Paul Phelps of Serenity Farms
says that his CSA boxes serve residents and businesses
alike. “It feels good to pull a beet in the morning to be
part of the box that is going to The Pub,” he says. “Then
know that is what goes into the beet salad I order there
later that day."
OF OCONOMOWOC - Just as a breeze ripples the rows of wheat in a
farmer’s field, the impact of agriculture in southeastern
Wisconsin sends ripples through the multiple communities that
dot Waukesha County.
The Enterprise is
highlighting farming efforts in the Town of Oconomowoc and
surrounding areas by launching a five-part series on topics that
relate to the modern farmer and the longevity of their farms.
In the first
installment of this series, we will hone in how community
engagement has become an integral part of today’s farming
enterprises, whether large or small. This is especially
important as customers increase their inquiries about growing
practices and livestock living conditions.
|“If you want a
product to move at the grocery store, you have to get
customers’ attention,” Koepke said of such efforts. “We
get lots of good questions - a lot of which are about
the cows. People want to know if they are grass-fed."
Next week, the
Enterprise will explore the technological changes that have shaped
farming in the last 20 years - including self-driving tractors,
methane digesters that can increase self-sufficiency by allowing
farmers to generate their own power and computer programs that can
map out production, predict weather and catalogue crop history.
will examine the ancillary businesses that work hand in hand
with farmers, including big animal veterinarians, crop dusters
and farriers. The economic impact that farming has in the
community also will be covered.
penultimate installment in the Enterprise’s series on farming
will delve into the town’s efforts to ensure that land in the
agriculture district remains in that zoning classification,
rather than being bought by outside interests for the sake of
development. Other ordinances, such as those that allow for
chickens and other livestock in residences, will be similarly
In the final
installment, the focus will be on future generations of farmers,
including youths in 4-H and Future Farmers of America. Some of
the farmers from the previous stories will be revisited to
discuss their contingency plans for the future, and whether
their farm will pass on to progeny.
Farmers as ambassadors
Koepke, of Koepke Family Farms in the Town of Oconomowoc, was a
kid growing up on the farm, the day-to-day business of farming
was understood by his peers.
neighborhood was more agrarian,” he said. “There weren’t many
families who didn’t farm.”
John Koepke, a fifth generation
dairy farmer at Koepke Family Farms, says that the work of a
farmer is more transparent than ever before as customers ask
questions and try to become familiar with the farms that
produce what they are buying.
As the dynamic
of these neighborhoods has shifted, however, all of the hard
work that goes into farming is not as easily understood.
“As farms get
closer to that urban edge, the farmers have to be better
ambassadors of agriculture,” Koepke said. “They are that
interface between food production and the customer base. It is a
base that wants to know more about their food and how it is
scrutiny and awareness means that the viability of a farm no
longer depends on the sunup-to-sundown routine of farming, but
also upon outreach to customers and presenting a public face for
That need for
public interaction is part of what fueled Koepke’s expansion
into launching LaBelle Cheese in 2010, which is made using his
“There is a
lot of anonymity to what we do,” Koepke said. “Our milk leaves
in big stainless steel trucks at 5:30 a.m.”
cheese is a way to get closer to the local consumer. Whereas the
soybeans produced on the five-generation, 1,100-acre dairy farm
go to national and international customers and the milk finds a
home in the Chicagoland area, the cheese is a highly local
product, touted at local supermarkets.
“If you want a
product to move at the grocery store, you have to get customers’
attention,” Koepke said of such efforts. “We get lots of good
questions - a lot of which are about the cows. People want to
know if they are grass-fed. Mostly, they are. When you’re in
Wisconsin, though, it’s winter for five months out of the year.
That means there’s not a lot of grass in the pasture.”
interaction between farmers and their customers is a win-win
situation, said Kim Koepke.
allowing ourselves to be more accountable,” she said. “People
appreciate that they can come and ask us questions.”
transparency to that relationship between farmers and the people
who eat what they produce,” John Koepke added.
Fresh and local
When it comes
to fresh, local food, Community-Supported Agriculture boxes are
one way that consumers are going straight to the source. These
are boxes that are filled at local farms and delivered weekly to
customers who sign up for the service.
In the CSA
boxes assembled weekly by Paul and Laura Phelps at Serenity Farm
in the Town of Oconomowoc, the customers are getting produce on
Monday that was picked Sunday night and Monday morning.
of items were literally picked hours ago,” Paul Phelps said.
The efforts to
fill a box for 24 subscribers with items such as kale, beets,
carrots, lettuce, cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower have been
something that the couple has done ever since buying the old
Tremaine family farm three years ago.
Neither had a
farming background, but the duo benefitted from the expertise of
the farmers around them. Though both maintain their day jobs,
the hobby farm is an endeavor all on its own. And it is one the
Phelpses are quickly adapting to.
“One of the
goals of a farm is to share what you’re doing with others,” Paul
Phelps said. “That includes the produce and the knowledge. Part
of growing and selling the vegetables is being able to share
what’s been learned along the way.”
With the small
scale of their operation, the CSA boxes are sometimes delivered
on either farmer’s route to work - or they are picked up by the
customer at the farm. The customer-driven pickups are just one
more way to showcase the farm.
takes on its own personality,” Paul Phelps said. “The customers
have questions to get at the heart of what a farm is about. We
are seeing people become very educated on looking for food that
is free of GMOs; this is something that customers wouldn’t have
known to ask for in the past. That is the beauty of the Internet
age is that people are informed.”
>>View part two of this series