A New Life for Foxtail Farm

Ecolution reporting made possible by Seward Co-op, which has been a community-owned grocer since 1972: Together, we continue to cultivate a cooperative economy.

Emmalyn Kayser (l) and Chris Burkhouse in one of the hoop houses at Kayser’s CSA farm. Photo Sarah Whiting

Chris Burkhouse and her partner farmed in the Saint Croix River Valley near Osceola, Wisconsin, for almost 30 years. In 2018, the pair hired Emmalyn Kayser and her partner Cody Fitzpatrick — the couple grew up in South Minneapolis and had been farming in Alaska — as seasonal workers. One year later, it was time for Burkhouse to say farewell to Foxtail Farm and the community-supported agriculture (CSA) business she had built. And she didn’t have to look far for a new owner. Kayser and Fitzpatrick now own and operate the farm, and as an added bonus, Burkhouse stayed on as an advisor through their first growing season of 2020. Now the two remain friends and mentors — Chris lives only a few miles away — with a bond forged from stewarding and loving the same land.

On connecting immediately

Chris Burkhouse: Emmalyn and I really hit it off because we thought very similarly about things. As we were sharing experiences, it was very clear to me that her interests and my interests and the farm were well aligned. At the time, there was quite a bit of upheaval in my relationship with my former farming and personal partner; we were looking to transition the farm, and it was natural that we started talking with Emmalyn and Cody about trying to make that shift.

Emmalyn Kayser: That first conversation we had with Chris, [we talked about] everything from farming to life philosophies. I was fascinated with how they were doing a winter CSA [since] I was coming from growing in Alaska and really pushing the limits of growing food in a cold climate. The first thing I remember doing when we arrived was harvesting brussel sprouts. I don’t know if you remember this, Chris, but it was the first snow of the season, and we hopped in cutting and ripping brussel sprouts out of the ground. It felt so natural, like we had arrived home. We progressed our relationship to a friendship and eventually a mentorship when Chris offered to stay on and help us that first season. When we made this plan we didn’t know what 2020 had in store, but we couldn’t have asked for a better transition.

On diving in and enjoying the work

EK: Farming organically is a very physical job. In rain, shine, snow, whatever the conditions, you just have to hop in and get it done. It is a rare thing to find a group that can have fun [while doing that]. That is not always the blend. Sometimes there are tough challenges, but the philosophy of enjoying the work we are doing was something we instantly bonded over. Working with your hands, you have a lot of time to just chat about life, passion projects, and dreams, and it was so easy to do [that] with Chris while washing 100 cabbages or whatever [it was]. I always appreciated hearing Chris’s stories about how the farm has changed over time and through the seasons — seeing the frogs coming back, the perennials growing again.

CB: We both love frogs, salamanders, birds. I was thrilled when Emmalyn would notice some critter and be excited because [valuing] that life and diversity is so important to the work we do. We could see that we shared that right away.

On transitioning the farm into a new life

CB: I got to stay on the farm until the end of 2020, which was great for me because I needed time to transition. It was really important for me to do everything I could to help set Emmalyn and Cody up for success. Some folks were questioning, “Wasn’t that hard? You do your own thing and you know somebody might do something different [with the farm]?” But to me, it was like this baby that had a new life, thriving under this new care.

EK: Cody and I are from South Minneapolis, so that year was difficult with the uprising. Just having Chris’s positive energy, like, “We can do this; we’re stronger together” was really helpful. And [she helped with] the logistical questions: “Should I plant this now? What do we do if this weather’s happening?” Having someone who has seen those things throughout the seasons, throughout the years, was huge. If Chris wasn’t here I would have just worried myself sick.

On who is mentoring whom

EK: Chris is my forever mentor. I really admire you, Chris. I admire that you have helped [so many people] get their farming businesses going and your continued commitment to the Saint Croix Valley area. I’m not sure if I will ever have anything to mentor Chris on, but who knows.

CB: I don’t think that’s true. In almost any relationship there are things that you learn from each other, especially with your courage, [and your ability to] tackle things, and your can-do attitude.

With this type of [small organic] farming, there can be a lot of idealism. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard people say, “That’s my dream job. I really want to do that.” That’s great, [but] it is a heck of a lot of hard work and stress. I try to prepare people for the reality. If we don’t do that for each other, then we are not really serving each other well.

EK: Until you are on the other side of ownership, [you don’t fully know how] the challenges. Chris went above and beyond to share some of their financial information, which helped us make some decisions that were really important in starting our business. If I am struggling or need advice, I know that I can text or call Chris. It just helps to know there’s someone out there rooting for you.

It is really easy for small business owners to get competitive with one another, but I think that one of the cool things about small organic farming is that there is plenty of food to be grown, and we celebrate each other’s successes and help each other through tough times. I think a lot of that is built on the folks that started it first, so kudos to the first iteration of Foxtail for that.

CB: When we first started and there were only a couple of other farms in the area, and that was definitely a perspective that we shared, you know, that we all do better when we all do better, so let’s figure out how that can happen.

On gender dynamics within small farming

EK: From my experience in other parts of agriculture in the United States, I am blown away by how many female farmers are here in the [Saint Croix Valley]; it is so awesome to not be in the minority. I think that is really unique. If you look at national statistics on farming, it is a very male-dominated sector.

CB: I think the nature of the work we do involves a lot of creativity. As women, we are forging our own ways in our businesses, and we are looking at it differently. I think that is super exciting because we have to be rethinking how we do agriculture in this country.

EK: I have seen a greater opportunity in this community for agriculture to be for everyone. [I am] meeting farm workers from other farms, doing a monthly potluck get– together. Everyone truly is welcome because there is so much to do — the job can fit just about any personality type and ability level.

CB: When we first started with a roadside stand, we didn’t say that we were organic [because we would be seen as] “hippie freaks” from the cities. We just [advertised as] “fresh veggies.” Since then, the number of farms, the different kinds of farms have grown. Now there are more cooperative efforts going on — cooperative land holdings and businesses. There are more BIPOC folks who are getting involved and doing many creative ways of farming [such as] medicinals and foraging. It is exciting, and it gives me a lot of hope for the future that we can shift things.

According to Burkhouse and Kayser, supporting small farmers with one’s monetary power creates opportunities for more farms to grow food for their local area, which will decrease the need for out- of-season produce and the agricultural system that causes harm to workers across the U.S. Both women are involved in building the Saint Croix Valley Food Alliance, an online directory of small organic farms and markets in the area. scvfoodalliance.org

There are programs helping to make local produce more affordable. SNAP offers a dollar match program, and some farmers offer sliding scales.