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Share the bounty takes on added meaning at Hilsgen's

TOWN OF SALEM-The Hilsgen family does their farming the way they feel it was meant to be.

The nine-member family uses a team of Belgian horses to pull a walk-behind plow. They raise goats for their milk, keep bees for their honey and cut wood to heat their house with a wood stove. Above all, they follow organic growing practices.

For the first time, the Hilsgens offered their harvest to family and friends this year through a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) arrangement, Cindy Hilsgen said Thursday. Shares in the family's garden were available for purchase to buyers who are now taking home produce weekly for 17 weeks. The growers do the picking and calculated their costs to determine the price of a share.

"The people eating it are the ones who fund it," she said about an idea her 22-year-old daughter, Melissa, explained dates back thousands of years. The family also includes husband Gary, a construction worker, sons Jamie, age 23, Tyler, 17, Ryan, 15, Aaron, nine, and Nathan, two, plus daughter Bethany, six.

Hilsgen said they'd like to encourage more local involvement in their CSA. They might consider being part of an area art tour, spotlighting their gardening skills along with other talents such as Melissa's drawing and water coloring, Jamie's woodworking, and her own basket-weaving and candle-dipping.

"I want my people to get to know me," she said, noting locals would also avoid the distance that's been a factor for family members traveling to the farm weekly, as her and her spouse are originally from Minnesota.

In a letter the family sent to their immediate circle this spring, they invited participation in their increasingly sustainable family farm. It indicates a share consists of approximately a half-bushel of organically-grown vegetables and herbs each week from mid-June through mid-October. Weekly pickup occurs Wednesdays from noon to 4 p.m. A share costs $300 for the season.

"The value of truly organic foods at a reasonable cost is priceless today," it states. "By using horsepower, along with natural animal and gardening methods, we are able to produce fresh, quality, healthy foods while respecting God's nature. We want to share our bounty with you."

A list of items for the garden this year includes: 10-12 varieties of lettuce, spinach, chard, kale, bok choy, beet greens, collards, mustard greens, endive/escarole, salad onions, radishes, various-colored peppers, cucumbers, celery, cauliflower, broccoli, red and green cabbage, brussel sprouts, green beans, snow peas, carrots, beets, eggplant, okra, zucchini, garlic, sweet corn, winter and summer squash, potatoes, various onions, pumpkins, different kinds of tomatoes, culinary herbs and flowers.

"Around a third of the garden is planted in potatoes," Melissa said and her mom mentioned green peas are especially labor-intensive to grow.

Other farm products that are limited but available to shareholders at an additional price include: goat milk, soft cheese, free-range eggs, raw honey, maple syrup and artisan sourdough bread, the letter states.

Hilsgen said last week there are presently eight members of their CSA, a number they hope to double next year and perhaps someday reach 30. The growers conduct classes on a variety of organic-related subjects, too, mostly in summer, with registrations as high as six people.

"A lot of people don't cook from scratch," she said about the especially popular cooking classes.

The lineup of other classes with fees ranging from $15 to $30 includes: health and nutrition, organic gardening, maple syruping, the Healthy Home Bakery, Beginning Horse-Working, Getting Started with Bees, Natural Animal Care, Cheesemaking and the Home Dairy, God's Free Harvest and Cooking/Recipes. Call (715) 448-2050 for more information.

While growing up, she was the only one in her family who enjoyed gardening, Hilsgen said.

"I had a great-grandmother who was a gardener and a teacher," she said, suspecting her ancestor passed along a green thumb to her as well as an interest in teaching classes.

The Central Minnesota native didn't actually live on a farm as a youth, but farms were on the edge of her home towns of Eden Valley/Watkins, Minn. (population around 600), and it wasn't uncommon for people to keep animals at home, she said. She met her mate while both were still in school; they moved around due to his construction jobs and eventually came to Hastings, Minn., where they lived for 17 years.

"We arranged through a family in our church to use their land and buildings (outside of town)," she said of their growing efforts there, besides the large garden they had in their back yard.

Ultimately, they relocated to Wisconsin, first near Ellsworth and then to the Town of Salem farm they've mainly rented for the last nearly five years, she said, noting "we've always loved the terrain over here." On the five-acre parcel around the house is their acre-and-a-half garden. They rent 12 acres for other crops.

In addition to their three work horses, they have 30 goats, chickens including guinea hens, bees, dogs and cats, Hilsgen said, believing the animals help make theirs an economically viable operation. The farm's soil is a heavier variety which drains well. In this season's dryness, the growers spent a long time watering and it took a long time for the fruit to set.

The family plans to hold a mid-fall harvest festival for shareholders incorporating such features as a pot luck, music and hay rides, she said.