Living off the land

Caleb Trainor is a farmer, and the land of Winterspring farm in rural Saukville is the raw material of his business of raising organic produce.
By 
MITCH MAERSCH
Ozaukee Press staff

Caleb Trainor hated it when his father got him out of bed before Saturday morning cartoons to pick rocks and weeds from the family’s large garden.

Now he does it for a living.

Trainor developed a passion for homegrown produce soon after high school and runs the Winterspring Farm in the Town of Saukville.

After graduating from Slinger High School in 2008, he worked in a factory but became worried about what was happening to the country’s food supply.

He joined World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF), an organization that places farm workers in jobs across the country to learn the industry.

“It really spoke to me,” Trainor said.

“The average age of a farmer is 67 years old. What happens in 10 years?”

After his stint with WWOOF, Trainor came home and did an internship at Wellspring Farm, which later became Winterspring.

He found a mentor at Wellspring, followed her to her own farm, then returned to Wellspring in 2016 and became its manager. A few years later, Wellspring decided to go out of business but offered Trainor the chance to lease the property, use its equipment and run the farm like a business incubator. 

He had about a month to make one of the biggest decisions of his life.

Trainor decided to make organic farming his career. He launched Winterspring in January 2021 as its owner and operator.

His wife of one year, Roxanne, a native of Springfield, Ill., whom he met through farming, was on board.  The family of three — their son was born in December — live on the farm. They have five paid employees and 10 to 15 others who work four hours per week in exchange for a week’s worth of vegetables.

One of the biggest advantages, Trainor said, was that Wellspring handed off its community-supported agriculture customers and vendors, so he hit the ground running with little change in how business was done.

“We were very blessed,” Trainor said.

He, Roxanne and the crew cultivate five acres and grow a variety of vegetables. In addition, Roxanne is an herbalist and manages an herb garden, and the farm sells flowers.

The work is not easy.

“It’s very hard, physical work,” Trainor said.

Starting a vegetable farm, however, is easier and less expensive than a dairy farm — Trainor didn’t enjoy his job as a teen that mostly entailed shoveling manure on a neighbor’s farm. With dairy farms, he said, people may spend $300,000 before their first cup of milk.

For vegetable farms, it’s just planting seeds and working the land. Trainor grows nearly every kind of vegetable, except potatoes, whose store prices he can’t come close to competing with. His favorite is carrots.

“They take a lot of work, but I think the reward is a lot more,” he said.

He sometimes sneaks in a bite or two of raw ones while in the field, but he doesn’t recommend it. The farm washes all of its vegetables just before selling them and takes food safety seriously.

Trainor also likes parsnips, although their foliage can give people blisters. Most go to market because their value is so high.

Much of the farm’s business is from the CSA market, which provides 12 to 18 different vegetables from June through October. Packages vary by size and price.

“We’re selling the experience of the CSA farm and the variety,” Trainor said.

Winterspring also sells its produce at the Port Washington winter’s farmers market, the recently opened DreamPort Harvest Market in downtown Port and through the Ozaukee Area REKO Ring and at the West Bend Farmers Market.

He still does some food shopping for his family.

“The thing that I go to the grocery store for is milk and butter,” Trainor said.

He said he only deviates to the produce section “for an ego boost.”

Stores, he said, select vegetables that look the best and keep the longest. They cannot compete with his on flavor or nutrition.

Growing and managing the vegetables is a constant learning process. Schools don’t offer degrees in vegetable farming, but Trainor has learned much from friends in the welcoming atmosphere of the organic farming business. Secrets and tips are shared, not hidden.

“I have dozens of farm friends who want to see me succeed,” Trainor said.

“One thing that’s really wonderful is the people who find themselves in this line of work are really passion-based and they really want to do it.”

Enthusiasm helps because organic farming has plenty of challenges. Trainor said he is losing some of his crops to flea beetle this year. He lays insect netting and keeps it in place with heavy sandbags, which is more difficult than using a spray hose attached to a backpack full of pesticide.

“You learn to work with loss,” Trainor said.

Weather determines the day’s tasks. The home page on Trainor’s computer is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and he said he checks its app about 16 times per day.

New organic farming tools and techniques are often developed. Some are flops but others are game changers.

One big time saver Trainor purchased last year from John Hendrickson of Stone Circle Farm in Reeseville is a Japanese paper pot system and transplanter. Plants start in the greenhouse, each in a paper pot that together looks like honeycomb. When they are transplanted, at a rate as fast as the worker can walk, the machine pulls the paper apart and each plant gets set either two, four or six inches from the next.

Compared to hand planting, Trainor said, he went from 32 hours to 2.5 hours of labor for crops such as spinach, beets, scallions, onions and radishes. That allows crew members to tackle other tasks.

After last year’s first planting, Trainor said, “I think this thing just validated itself.”

Maintaining the farm’s organic status is more of a paperwork chore. When a representative of MOSA Certified Organic, a USDA approved certification organization, visits, information is sought on when a randomly selected vegetable is sold, where it was planted, where the seed came from and its seed tag.

“It’s the most stressful day of the year,” Trainer said. “Record keeping is a part-time job for me, but I’ve gotten really good at spreadsheets.”

Trainor does field cleanup and shuts down for winter around the end of November. His 12 to 14-hours-per-day schedule finally slows to about 20 hours per week, with time mostly spent on paperwork, promotion and talking to friendly customers at the winter farmers market.

He enjoys the break, but spring can’t come fast enough.

“My favorite is the cultivating. I can’t wait until late May when I’m doing that,” he said.

Being outside most of the day comes with a certain placidity. A CSA member mentioned hearing birds in the background during a recent phone call.

“I’m sure the mental health benefits go a long way,” Trainor said.

He has even come to appreciate weeding by hand. “It’s hard labor, but I like that it’s rewarding,” he said.

For more information on Winterspring and its CSA program, visit www.winterspringcsa.com.

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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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