the Bank St. market to establish himself there. He then started his own farm, Blue Dog Greens in 2002. I moved here in 2004, by which time Dennis had become known for being one of only two certified organic producers at Bank St., and the only grower selling the bagged, mixed salad greens highlighted in his farm’s name, as well as lots of other delicious, very high quality vegetables. Fourteen years later things are a lot more crowded at the market, and a lot has changed for Dennis, but he’s still got a table full of amazing greens and veggies, and plenty of optimism that his farm will continue to find its niche in the local food network.
Starting in 2006, my wife and I did a CSA with Blue Dog for a few years, including for a couple of winters, when they offered one before the winter markets started to run. We got out to see the farm in Bangor a few times during that period, usually for member days, but also once to dig ramps in the woods behind the farm. It was a peaceful place, set back from the road, framed by trees on three sides and a railroad line on the other, a copse of trees that a long driveway wound around, and greens and vegetables stretching across the fields. To those of us learning to get excited about fresh local food, it felt like what a farm should be. But a life reshuffle that included getting married and having kids led Dennis and his new wife Shawna to relocate to a new farm just east of Battle Creek (not far from Trent and Ruthie Thompson’s Green Gardens) in 2014. I went out one day last fall to help plant garlic. It was a sunny and mild afternoon, and after a couple of hours of work and talk, I got sent home with a generous piece of perfectly made apple galette from Shawna. (It’s a good thing farm work burns a lot of calories, when you have that kind of food waiting for you when you get back to the house.) I then met Dennis again at the Koffee Klutch in Galesburg in early March to chat some more about his experience as a farmer in this area.
With the move from Bangor to Battle Creek came a name change that you might not have noticed: Blue Dog Greens became Blue Dog Family Farm. That reflects the life reshuffle I mentioned, which brought with it a deliberate shift in how Dennis, and now Shawna too, thought about the business of farming. Their goal isn’t to keep getting bigger and bigger and selling more and more, tempting as that may be; it’s to find a level of production that they can mostly manage by themselves and with help from their kids (Shawna has two older boys from a previous marriage in addition to the two toddlers she and Dennis have together – the toddlers aren’t working a lot yet, but soon!). Dennis and Shawna want to use as little hired help as possible, not just to avoid some of the challenges managing workers brings, but also because workers are people, obvious as it may seem to say that, and having them on board means devoting energy to them that’s then not available for family. So, Dennis says, “scaling back” to where he’s doing “99% of the work” seems, at least for right now, like a better way to go. This is his way of dealing with the same issue that I heard in talking with the Molters and Thompsons: balance. When you have a young family, as all these folks do, you think a lot about how to keep work, kids, and marriage together. That’s true of every family, of course, but farming is demanding of time and energy in a way that few other occupations are. Despite all the talk about sustainable agriculture these days, it’s often forgotten that sustainability isn’t just about maintaining the ecological circuits in nature through which cycle the energy, water, and nutrients we depend on. It’s also about creating a stable social world, and, for the farmer, about having a life for you and your own. “Farming is about being able to keep farming,” Dennis says. And “that’s what we want to do. We want to have that for our kids.”
This takes money, of course, so the farm still needs to generate enough revenue, and that’s no small challenge for small-scale farmers, especially without bringing on additional hired hands. But Dennis is confident they can manage it. His decade and a half growing greens and organic vegetables has put him in a good position to succeed at this. “Gardening is where I started,” he tells me, “and farming is just a branch off of that.” But like gardening, he says, you have to learn that while “there has to be diversity” in what you grow, you can’t grow everything, and so you have to ask “what things do well for us?” You have to focus on “what people want” and “what will make us money,” and find the intersection between those. For this reason, smaller lots of high-value crops have been the focus of Dennis’ operation since the beginning, and he’s optimistic that they’ll continue to provide a solid foundation for his business. His bagged salad mix, for instance, is a product that he can sell for a premium. Comparable grocery store products shipped from California are expensive, so he doesn’t have to deal with customers who expect below-cost prices, and since his are harvested so close to the time they get bought, he can ensure freshness and taste that no plastic bin of Organic Girl salad greens can. Other farms at the market have followed his lead in selling salad greens, so he’s got more competition now than before, but it’s still an in-demand product that he can do very well with. It also doesn’t take a lot of land to grow the mix, so even though it’s labor intensive, it’s a manageable product from the family farm perspective.
The garlic I helped to plant is another good example. It does take some space, but it’s not otherwise especially demanding, and Dennis can get a good price for it from people like me who seek out interesting and tasty varieties, particularly ones that are organically grown. And since it stores well, and every clove can become a bulb, if you’ve got six cloves per bulb, then you can save a sixth of your harvest each year and keep production constant without having to buy new seed garlic to plant. So, while Dennis bought seed garlic there first year at the new farm, what I helped plant had all been saved from that initial planting. You can’t always stick with what’s worked in the past, however, so Dennis is exploring some new ideas for things he can grow well given the limits he and Shawna have set for themselves, which means trying to figure out what he can cut back on or give up in order to keep the balance his business needs.
As I mentioned, Dennis has been certified organic since the beginning, but the land he and Shawna moved to in 2014 had previously been farmed conventionally. Dennis tells me the land “comes up next season” for its organic certification (a three year transition process). I ask whether he thought about dropping the certification, whether he feels like the bookkeeping and the costs of certification are worth it, and he’s frank: “it’s a mixed bag, we’ve done quite well without it,” in the time they’ve been in transition on the new land. Most people at the market know their practices are organic, after all. He says it’s “more for places like the Co-op,” to whom they sell quite a bit. There isn’t the direct face-to-face between farmer and customer there, so, he says, the certification means “it’s easier marketing for them,” since it helps their customers know what they’re getting. And for those shoppers at Bank St. who don’t already know about him and his practices, “the organic seal says a lot, people know there’s a certain standard” that governs what they’re buying – though he acknowledges there are the inevitable few “sour duds” who are skeptical that it means anything besides a higher price. Adding to the appeal of certification is, he notes, the fact that, unlike fifteen years ago, there are a lot more “good products for organic growers out there,” everything from seeds to fungicides that comply with the certification standards. Market demand for organic produce has, it seems, spurred all sorts of ancillary innovation in support for growing those crops.
On the theme of support, I ask if it’s different being in Battle Creek instead of Bangor, which, at least for a few years, seemed like where most of the local organic food was being grown. Dennis points out that even then, most of the surrounding farming was conventional, even if the crops were different (lots of fruit rather than corn and soy), so while there was some connection to other organic farms, it didn’t feel like an especially organic-heavy area. And there are other farms near where he is now. Green Gardens is one, which is proving beneficial for both farms. “I feel really supported now, just having a neighbor like Trent,” Dennis says, “we can meet for breakfast, borrow equipment, text from the field.” Dennis is also selling a little at Trent’s farm stand, which you might remember from my interview with him. Cinzori Farms – an organic farm Co-op shoppers will be familiar with for both their vegetables and plant starts – isn’t far either, and Dennis says he’s gotten some plants from them. Another relatively recent addition to the area is Sprout Urban Farms, a really cool, Battle Creek based, non-profit food hub/aggregator. Dennis is selling to them now, in addition to the Co-op and at Bank St. “I really like that relationship,” Dennis says, and he’s hopeful it will continue to grow.
One disappointing thing I learned when we talked: Dennis won’t be selling eggs regularly at the market this year. Some of their chickens died in the fall, and when he did the calculations to see if increasing the flock substantially to make egg production more a part of their business, the numbers didn’t work out to make it worth it. So, at least for now, most of their eggs will be eaten at home. Sad for us, since they’d had some of the best we’d found, but at least these days there are some other pretty good options available.
When Dennis and I talked in March it was cold and rainy, with a little snow mixed in. Since then, days have gotten longer, temperatures have slowly risen (although it’s snowing as I do last edits on this post), and flowers have begun to bloom. Dennis is watching cold-hearty early spring crops emerge from the soil, while also starting seeds for warm-weather crops in his hoop house. In less than a month the outdoor markets will open. If Bank St. is yours, be sure to stop by Blue Dog’s table – nothing says spring like a great salad with just-picked local greens.