Robert Pierce was an urban farmer before the term existed, way before the idea of a "White House Farmer" hit the news. The current manager of the South Madison Farmers' Market has been farming organically on various plots of leased land in and around Madison since 1984. Did he want to be a farmer when he was a kid? "No!" Pierce laughs. The native of south Madison grew up when everybody had big gardens, and he always worked in his family's plot. He also sold earthworms and gathered wild mustard greens for neighborhood ladies who were "scared of snakes."
Family farmers as a group are heroes to me, coping with unpredictable weather and even less predictable markets. Pierce, 59, does it without having his own farm. That doesn't bother him, though, compared to the larger problem: an American public that has bought into the concept that "food should be cheap. People don't put value on farmers, or food. And what they see as food is not really food."
Pierce works to reverse that in his south Madison neighborhood, running the farmers' market five days a week in different locations to give residents access to fresh, real food. "Elderly people, when they taste this food, they say it's like the old days," Pierce says. "They can taste the difference. I still get a big bang out of that."
All winter long, Pierce makes daily runs collecting grounds for compost, from Ale Asylum, EVP Coffee, the Willy Street Co-op and more. Some of the compost he sells, most he uses on his garden plots. Anybody can put a seed in the ground, he says, but you need good soil to get the plants to grow.
Pierce laughs frequently and obviously enjoys what he does. He's not about artisanal this and heirloom that. He names his fave foods simply as "corn and potatoes." He is slated to be the farmer at the recently approved Badger Rock Middle School, where teaching kids about growing and preparing food will be one of the cornerstones.
So maybe Madison has a future filled with Robert Pierces, which would be a good thing.