Nick Westby dropped out of UW-Oshkosh because he knew what he wanted to do and it didn’t require a college degree in athletic training. In 2018, he and his fiance, Holly Hornback, started OrgaNick Pastures — which he says is Wisconsin’s first certified humane, organic and pasture-raised chicken farm.
Across the Dairy State, massive factory farms are arguing in court for their right to dump manure into the water supply and multi-generational family farmers are facing the cross pressures of trying keep up in an arms race and the risk of losing the family’s heritage to crippling debt. But the 25-year-old Westby and a group of young and beginning farmers all over Wisconsin are proving the prevailing trends can be fought by finding a niche and latching on to people’s desire to eat sustainably grown, locally sourced food.
Danielle Endvick, spokesperson for the Wisconsin Farmers Union, says there are small farms across the state offering a different story about the state’s agricultural industry.
EB Ranch, in Ridgeland, raises an endangered species of goat and sells goat milk soap. Stoney Acres Farm — located on what used to be the family’s dairy farm in Athens — uses ingredients grown on the property and from local sources to make pizza, brew beer and host pizza-on-the-farm events on weekends throughout the summer. Near Stevens Point, Tapped has turned a family tradition of making maple syrup into a successful business that includes collaborating with a cocktail company to make old fashioned cocktail syrup.
“These farmers are all doing incredible things,” Endvick says. “I wouldn’t paint a picture that their journey has been easy — it’s still been filled with a fair share of challenges. But these folks are rethinking the way our food system works and giving us hope for a future that includes family farms on the land.”
Two years into operation, Westby has managed to get cartons of his eggs into grocery store chains across Wisconsin, parts of Illinois and Minnesota.
“A lot of farmers are realizing that there’s different ways to do it rather than being a huge dairy farm or cattle farm or growing cash crops,” Westby says. “There are so many different ways you can farm. Small farms can find the customers, realize they’re 15, 20, 30 minutes away from Madison, Milwaukee, Twin Cities, these big markets that are looking for us.”
Westby, who grew up in Waterloo and Poynette, got his farm off the ground with the help of a loan backed by the USDA — because banks are skeptical of giving loans to 23-year-olds without much credit history.
His high school basketball coach was a chicken farmer and he worked at a farm for a few years while in college, but it was otherwise completely new to him. One of Westby’s parents is an engineer and the other is a health care worker — farming is not the family business.
“I know they definitely thought I was crazy and they didn’t know what to think but they were supportive and obviously they trusted I’d work hard and figure it out,” he says. “They were probably scared and definitely wanted me to stay in school.”
That USDA loan became a 25-acre farm in Rio that is now home to 5,000 chickens. Last year Westby expanded to a second property in Marcellon and “humbly” says it’s been going very well, which he partially credits to his ability to market his business.
“To be successful now they have to be a business, it’s not the good old family farm anymore where you just want to be in the country,” says Tom Brandt, farm loan chief for the USDA Farm Service Agency in Wisconsin. “Whether it’s locally grown, organic, natural, those buzzwords that interest people. I think if they have some type of marketing plan that can show there is a call for their product out there, we’re glad to help them.”
“Maybe this younger generation, they understand the business and marketing side more than the traditional farmer did,” he continues. “If they’ve done their research and show there’s something out there, people like [Westby] being able to get into grocery stores and using some of those other venues to sell their product is only going to help.”
In 2008, Josh Bryceson and Rama Hoffpauir started Turnip Rock Farm — now located on an 80-acre property in Clear Lake. In 2015 they added an on-farm creamery to make aged cheese. The couple, along with their two kids, earn their living entirely from the farm and the 200-member community shared agriculture (CSA) program they run.
Now 40, they were in their twenties when Turnip Rock began. Bryceson’s family had owned a farm in Southwest Iowa for generations but his father had been forced to get rid of it in the 80s — his goal became getting the family back into farming.
Like Westby, Bryceson dropped out of college, first joining Americorps and then volunteering on small farms.
“My life goal was to find that model that worked for the small family farmer and go and do it because it’s what I wanted to do,” Bryceson says.
While building a farm that’s able to provide for his family, Bryceson found his model also counteracts the idea that in order to survive, family farms need to grow into massive factory operations. Instead, a small farm can be successful and help rural communities thrive at the same time.
“We’ve had ag teachers tour our farm in this area, their jaws hit the floor when they realize this is what we do for a living,” he says. “They’ve all been told to grow 2,000 acres of row cropping. Everybody knows that’s a losing game.”
“But I hear from those ag teachers and other organizations that there’s no entry points for beginning farmers anymore that are clear and defined and obvious,” he continues. “Even if you’re inheriting land you’re not inheriting a sustainable business. This is actually a model for beginning farmers and you’re creating a new economy for rural areas. It’s not even about food trends but it’s about food sovereignty and the ability for rural areas to stand on their own two feet again.”
Both Bryceson and Westby say that starting a new farm has some benefits — they aren’t beholden to multiple generations of family traditions and entrenched ways of doing things. Though Bryceson says the flip side is they miss out on institutional knowledge and wisdom.
The challenge today, according to Bryceson, is that it’s not just about what you grow.
“It’s not something that’s easy to carve out on your own,” he says. “Those are the pieces that are missing for beginning farmers — it’s access to affordable land, the education to know how to do this, access to the market. Those are hard things for a beginning farmer to figure out. It’s a lot of hats to wear.”
Another challenge is fitting into the local community as a newcomer, he adds. “It’s fascinating to me that the people in our neighborhood look at us as oddball people that are doing something that isn’t viable or we’re propped up by other financial support or rich family. That narrative doesn’t play well for starting a beginning farm.”
While there are certainly challenges to starting a small farm and working to build a sustainable business, it can also be rewarding, Westby and Bryceson say.
“The hardest part would be I’m having too much fun working,” Westby says.