A new farm in Chetek is offering unique, heirloom produce—farm-to-table style—delivered in boxes for 16 weeks each summer. This year, the season starts Thursday, June 3.
Hardin’s Gardens CSA is owned by Stephen Balcer and his wife, Clare Kuntz-Balcer, who recently moved to the town of Prairie Lake from Baltimore, Md. The small farm is named for Kuntz-Balcer’s uncle, John Hardin, and the farm he had which she visited during the summer.
Community supported agriculture, or CSA, is a type of farm that lets consumers purchase shares (like a membership or subscription) of the farm’s produce at the start of the season. The share owners receive an ever-changing offering of fruits, vegetables, flowers and other produce as the summer progresses.
What makes Hardin’s Gardens unique, is its focus on heirloom varieties.
Balcer is growing varieties of vegetables, fruits and herbs that existed before 1950, when many types of produce started to be hybridized, he explained. All his plants started from seeds he sourced from specialty, heirloom seed companies.
Produce found in grocery stores today has been bred for high yields and robustness for shipping. But heirloom varieties have kept their more unique, nutritious and flavorful qualities, Balcer said. The produce that Hardin’s Gardens is growing won’t be like anything you will find at the store or most farmers markets, he said.
Balcer’s focus on flavor comes from his background of 12 years as a chef. After playing semi-pro football, he went to culinary school in 2008, he said. After, he began an internship at Gertrude’s Chesapeake Kitchen, a restaurant in the Baltimore Museum of Art, and worked there for 12 years, rising to executive chef.
Five years ago, the restaurant started its own urban garden to grow fresh food for specialty dishes. Balcer learned it’s important to not feed the plant, but feed the soil with organic material, which in turn feeds the plant and results in quality produce.
Balcer, who grew up in Baltimore, Md., and Kuntz-Balcer, who grew up in Chicago, Ill., and went to college in Baltimore, met in 2015 and married in 2018. It had been the couple’s long-term plan to move out of the city, but when the coronavirus pandemic hit, they decided move sooner. They bought their house in rural Chetek this past winter. Kuntz-Balcer is a research librarian.
“There’s nothing like this, out there,” Balcer said of countryside. He was amazed at the number of bald eagles. “I knew I always wanted to come out here,” Balcer said, after visiting for his father-in-law’s birthday. Kuntz-Balcer’s parents now own a farm on Pleasant Hill, near Chetek.
“I wanted to bring that same opportunity to taste and cook with really unique varieties of produce that are grown for their beauty, high nutrient content and incredible flavor to folks through our CSA,” Balcer said.
Hardin’s Gardens is comprised of a large garden next to their house, as well as 120 acres on their family farm in the town of Sioux Creek. They are growing apples, tomatoes, onions, peppers, potatoes, carrots, celery root, beets, purple bok choy, cucumbers, squash, watermelon, cantaloupe, spinach, asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, peas, lettuce, fennel and other herbs. Each type will have a few different varieties.
For example, Balcer is growing five varieties of potatoes to provide harvests throughout the growing season. Upstate Abundance potatoes will come early, Dark Red Norland and Strawberry Paw potatoes are mid-season and Kennebec and French Red Fingerling potatoes are late-season.
On May 26, Balcer was “hilling” the potato plants, creating hills of soil around the plants in which more potatoes would grow and increase the harvest. He noted that his compost is sourced from a nearby farm with horses.
The farm is open pollinated and they will be saving seeds to use for next year’s crop.
Along with a focus on organic methods and not using chemical fertilizers and pesticides, Balcer wants the operation to be sustainable as well. Looking at past ways of farming offered ideas for the future, he said.
Ultimately, he hoped that people will be invigorated to eat and cook again. People who enjoy experimenting with new foods, or who are looking for interesting ingredients to spice up their old favorite recipes, will enjoy the CSA and its produce, Balcer said. He said their produce would be cheaper, and with less plastic packaging.
“It’s coming full circle, from being a restaurant chef and cooking with unique produce, to coming home to Clare’s family roots here in Chetek, to growing the kind of food I love to cook and eat—and that we hope our CSA subscribers will enjoy too,” said Balcer.
“I want people to really enjoy the food that they are eating,” he added.
The CSA has three membership levels. At $22 per week, four varieties of produce are included in a weekly box; at $36, eight varieties are included; and at $48, 12 varieties of produce are offered. For each share purchased, an equal share will be provided to the Chetek Food Shelf, they noted. Subscribers to the CSA may also add-on farm eggs, cut flowers, homemade vinegars, jams and foraged foods, such as berries, as the season progresses.
Single “cabin boxes” will also be offered for vacationers on the weekends throughout the summer. They will also sell produce at local farmers markets.
What is in the box each week depends what is in season, so it will change often, Balcer noted. Of each type of produce, there will be multiple items in the box, he said. He also plans to include recipes cards to highlight the foods in the box, and show people how to make use of a new variety of produce.
To purchase a share in the Hardin’s Gardens CSA or learn more, search Instagram for @hardinsgardens and @hardinsgardens_chetek or by calling or texting Stephen directly at 410-627-3278.