Meet four modern farmers in the Madison area
A new generation of farmers is cropping up, and they are doing things differently.
A new generation of farmers is cropping up, and they are doing things differently. All across southern Wisconsin, young and innovative farmers are challenging the existing agriculture paradigm and transforming and expanding a many-thousand-year-old industry that’s in need of a bit of change.
It’s not easy to stray from “how it’s always been done.” Whether it’s using tools from hundreds of years ago or growing new, hardy crops, these area farmers tend to their land and animals with a shared commonality: Their farming practices are not solely dictated by what produces the highest yield. These farmers are experimenting, delving into new crop industries and using their diverse perspectives to make farming better — all while demonstrating their commitment to creating positive ecological and social impacts through their operations.
Rainbow Table | Verona
Nestled in a quiet valley about five minutes from Epic Systems’ campus is a 0.5-acre vegetable plot. The land is part of the Farley Center — an incubator for beginning farmers who want to share ideas, greenhouses and equipment.
Sam Kirschbaum, 29, farms because it gives him a sense of autonomy — something he didn’t have while serving three years in the Air Force at Colorado Springs.
“I was sick of working for the man — I want to work for the people,” he says. “Food is freedom.”
A hike on the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine inspired a new life purpose for Kirschbaum — organic farming. He worked for an organic vegetable farm in Vermont before moving to Wisconsin in January 2017. Living in Madison enables him to be close to family in the Twin Cities and Chicago.
He moved here for the 16-week University of Wisconsin–Madison short-course program, having no idea that the Dane County area is one of the top regions for organic farming. He continues to learn from area farmers and to experiment with cover cropping on the Farley Center plot.
In April, Kirschbaum planted a smother crop (a thick, quick-growing crop used to suppress weed growth and slow runoff) of peas and oats. This acts as “green manure,” in which the uprooted crops add fertility to the soil so he doesn’t need external fertilizers, such as fish emulsion or manure. Instead he uses compost and trace minerals to enrich the soil.
Next he uses a broadfork (a giant metal, multi-tined, dual-handled fork) to break up the soil for planting without damaging its structure. He lays down landscape fabric to discourage weeds and keep nutrient-rich soil from blowing away. When he’s ready to plant, he burns holes in the fabric with a flame-weeder. His favorite tool is a 5-inch multipurpose knife. These basic tools allow him to plant, weed and harvest without a tractor.
He hopes other farmers recognize the benefits of cover crops in decreasing erosion, runoff and emissions.
“This idea of ‘go big or go home’ takes the humanity out of farming,” he says. Ultimately, he believes there is more to farming than financial gain.
Kirschbaum sells vegetables to three housing cooperatives with more than 100 residents. He says growing and selling only organic vegetables is tough, especially in the dense Madison market. In 2020, he wants to expand his sauerkraut business as a way to subsidize his vegetable production.
Despite his 70-hour workweek at three farms —aside from Rainbow Table, he co-owns and manages New Americana hemp farm in Evansville and also works at another organic local vegetable farm, Lovefood — Kirschbaum remains positive and driven. His optimism is infectious. In his relaxed stance and worn baseball cap, he remains hopeful about the future of farming in Wisconsin.
The name of his farm, Rainbow Table, refers to his desire for color on people’s plates and greater diversity in food production. He wants people to contribute to local food production in their own way.
“There is so much you can do with a quarter-acre or a half-acre of land,” he says. “I want to see more of this,” he says, opening his arms wide.
Learn more about supporting beginning farmers at farleycenter.org.
Grassroots Farm LLC | Monroe
For FL Morris, the future of farming is hemp. CBD oil could ease the opioid crisis. Hemp fiber is a sustainable replacement for plastic. And its profit margin is alluring in the struggling farm economy.
Morris describes life as a vegetable farmer as similar to being a hamster on a wheel. Planting garlic and planning crops in November kick-starts a never-ending cycle year after year. Selling at farmers’ markets, creating marketing materials and building relationships with chefs is time-intensive.
“Every minute we spend off farm marketing, our crops suffer,” Morris says.
She longed for a better way. She took a break from farming to explore alternative businesses in the state of Oregon, and then returned to the land she co-owns with her mother near Monroe. In a picturesque landscape of peaks and valleys, she began growing certified organic hemp made specifically for CBD.
On Feb. 14, 2019, Morris and Steve Acheson founded the South Central Wisconsin Hemp Cooperative along with three other community members and with support from the Wisconsin Farmers Union and the UW Center for Cooperatives. Members of the cooperative benefit from lower seed and supply savings and shared knowledge about a temperamental crop. They all grow certified organic hemp for CBD, which is a different strain than hemp harvested for fiber.
A lack of experience has not stopped Wisconsin farmers from farming hemp. Many apply large-scale tactics, or what Morris calls “windshield farming,” to the crop. But the hemp plant is 50-times stronger than corn, meaning it can damage large machinery. And then there’s testing for THC levels 30 days before harvest. It’s risky to plant 40 acres that could mold in wet, late summers or develop THC levels too high to sell.
She sees hemp as a way to bring young, diverse people to rural areas.
“We can decide who benefits from this medicine,” she says. “We are still poor farmers trying to find a solution to stay on our land and help our community.”
But the endgame, for Morris, is not hemp.
“Maybe hemp brings in enough money that it can subsidize the other farming that we’re doing,” she hopes. They also grow CSA vegetables and raise some livestock.
Her latest idea is a hyper-local community kitchen. Meals cooked and served by residents could use all of the produce from Monroe-area farms. It would combat major issues within the food system: food waste, processing and the environmental footprint.
How many acres feed a 10,000-person town? Could traditionally cash-crop-farmed land be returned to prairie?
As a queer farmer, Morris wants to empower a younger generation and let them know that people like her can farm and be leaders.
“I want people to have what I have,” she says. “If everyone ate healthy food and had strong mental health as a baseline, imagine what we could do.”
Jeremy & Erin Lynch
Enos Farms & Catering | Spring Green
In 2004, Jeremy Lynch founded Enos Farm, named for an ancestor who farmed the land south of Spring Green in the 1880s. He started in specialty vegetables, peddling herbs, salad mixes and mushrooms he foraged to Madison restaurants. But he struggled to find chefs able to work with products that are available for a few weeks out of the year.
Erin Lynch worked in restaurants in France and at L’Etoile in Madison. She was looking for something new when she met Jeremy.
Their early dates were spent catering weddings, and a love of sharing local ingredients and hosting meals blossomed into a relationship. They were married in 2013. The couple owns and operates the zero-waste Enos Farms & Catering. They serve up to 20,000 locally sourced meals each year.
Jeremy and Erin Lynch’s zero-waste farm-to-table catering business appeals to clients primarily from the coasts, one reason being that some Wisconsin residents balk at their prices, they say.
“Food just needs to cost more,” says Erin Lynch. “There’s a whole system behind it.”
Most of their meat comes from their pasture-raised hogs. Jeremy Lynch is fascinated with hogs — he first bought Large Blacks, then Herefords and Yorkshires. He followed the recommendations for feeding hogs: corn and soybeans. He noticed they were constipated, overweight and unhappy. At the same time, only 60% of his vegetables made it to the catering table. The other 40% remained in the field, untouched, but too ugly or damaged to serve to consumers. They stopped growing their own vegetables in 2011. His herd of 130 pigs now feasts on pumpkins — the only produce they do still grow — plus their neighbor’s organic corn and oats, and leftover product and vegan waste from their catering kitchen. Erin Lynch says they plan to grow more produce specifically for the pigs this year.
“They’re having fun and expressing their true nature as pigs, as recyclers,” Jeremy Lynch says.
Meat production is blamed for its share of greenhouse gas emissions. But Jeremy Lynch argues hogs can be raised more efficiently than chickens, and they help decrease food waste from fields and plates. Neighbors tell him all the time that corn would make his land more productive, but according to Jeremy Lynch, they just haven’t run the numbers.
“My neighbors are thrilled when they get on their tractor and get 2,000 pounds of corn per acre,” he says. “I’m working with 10,000 pounds of pork per acre when they’re eating pumpkins in the pasture. And that only takes me two passes with a tractor to get the seeds in the ground.”
The hogs currently eat 20% grain, consisting of oats, soy and silage. He thinks breeding a grain-free hog will take seven or eight generations. At that point, it could compete with crickets as a protein source.
Find Enos Farms & Catering at local events including the Sh*tty Barn and at enosfarms.com.
Rowley Creek Lavender Farm | Baraboo
On a hillside in Baraboo, 3,000 lavender plants dot the landscape. The farmhouse is adorned with a sign that reads, “Farm Sweet Farm.”
Kehaulani Jones and her husband live on Rowley Creek Farm with their five kids, ages 7 to 18. They moved here from St. Louis seeking work and a rural lifestyle. Jones is from Hawaii and her husband is from New Zealand.
Driving through Wisconsin, Jones was dismayed to see acres of fields covered with cattle and corn. She wondered why there wasn’t more diversity. She decided to grow lavender because of its many uses in beauty products and as cut flowers. And unlike corn, the plants are drought-tolerant and continue to grow in nutrient-deprived, alkaline soil.
“Adversity makes lavender bloom more — just like people,” she notes.
Jones goes by “Lady J” because few in Wisconsin can pronounce her native Hawaiian name correctly, she says. She was born in Hawaii and grew up in both Hawaii and Utah. Her dad spoke Hawaiian at home. She brings the “aloha” spirit to the farm.
Besides being a word for “hello” and “goodbye,” aloha has many other culturally significant meanings, including love, affection, peace, compassion and mercy.
“What we do comes from a sense of aloha, my cultural roots,” she says. “I know we can’t bring the warm weather here — but if we can bring the aloha spirit here, we can make a big difference.”
She hopes people who visit the farm sense the aloha spirit and take it home with them by being kind to others.
The aloha spirit also applies to the land. “Aloha-sustained agriculture means if you take care of the land, the land will take care of you,” she says.
She views the future of Wisconsin farming as dire but remains optimistic.
“We are at a turning point,” she says. “We need to make changes or we could find ourselves in a precarious situation.”
Hillside planting, covering plants to deal with large temperature swings and planting diverse crops all help small farms like Rowley adapt to changing conditions.
The 24 lavender varieties bloom at varying times, ensuring she has a crop to sell. But sometimes the weather has other plans. She lost 80% of her lavender crop in 2018 due to inclement weather. Luckily, she had planted elderberry, chamomile, echinacea and yarrow to supplement health and beauty products.
Jones is a certified aromatherapist and natural skin-care designer. She hosts beauty and cooking classes in her home and sells skin-care products and more at the on-farm store. Find Rowley Creek at local farmers’ markets or visit the farm (rowleycreekfarm.com).
Hannah Wente is a freelance writer and graphic designer based in Madison.