Organic Farmer Robert Pierce Is a Man Before His Time
|Organic Farmer Robert Pierce Is a
Man Before His Time: Healthy
“I was having food allergies,” Pierce recalled. “I would eat stuff and I would break out. They couldn’t tell me why I was having these different
allergies and why I would break out eating certain things. After figuring it out working with doctors, they said I was reacting to different chemicals
in the food. So it was more personal that I decided to start growing food for myself.”
Pierce enrolled at Madison Business College in 1982 and by 1984, he had made up his mind to become an organic farmer. “They said to me, ‘What’
s that,’ Pierce said. “’I said, ‘I want to grow food without poison.’ They said, ‘You’re not going to make any money.’ I said, ‘I’ll probably be happy.’”
As he continued with school, Pirce also started farming.
“I knew a guy who had some land and I was looking for a half an acre to grow food to feed my family,” Pierce said. “At that time, my wife was
pregnant with our first son. I was going to grow food just for us. This old guy who owned this land behind Bowman Dairy on Fish Hatchery Road
asked me what I was going to do and I replied, ‘I’m going to grow food without poison.’ He said, ‘What do you call it?’ I replied, ‘Organic.’ And he
said, ‘And you go to a business college and you only want is a half an acre?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ He told me it looked like I wasn’t thinking. He kept doing
that for 2-3 weeks. ‘Is that all you want?’ I went back to school and decided at that point that I was going to start a business and I called it Half the
40 Acres. I took the 22.5 acres and started growing.”
Due to his days growing up in South Madison, Pierce had a ready market for the produce he began raising.
“My grandmother’s peers were suffering not being able to get all of the good food that they used to get because they were getting old and they didn’t
do their gardens anymore,” Pierce said. “So I started going by Mrs. Caire’s and Mrs. Thompson’s and all of the old people who were still around at
that time. I was taking greens and stuff to them and tomatoes and okra and they would go, ‘We have to pay you for this. You’re working hard.’ I said,
‘No, I want you to try this.’ They said, ‘No, we have to pay you.’ So they started paying me for a weekly senior package. I would go up on the square
and no one bought stuff from me on the square because it wasn’t stuff that they wanted like mustard greens, turnips and collards and okra. These
people didn’t know what this stuff was like. But people in South Madison, this is what they were craving. Kohl’s didn’t carry it. I would come to the
south side and sell out of the back of my truck. We would go through the neighborhood. I was known as the farmer. ‘When’s that farmer coming
back?’ It just kept on that I started doing that. It was like keeping care of my neighborhood because these are all of the people that I would do their
gardens for when I was a kid.”
here have been several Black farmers who have tried to make it up at the Farmers Market on the Capitol Square. The first was a family from the
Milwaukee area who sold vegetables and later flowers. There was also L.G. Hudson who gave it a try.
By Jonathan Gramling
Part 1 of 2
The land doesn’t look like much as we sit down to talk on a plot of land on the fringe of the city of Madison.
It’s not furrowed with the neat and barren rows of vegetables that one might find on a massive corporate
farm. Rather there are wood chips and compost around and some unfamiliar green stalks that shoot for the
sun and sky.
Robert Pierce farms this land and he pulled up on one of those stalks to reveal some garlic. So that’s
where those pure white cloves of garlic in the neat packages come from.
Pierce is a home-grown South Madisonian who breaks out into a hearty laugh as we talk. Pierce isn’t a
trained farmer. Hew learned by watching and doing and filling a need.
“I always had my hands in soil when I was a kid going around South Madison getting the wild mustard
greens for the old women,” Pierce recalled. “I worked in people’s gardens all the time. I’ve always had my
hands in the soil.”
Pierce went to fight in Vietnam and who knows what kinds of chemicals that he was exposed to over there.
It could have been anything. Maybe it was Agent Orange. All he knew was that he had a problem when he