Adjusting to Scale: Farming Organic Grains

By embracing unexpected transitions, the Wepkings have uncovered new farming opportunities.

| April/May 2018

  • young farmers cattle grains farm
    The Wepkings grow grains and raise cattle on a 900-acre farm in Wisconsin.
    Photo by National Young Farmers Coalition
  • large-scale organic farm Wisconsin
    John and Halee Wepking work on a large-scale organic grain farm.
    Photo by National Young Farmers Coalition
  • calves born in winter Wisconsin
    The Wepkings' farming life is full of surprises — including an unexpected calf born to one of their cows in the middle of winter.
    Photo by National Young Farmers Coalition

  • young farmers cattle grains farm
  • large-scale organic farm Wisconsin
  • calves born in winter Wisconsin

In late January 2017, a surprise calf was born on our farm. Out of context, this may seem like a happy accident — even a bonus. However, it was still midwinter in Wisconsin, and we were unprepared. Calving is a regular event in a beef herd, and we’d been looking forward to our first calving, but we weren’t expecting any births until late April, when the weather would be warmer and the cows would all be on good green grass.

We started our herd with 22 heifers — Galloway and Shorthorn — and a yearling Shorthorn bull named Chief. But the tiny, black Galloway bull calf wasn’t Chief’s offspring. Cattle have the same approximate gestation period as humans, and we turned Chief out with these heifers on July 20, 2016. A quick calculation revealed that this calf was likely conceived in April 2016, before we’d even bought his mother. Despite the cold and snow, this calf is still with us, and we’re inspired by his resilience.

Farming continually reminds us that we aren’t in control. The weather, illness, injuries, weeds — they all tend to strike on days when we’re already feeling underwater and have a pile of other things to get done. Those are the days when you look out the window at the freshly fallen snow and see four little legs and a swinging tail poking out from behind a lone cow under a wild apple tree.

Throughout my life, the stuff of farming — the productive creativity, the toil, the animals, the ripening wind-swept grain, the profound quiet, the open expanses of fresh snow, even the smells — always appealed to me. A part of me always wanted to return to farming, but I spent my 20s indulging in more urbane pursuits. It was a wonderful time in my life, and in many ways I now feel like I was on a circular path. In the span of a decade, I was a student, a bartender, a barista, an urban planner, a cook, and a baker.

Three years ago, Halee (my then-girlfriend and now-wife) and I were living in Brooklyn and getting ready to leave our jobs as cooks in restaurants. We loaded all of our belongings and our cat, Harvey, in a U-Haul truck and drove through the city, over the George Washington Bridge, and west to Wisconsin. Within a span of days, we went from sharing a three-bedroom apartment with two roommates on a rundown block to living in a house in my hometown.

I grew up on and around farms in the Driftless Area of southwest Wisconsin, and my family still owns a 200-acre farm just east of my hometown of Lancaster. Though my family raised a small herd of beef cattle, most farmers around us were part of large cash-crop operations or confinement dairies that, through rental and purchase, had checkerboarded most of the county into monoculture fields.


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