Paul and Chris Burkhouse: Caring for soil and people

Foxtail Farm in Osceola has been growing food locally – while keeping land and water healthy – for twenty years.




9 minute read

PrintHeidi Fettig Parton is a participant in the St. Croix Master Watershed Steward program, and is producing profiles of St. Croix stewards for her capstone project. Here is the second installment.

“Wisconsin Gothic,” Paul and Chris Burkhouse (Photo by Heidi Fettig Parton)

On a cold day in December, I volunteered at Foxtail Farm Winter CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), helping pack boxes for Foxtail’s December vegetable delivery. With each squash, pumpkin, and potato that I packed, I developed a greater respect for the skill, effort, and, yes, even love that goes into each Foxtail member box.

Paul and Chris Burkhouse, owners of Foxtail Farm, believe it is important to know where your food is grown and to have a relationship with the people who grow your food. Foxtail Farm sits on 65 acres of land, just south of Osceola, Wisconsin—not far from the St. Croix River. I’d venture that this picturesque farm looks remarkably similar to how it appeared a hundred years earlier, when nearly all food was—by necessity—grown locally.

Food sovereignty matters to Paul and Chris. They’d like to see more local farmers, like them, in the community. Each year they take on apprentices, teaching them the ropes of farming—even allowing apprentices an acre on which to raise their own vegetables. “Growing good food and training farmers are our two main goals,” Chris told me.

The Burkhouses aren’t worried about training up their competition. The troublesome competition comes not locally, but rather from commercial organic farms, particularly those farms in California. “When you can get organic at the gas station, that’s the competition,” Paul said. “Now we’re just competing for the small chunk of people who want to buy local vegetables, who care where their food comes from.”

Pumpkins and squash on packing day. (Photo by Heidi Fettig Parton)

While all CSA farms allow consumers to purchase locally grown food, not all CSAs employ organic farming methods. Paul and Chris follow organic methods, often ones more stringent than those required by the certification process. Still, Foxtail’s produce is not certified organic. In the past, they were certified organic by a non-profit organization—as were many small growers. After the standardization that came with the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, the organic certification process migrated from nonprofits to for-profit businesses. This ultimately benefitted large-scale commercial processors and growers at the expense of small-scale local farmers.

“So, when I go to the farmer’s market and notice that a local grower’s produce is not marked ‘organic,’ it still might be organic? I need to ask about their farming methods?” I asked them.

“It’s the only way to know because the whole certification system is so incestuous,” Chris said.

“I take organic with a huge grain of salt,” Paul added. “Huge grain of salt. There’s way more products certified as organic than could have been grown on the land.”

Throughout our discussion, held around a wooden dining room table in the couple’s charming red brick farmhouse, original to the farm, it became apparent that farming is truly a calling for the Burkhouses.

The couple met while still adolescents, working on a horse farm in southwest Ohio. They eventually grew up, got married, and moved to Minnesota when Paul entered a doctoral program in plant biology at the University of Minnesota. In 1989, while Paul was still in grad school, the couple purchased 64 acres of land along the St. Croix River in Minnesota because, as Chris said, “At the time, no one wanted the property and it was cheap—cheaper than rent in the city.”

Paul and Chris began growing vegetables for themselves on the property. Over time, their gardening efforts grew large enough to support a roadside vegetable stand. When Paul completed his doctoral work, he was burnt out on academia. He made an off-hand comment to Chris—something like: “Wouldn’t it be great if we could make our living raising vegetables?” Chris took his question seriously; she suggested they give it a try and, in 1997, their CSA business was born. Almost twenty years later, they’re still farming.

In 2004, Paul and Chris moved to their current Wisconsin property, which is located directly across the river from their first farm. Here, they benefit from being the fourth in a series of organic farms running parallel to the river. An additional advantage comes from the Standing Cedars Community Land Conservancy, which inhabits the land directly across from Foxtail Farm and protects more than 1,500 acres along the Wisconsin side of the lower St. Croix River. Between the groupings of farms using organic methods and Standing Cedars, Foxtail enjoys a buffer zone from conventional farming practices. It isn’t possible, however, to escape all pesticides. As with any farm, there’s always the potential for drift or ground water contamination; air and water do not respect property lines. Air moves as it will and water eventually ends up funneling into the watershed in which it sits.

Foxtail Farm (Photo by Heidi Fettig Parton)

Foxtail Farm is situated in the St. Croix Watershed. All incoming rainwater in this watershed eventually ends up in the St. Croix River. Paul has directly observed the movement of rainwater off neighboring conventional farms: it moves through Foxtail’s fields (where a wetland perhaps provides some filtering), passes through a drain tile across the road, and then it’s in the river. “It’s in the river within a half hour of leaving the field over there,” Paul said. “After a three-inch spring rain, the chemistry that’s in that field is going to end up in the river.”

“We may be the first line of defense,” Chris added, “but some of it is still getting through.”

Because water flows freely, conventional farming practices can and do negatively impact the health of our rivers. Chemicals from conventional farming and soil runoff eventually end up in our waterways. Damage, however, can be mitigated through the planting of buffer crops and cover crops to prevent run off.

Paul and Chris don’t specifically plant buffer crops, but they also don’t typically mow between fields or will mow half a field, leaving a cover for beneficial plants, which allows the “beneficials” time to migrate. Also, Foxtail grows its vegetables in acre plots. Every acre is surrounded by grass or clover. Chris commented, “You could almost say by neglect, we’ve helped prairie plants get established. We’re not tilling things all the time.”

Foxtail does utilize cover crops, which hold the soil in place when not in use for a saleable crop. These crops keep soil from washing into the river; they keep sediment from filling up waterways. Different covers have varied purposes and timings, depending on what’s in them. Crops like oats, peas, rye and legumes are chosen based on whether the soil needs nitrogen, which can burn up organic matter, or needs nitrogen taken up.

Over time, Paul and Chris have observed a remarkable rebirth of species on both of their farms, which were farmed conventionally before each purchase. When they began farming these lands, everything was out of balance in the soil and the fields. They’d plant row after row of zucchini and the striped cucumber beetle would annihilate it. However, after a two to three year cycle of farming without chemicals, using organic methods, they’d still see the striped cucumber beetles, but they’d see very few of them.

“There’s a term in permaculture—although we aren’t a permaculture—called dynamic equilibrium,” Paul explained. “You can’t kill all the bad guys, because then the good guys would have nothing to eat. So what you want to do is keep the bad guys below an economic threshold and that’s what we do.” Swarms of mosquitoes used to attack Paul and Chris out in the fields. They generally don’t see that happen any more because they now have huge hatches of dragonflies, barn swallows “up the wazoo,” and bats. They’re all eating the mosquitoes. And when they first moved to both properties, they wouldn’t see frogs, toads, snakes, or even earthworms. But after using organic methods for about three years, those animals reemerged.

Foxtail Farm barn (Photo by Heidi Fettig Parton)

“Now we’re getting species we’ve never seen before,” Chris said. “We’ve got salamanders and a huge variety of birds.”

“We seem to be a little island here,” Paul echoed. “We supply a pocket of diversity—diverse food sources and diverse plant life. If you spray two to three times a year, you knock out the chance for this diversity. Even our weeds attract species. The best conventional farmers don’t have a weed in their fields. And I have huge respect for conventional farmers. They’re very good at what they do. We have the best agriculturists in the world around here. But they could use a few more weeds in their fields. They might see a little more diversity of life and they may not have the same insect problems. If you spray everything to death, you’re going to get death.”

In recent years, Paul and Chris have been pioneering a new path with Foxtail’s Winter CSA. At this point, winter CSAs are largely an improv act; there isn’t a template or model to follow. Paul realized that no one else around here was doing a winter CSA. “If we’re going to have a local food system,” he said, “then figuring out how to do that year round needs to be a part of it.”

Foxtail’s Winter CSA deliveries are made from November through April and include fresh cool-weather crops, as well as stored and/or packaged foods made in Foxtail’s onsite kitchen. Foxtail’s Winter CSA is making it possible for those purchasing CSA shares to have virtually year round access to local produce.

Winter CSA’s can benefit soil health too. Vegetable farming is relatively hard on soil because it requires frequent cultivation. Cultivators disturb the soil structure and burn up organic matter. By moving from a summer CSA to a winter model, Paul and Chris have reduced the number of acres they’re growing on by nearly half. This allows them to build up their soil through greater crop rotation, more soil resting time, and enhanced cover crops.

Recipe for a lot of salsa. (Photo by Heidi Fettig Parton)

Although most of the growing is still done in the summer and in the late fall, Foxtail uses hoop houses and low tunnels that allow some end of season and early spring growing, particularly of greens. I was able to sample a fresh piece of spinach picked from the ground of a hoop house on the day of my visit. It didn’t taste anything like the spinach I get in a grocery store or even a food co-op. It was sweetly delicious because the plants store lots of sugar in their cells, like natural anti-freeze, to stay alive in the cold.

Hoop houses are essentially pieces of thick plastic pulled taut over metal arches. The hoop houses make use of passive solar and can reach up to 70 degrees on a bitterly cold, but sunny, day. These houses are fixed in one spot, requiring crop rotation and soil build-up. Foxtail is increasingly using low tunnels, which are similar to hoop houses but can be moved around, allowing a rotation of land, not just crops.

Another feature of Foxtail’s winter CSA is that not all produce comes fresh. Paul and Chris built a licensed, commercial-grade kitchen next to their house. This kitchen helps “feed” the winter CSA customers. While the first few winter shares, like the one I helped pack, contain all fresh foods, later in the season they’ll move to vacuum packed, frozen, and canned goods prepared in the kitchen—foods like salsa, pickles, sauerkraut, and kimchi. Paul even prepares huge batches of homemade soup.

Once packed, the boxes are delivered to central pick up locations—typically businesses, but Foxtail also delivers to private homes willing to serve as a drop off site for a neighborhood. CSA members have about three weeks to use the fresh produce before it spoils. Because the produce is harvested fresh and not brought in on trucks, it lasts much longer than if it’s been picked, warehoused, shipped and warehoused again before reaching the grocery store where it sits in back until the store chooses to bring it out. Produce is often at least two weeks old by the time we buy it in a store—even commercially-raised organic food.

Before leaving Paul and Chris’s home, I noticed a stack of holiday cards from CSA members. They told me they’ve had some families with them so long, they’ve had the opportunity to watch their kids grow up. “What’s really great,” Paul said, “is to think about how the vegetables we grew are a part of that kid—that’s rewarding.”

For Paul and Chris Burkhouse, having a relationship with the people they feed is one of the best aspects of their work.

Sampling frozen kale. (Photo by Heidi Fettig Parton)


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Paul and Chris Burkhouse: Caring for soil and people