Sowing information, reaping support
Farmers engage community to boost consumers’ understanding
Part 1 of 5
Growing into the future: The modern farm

By Josh Perttunen - Enterprise Staff

August 14, 2014

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."    
Josh Perttunen/Enterprise Staff

TOWN 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.

Week three 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.

The 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 spotlighted.

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

When John 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.

“The whole 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.     
Josh Perttunen/Enterprise Staff

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 produced.”

Customer 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 their approval. 

That need for public interaction is part of what fueled Koepke’s expansion into launching LaBelle Cheese in 2010, which is made using his dairy products.

“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.”

But, the 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.”

The interaction between farmers and their customers is a win-win situation, said Kim Koepke.

“We are allowing ourselves to be more accountable,” she said. “People appreciate that they can come and ask us questions.”

“It brings 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. 

“The majority 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.

“Each 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.”