From Cheese to Soap: A Tour of Scotch Hill Farm

Scotch Hill Farm has been an active Community Supported Agriculture member for fifteen years

May 18, 2009

“Oh, that’s the dog soap,” Dela Ends says from behind the refrigerator. The mottled bars are drying in the factory off the family’s machine shed and have been imprinted with the likenesses of English Bulldogs and Great Danes. Today, she’s searching for a bar of soap (they make soap for people, too) as she rifles past the translucent brown bottles labeled sandalwood vanilla and lavender. She tells me the tea tree with comfrey bar will be “just the thing” for my sensitive skin.

Ends and her husband, Tony, make the soap from the milk of the goats that can be heard bleating on the other end of Scotch Hill Farm. The lip balm, lotion butter and bar soap business is one of the ways that the Ends supplement their income at their community supported agriculture (CSA) farm on the outskirts of Brodhead, Wisconsin.

Prior to their life in the country, Tony worked as a journalist and Dela went to school to become a teacher. Their shared passion for healthy living brought them to Scotch Hill Farm, where the two work from sunup to sundown delivering produce, farming, making soap and keeping books for the business.

“CSA farming is very hard manual physical work. It is long hours, and it’s a lot more than the twenty weeks that you get vegetables for,” Tony says. “It’s a good forty weeks of planning and preparing and building and repairing and getting land rented and financed and cared for and tended, then tending all these crops and delivering them for twenty weeks. It’s a year-round job.”

Over one hundred different varieties of vegetables are grown at Scotch Hill Farm each year, which are then distributed to customers through the Madison Area Community Supported Agriculture Coalition (MACSAC). The Ends have been members of the coalition for fifteen years, and Dela serves on the board. As part of the program, the couple delivers boxes of assorted produce to drop-off sites both in their area and in Chicago where subscribers pick up the produce.

The Real Cost

The incalculable number of hours worked each week does not affect what many consumers consider a “fair price” when shopping for fruits and vegetables. Trips to the grocery store involve vast food choices at low costs. CSA subscribers, on the other hand, don’t get to choose their vegetables. Instead, they receive boxes of produce each week that reflect what is in season at a realistic, sustainable cost.

A full season of produce at Scotch Hill Farm costs $465, a price that Tony says mirrors the hard work that goes into farming without the support of large corporations or government subsidies. Yet people resist buying CSA foods because of higher costs, lack of choice and the inconvenience of picking up food at a drop-off point instead of a neighborhood store. The price tags on conventional foods, however, don’t show their whole cost.

“If you get it more cheaply from Florida or California or a foreign country, how cheap is it for the environment?” Tony says. “Every mile that the food travels, a pound of carbon goes up into the atmosphere. How cheap really is it?”

Local Food, Local Friends

Buying local is a driving concept behind CSA farms. The most important thing, Tony says, is the relationship that the consumers have with the farmers. The “S” in CSA comes from the support of the community by paying a fair price for produce to farmers, while the farmers support a healthy lifestyle for consumers.

The Brodhead Chamber of Commerce currently organizes farm tours so that people can connect with the farmers and see where their food comes from. The Ends also organize “Weed, Wine and Cheese” parties so that people can visit the farm, help weed the fields and socialize with everyone involved in the farming process. Dela even makes a batch of cheese to snack on, courtesy of the goats across the yard. The real goal of the visits is for people to become involved in the place where their food comes from and see the toll their consumption takes on the world.

“They walk into the walk-in cooler, and they think about that expense. And they hear the refrigeration running and they can look right through the door in the machine shed into the new greenhouse and the hoop house that cost $10,000,” Tony says. If people visit the farm and see the hard work, they may realize what the business is really worth.

The Ends are part of a movement to revolutionize the way Americans think about food consumption. Many consumers overlook the health effects of the cheapest, most plentiful and most convenient goods.

“We are brainwashed into thinking that way instead of thinking, ‘I’ve gotta care for the earth, I’ve gotta care for my children, I’ve gotta protect what we have. It’s my responsibility,’” Tony says.

Organic Farming

But CSA farms are not just about local business and they’re not just about eating healthy. The fertilizer used in nonorganic farming takes a toll on the environment. Chemicals such as anhydrous ammonia require tremendous pressure and energy intensive processes to produce. “

Regardless of what it does to the soil, it’s a reason that our natural gas reserves are disappearing so fast,” Tony says.

For the past three years, the Ends have worked toward an organic certification from Nature’s International Certification Services in Viroqua. The fields will become certified this year, meaning that the Ends practice crop rotation and do not use chemical fertilizer, genetically modified seeds, pesticides or herbicides in their crops. Instead, the soap-making herd of goats naturally fertilizes the fields.

“We really wanted to make livestock work because then it’s an on-site means of naturally producing nitrogen rather than a chemical process and a factory process and a mass scale process,” Tony says.

The goats are expensive, but the Ends mitigate the cost by using them for more than fertilizer.

The Goat Soap

Ten years ago, the Ends received a bar of goats’ milk soap from Dela’s mother as a souvenir from a trip to North Carolina. The Ends were still looking for a means to justify the time and expense of having livestock, and the novelty gift was enough to inspire the Ends.

“Tony goes, ‘Wow this is a great idea, so figure out how to do it.’ So I went to the library and researched and figured it out,” Dela said. The soap business was born.

After the first year’s out-of-the-kitchen soap business totaled $800, Tony applied for a small business innovation research grant that helped improve the production process. The soap business jumped to $10,000 that year. When they received a second grant, Dela formed a soap makers’ guild and taught ten other farms how to make the soap. The resulting increase in sales funded the construction of a new soap factory off of the machine shed. Twenty-five thousand dollars in soap each year became a bit much for the kitchen.

Now, the soap accounts for nearly a third of the family’s yearly income. Last year, they sold nearly eight thousand bars at farmers’ markets, to CSA subscribers and through mail orders. Despite the escalating success of Scotch Hill soap, the Ends do not sell their line at the Dane County Farmers’ Market due to a three-year waiting list and because the market requires vendors to use their own oil in production. The oil is one of the few ingredients that the do-it-yourself couple doesn’t produce at Scotch Hill.

Tony’s ambition to change that can be seen in the glint in his eyes as he remembers a farmer he once met that produced his own oil.

“He had an old silo where he augured his sunflowers into big hoppers. He just turned the press on in the morning, and it would draw the sunflowers down and a machine would press the oil and he collected the oil every night.” He adds that the farmer heated his house and sold the leftover protein mash to a nearby farmer as feed supplement.

Tony has it all planned out. Sell the sunflower seeds to bird food maker and feed the leftovers to those goats. Then the Ends will have their own oil for soap making.

“Oh, we have so much time,” Dela says jokingly of the plan. She looks at Tony as if he’s crazy, but the same ambition that led the couple here can be seen sparkling in her own eyes as she contemplates the idea.

Scotch Hill Farm scotchhillfarm.com

Madison Area Community Supported Agriculture Coalition macsac.org

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