The Whole Big Quilt

In Conversation With Chris Duke

Before we left Ashland on foot, we drove down to Mason, WI to talk with local farmer Chris Duke at Great Oak Farm. We arrived at the farm to find him in the field doing what most farmers in northern Wisconsin are doing mid-May, prepping the soil for new plants to finally get into thawed ground. Chris took some time out of his afternoon to sit down and talk with us over lunch about kids, quilts and organic farming in the Chequamegon Bay region of Lake Superior. Below is our edited conversation from that afternoon.

What originally brought you to the area?

What brought me here originally is that I was far away from my parents in West Virginia. It was a 24 hour drive so there was not gonna be any, like, swinging in for the weekend. What really brought me here was Northland College and all the woods that were around. It’s funny because the lake is such an important part of a lot of people grow up around here, the lake is really key. For me growing up in West Virginia I never really connected with water, I always liked woods. It took me a little to get used to it. I’m definitely more of a woods connection. But I feel like the lake is good, it puts an extra sort of burden on the people that live in this region, not only as stewards of the woods, but also stewards of the watersheds that come in the form of this big lake. It’s a whole lot of freshwater and we’re in charge of it whether we like it or not. I think that part’s pretty cool. That’s what brought me. And winter. I was excited about winter. In West Virginia it’s like mud season, winter is mud season. You get some snow and it will be awesome for like half a day then it will start melting and just be gross and wet and muddy. I was excited to have some snow.

I feel like I hardly ever hear anyone say that, that they want to be up here for the winter.

I feel like if you don’t like winter you’re in the wrong place. Getting into farming was getting an internship during Northland at Tom Galazen’s. That’s what really turned the light bulb on for me. I used to think I was going to be a farmer when I retired because all the farmers I knew when I was a kid were as old as the wheel. Farming is what you do when you retire. When I did that internship at Tom’s I started learning more about food, the way it was grown and I realized, man if we’re gonna really feed ourselves we’re gonna have to do it before people are retired because there’s a lot of work to do.

So that’s what kept you here?

I feel like I put down roots. I’m a Cancer so I like home. That’s my thing. I feel like this place is so fertile for putting down roots. The community is such a fertile ground for making great connections and meeting people. I feel like that’s what really nurtured that connection. I’d be curious to hear if that community is the same around the watershed of the lake. Or if it’s something more just like a Chequemagon thing or more of a south shore thing. That’s what kept me here.

How has your sense of home changed as you’ve established your role as a farmer in the area?

When I first started out, this farm was kind of a quilt and I was one piece of it, but it all is made up of many parts. And now I feel like the farm is more a quilt in our larger community and it’s just one square, one design in the whole big quilt. It’s all sewn together, if any one piece came out, it’d be weird. That’s when I feel like you start to get roots, when things start to get stitched in place. I feel really humbled to be able to grow food for people. That’s kind of a sacred thing. I feel all the people that live here, we’re all stewards of this land and by default, the water. I feel that farmers especially we’re directly, we’re like managing some land with our hands, intentionally. As farmers, there’s even more weight to do a good job. If there are farmers that are spraying a lot of chemical and doing that kind of stuff I like to think in my heart, it’s not really what they want to do but it helps pay the bills and it’s not an easy thing to do. I feel like as an organic farmer, it’s one more level of stewardship, of fitting into the bigger puzzle. I’m pretty pumped. We’re at the top of two watersheds, it feels good to be taking care of a piece of land that’s, you know, kind of got impacts to some other places. It’s just one piece of land, it’s one piece in the quilt.

Do you see kids getting excited about the same things, like that sense of community getting instilled?

Yeah, yeah, it’s funny we had a group of kids that came out two weeks ago, those Washburn second graders. Right after that I got an email from another school group that was like, we’d like to book the next two Tuesdays. I was like, “Whoooa, I’d love to but I can’t do that, you know, I got stuff to do, it’s go time.” It was really cool to see, not only the kids that come out are excited about it, but get them excited about the connection with the dirt, that food doesn’t come from the supermarket, it comes from the ground and how it was raised is important. They helped plant corn seeds for transplants. One of them asked, “Why aren’t these corn seeds pink?” I was like, “Good question. This is an organic farm, we don’t use chemical agents we use biological stuff. That pink coating is a fungicide that people put on the corn so it doesn’t rot in the ground.” Then we talked about since this is an organic farm we don’t use the fungicide but we do use this other stuff which is like a bunch of tiny little good guys and we put it in the salt shaker and we start our corn and then we sprinkle this powder of good guys in there and then all these little bacteria that colonize the corn and prevent these bad guys from rotting the corn.

It was really cool to be able to make that connection to what we do and how we do it. I think it was good that kid asked that question. Having them come out is a great way to have them get excited. They’re just like us, if something sounds fun we’re likely to give it a shot and if it doesn’t sound like fun we don’t wanna do it. It’s not just for retired people, it’s for everybody. Everybody eats, so let’s all grow some food. I think that’s why with farming the average age is so high now. I think kids see that and they’re like, “Dude, that’s not fun. I see how hard my parents work, my mom and my dad, all these nasty chemicals and how bad off the animals are.” If we can show kids it can be fun, then we’re off to a good start.

One of the kids came out and we were talking about the germination chamber I was like, “Okay, so put those baby seeds in there and it’s like an incubator, it’s a place where a little hen sits on her eggs to keep them warm at just the right temp and humidity to hatch. We do that with our plants too just the right temperature and humidity so they sprout.” I was kind of quizzing them, “Okay, so what are the two things that plants need?” One of the kids said moisture. I said, “What’s the other?” I was waiting for somebody to say ‘temperature’ and one kid said, “love!” I was like, “Whoa, you’re exactly right!” They need three things moisture, love and temperature! It’s cool when they come out and get those connections.

What are some challenges to living and farming in the Chequamegon Bay area?

When you think about up here you don’t think about northern Wisconsin being any bread basket of food production. There’s Iowa, and those places are way better for growing food, but our CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) goes for 30 or 32 weeks. That’s longer than CSAs in Iowa and they got the growing season to do it. There’s even CSAs downstate that pride themselves on running for 20 weeks.

The seasons, even though it’s a challenge, it gives us a break. We’re still growing a lot of stuff in high tunnels and greenhouses and stuff through the winter.I feel like that helps us get into the more natural cycle of things. It’s disturbance and rest. If you farm down south you can farm all year round, it would be constant disturbance, it would be hard to time find to rest. Up here you get a naturally imposed break time. It’s down time and pretty much all you’re going to do is cut spinach. It’s a limitation but it’s one of those good limitations that stops us from being too human. It puts us in our place. We’re just here for the ride.