Ya, Youbetcha Notes from the Midwest. Are You Still Hip? - Part IV By: Sally Marshall
In l988, the Coulee Region Organic Produce Pool (C.R.O.P.P.) was created by a group of family farmers who were committed to farming organically. They began as a vegetable cooperative, and then purchased an aging cheese factory near the Kickapoo river in the small town of La Farge, Wisconsin to accommodate their growing business. The first floor had the warehouse and coolers where all the produce was brought in and sorted before trucking it out to all the regional towns that had organic groceries (like Madison). The business office was on the second floor, and appeared to have been an apartment at one time.
I was hired as the bookkeeper with a “Girl Friday” position attached to it that I greatly enjoyed. My office was in a large room with a worn carpet that had a big hole in the middle. The large windows had those old rubber-backed drapes that were shredded with age; and the exteriors were occupied by a community of wasps who eyed me menacingly. “Worn out” did not describe this room adequately! My work space included an antiquated walnut accounting desk that was charming in an old-fashioned way, and an old wooden kitchen chair. The tools for starting my job consisted of a yellow ruled pad, pencil and ancient black telephone. I would literally be creating this office and leapt to the challenge with my usual fervor, learning all about how an organic cooperative does business. I convinced the director to replace the kitchen chair with a swivel office chair and organized things so it looked like a real office. The gentleman who was to train me for the accounting part of my job showed up barefoot, wearing what appeared to be boxer shorts and nothing else (it was summer); but he was earnest, gracious and very well informed. I had definitely found my tribe, and a place to work where I felt comfortable and respected.
It is a fact that, when people have their basic needs met: food, clothing, a warm house and a source of income; they can then increase the quality in their lives. What did this mean for me? It was time to raise chickens (No, I’m not kidding)! I had a suitable small barn with an upstairs space to start the chicks off safely. The lower level consisted of three small rooms: one in the back for a roosting space, a middle “conversation pit”, and a larger room for feeding and water that had one side open to a chicken yard.
The first thing I did was get chicken wire fencing done to surround the yard where my chickens could peck happily for bugs and things (they do that a lot) without wandering off or having a predator wander in. I built a tree-limb roost for their sleeping area; purchased feeding troughs, watering containers and a very old 25-lb. scale. Then, I lined the floor with bales of hay from my fields to keep the area clean and dry. The upstairs chick pen had to be kept warm and secure; so, I bought two heat lamps, chick feeders and waterers, and also secured the area with chicken wire and lined the floor with lots of grass clippings. It was nice.
I decided to purchase Rock/Cornish cross birds because I wanted to raise meat chickens. This was to be a summer project culminating in filling my large chest freezer with home grown chicken! The best place to order baby chicks was Chet’s Feed and Seed over in the next county; so, I gave them a call and ordered 100 straight run Rock/Cornish chicks. When the call came in that my chicks had arrived, I was as excited as a new mother. I drove to Chet’s immediately, and when I walked into the shop I could hear thousands of baby chicks just a-peeping away. I bought chick feed and vitamins for their water; carefully cradled the box of fuzzy little yellow chicks over to my car, and talked quietly to them all the way home. When they were comfortably settled in their pen, I put the heat lamps on, set out the chick feeder and waterer and sat down to watch them as they discovered their new home. I stayed with them until sunset, amazed at how easily they adapted. Then, I made sure everything was secure and went into the house to eat supper and go to bed. Of course, I didn’t sleep a wink that night. Every little noise had me bolting out of bed and going outside to listen.
The chicken project was a source of pride for me. I never lost more than three chicks, and my flock grew rapidly and were so content I could pick them up and carry them around. My neighbors helped me with the butchering and packaging and got chickens in payment; and every year I sold to more people who heard about my home-grown chickens. I was a real country girl now!
My little homestead was shaping up: a new roof, insulation and siding, a couple of porches. Then, one year I put in a few shrubs around the house and quickly developed a passion for landscaping. I’ve been known to never do anything halfway, and I embraced shrubbery like an obsession. I read everything I could find on the subject and bought large amounts of plants every year to landscape my property. I talked shrubbery so much that my friends were starting to avoid me; but I loved creating those meandering paths of living art. Eventually my house was surrounded by an impressive jungle of every shrub that would grow in our climate zone – excellent!
As time went by, C.R.O.P.P. kept growing, adding the Organic Valley label to their products, and my job became more challenging. I frequently stayed late to catch up on work and, on summer evenings, I would listen to the crickets and tree frogs; their sounds riding the breeze that wafted in from the river. It was really quite pleasant. I grew to appreciate the commitment of all those who embraced the environmental movement and envisioned a peaceful and more sustainable life for their families. Some were dairy farmers, vegetable farmers; they produced honey and maple syrup, made candles and soap; some raised sheep and sheared the wool for making beautiful, earth-tone clothing; some practiced the healing arts, and some were artists and musicians. We made our own music and came together for drumming circles that were always held at someone’s farm. We would have a bonfire surrounded by tree stump seats, and the tribe would come together with drums and other instruments to share at the gathering. I would bring along my Djembe drum to join the circle, and we would drum the night away.
One day, my co-workers were talking about going to hear some music in the next town that evening and I went along with them. It was at a coffee house which had a bar and a small stage in back for entertainment. They had live folk music. We sat on folding chairs. The atmosphere in the room was hazy from pot, the lights were subdued, and the music spoke to us in the language of the cultural revolution. It was wonderful.
As I relaxed on my porch one evening, watching the sun spread its’ golden rays over my fields, I thought about all the incredible work this had been; all the hard times, all the anguish over seemingly insurmountable obstacles, then learning how tough I really was; and I felt peaceful and content as I gazed upon my own little country homestead.
So, the story walks off into the setting sun,
And the dream comes around to where it had begun.
Editor's Note: This concludes Sally's 4-part series on her life along the Mississippi. You can read the first three essays, published in April, May, and June 2018 in our archives at www.thelighthousepeddler.com.