Adjusting to Scale: Farming Organic Grains

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Photo by National Young Farmers Coalition
The Wepkings grow grains and raise cattle on a 900-acre farm in 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.

After moving to Wisconsin from New York City, the best decision we made was to walk away from my family’s farm. After a year and a half, we were fed up with the glacial pace of discussions about the future of the farm, and we weren’t interested in waiting for an opportunity that might never arrive. It was quite painful at the time, but we found that farming in general was more important to us than farming a particular patch of land.

So, we took a job working for Paul Bickford, a lifelong farmer 45 miles to the east whom we met on Craigslist. Paul sold his dairy cows years ago and converted his approximately 900-acre operation into an organic crop farm. Instantly, we became farmers making a modest wage and working on a scale that had previously been unimaginable. When we pictured ourselves farming, we thought of my family’s 200 acres, not 750 acres of tillage and a lot of potential grazing land. But as we’ve adjusted to the scale, working on a large organic farm has become less terrifying and more thrilling. Growing on this scale gives us better access to markets, and from a conservation perspective, we can have a real impact on our watershed and our community by farming land responsibly. Plus, we can be a model for other farmers who may want to transition to an organic system. The debt in our future is staggering, but the potential of this path easily exceeds the liability.

We grow organic corn and soybeans for feed, and we grow small grains, such as barley and oats, as nurse crops to establish our alfalfa. We also make a lot of hay. Since Halee and I have come on, we’ve begun to grow food-grade milling grains (wheat, spelt, and flint corn) and have reintroduced livestock to the farm with our fledgling grass-fed beef herd. 

For now, we don’t own the land we work, but we also don’t carry much debt. We got a Farm Service Agency (FSA) loan to purchase our cattle, but the equipment and buildings we use are all Paul’s. We make a good team. Paul is 63 and has a number of farming years left, so for now we’re happy to be working with a mentor who has such a wealth of experience and is eager to share all that he’s learned throughout his career. He’s counting on us to buy his farm someday, and we’re counting on him to sell it to us. Until we figure out that transition process, we’re happy to work and to learn as much as we can.

This story is part of a new blog and film series presented by the National Young Farmers Coalition and King Arthur Flour. Read more profiles of pioneering young grain farmers here.