Our Journey into Farming (Part 1)
Updated: Mar 15, 2020
Many of our farm visitors have asked over the years how we got into this crazy world of regenerative farming. Some of our loyal customers that have been with us since the very beginning back in 2012 know the whole story, but I thought it might be of interest to many of our newer customers and newsletter subscribers to hear about our journey and why we do this work. It's a long story with many ups and downs so I will break it down into a few separate posts with pictures (each one worth a thousand words!) to make it a little more manageable. And I have asked Anna to write about her experiences growing up on her Grandma's farm in Poland and how we came together.
I was a suburban kid, growing up in Mt. Prospect as a young child, and then moving to Austin, Texas at age 10 where I attended high school. I came back to the Chicago area in my early twenties with a job transfer. For the next 20+ years, I commuted to downtown Chicago on the Metra train to my corporate insurance jobs, attending staff meetings, budget meetings, sales meetings, and flying around the country to visit clients and business partners. Even though I worked out frequently and tried to eat well, I was pretty oblivious to where my food came from, how it was grown, or what was in it.
That all changed in 2009, when my liberal left wing sister from California sent me the documentary film Food Inc. for Christmas. Watching that film really opened my eyes to the sad realities of American agriculture and our dysfunctional food system. The next year, Christy sent me the book Omnivores Dilemma by Michael Pollan for Christmas. Was she trying to send me a message?
I read through Omnivores Dilemma in less than a week, and was particularly interested in the middle section of the book, where Pollan spent a week at Joel Salatin’s diverse, grass-based livestock farm in Virginia. I started doing some research on Salatin and discovered that he had written a number of books on livestock farming, including a book titled "You Can Farm".
At that time we were doing pretty well and had purchased a large house on almost 9 acres of open land in suburban Barrington Hills, where I would drive into the village most days to catch the train downtown. However, in spring 2011, I started a new insurance job from my home office, which saved me 3 hours per day of time commuting. With a head full of ideas picked up from the You Can Farm book, I decided to use that time to start raising food for my family and friends on our acreage. That first year we purchased four black Angus beef calves, 25 laying hens, and 25 broiler chickens, which we processed ourselves in the backyard (see below our first Salatin-style portable chicken tractor).
RAMPING UP + RAW MILK
By early 2012, I was enjoying my farm chores and the self-sufficiency of growing my own clean food. With friends and neighbors asking for beef, eggs, and chicken, I decided to turn my efforts into a side business and started taking orders on a simple home-made farm website. The trickle of orders turned into a flood once our farm listing on the national website Eatwild.com was posted in February 2012. With all those orders for grass fed beef, pasture-raised pork and chicken to fill, I knew that more land would be needed to raise all that livestock. We were lucky to find a 40 acre parcel of fenced land available to rent about 5 minutes from our house, and so I borrowed a neighbors trailer and we moved the growing beef herd and chicken production over to the new property (we called it "The Ranch") that spring, to make room for a few dairy cows on our backyard acreage.
In March 2012 I had started receiving inquiries about raw milk from our website visitors. At the time I was not at all familiar with raw milk or the health benefits, but after the 30th or so email within a month, I decided it was time to start looking into this burgeoning raw milk movement!
Upon further research I learned there were very few farms in Illinois that sold raw milk, and it was "sort of legal" in that there were no rules for or against raw milk production or sales in the state. During that raw milk research I came across some articles on the benefits of A2 milk that led me in search of Guernsey cows, the only major dairy breed that still produces A2 milk.
Through my beef hay supplier, I was fortunate to get a lead on a farmer near Dodgeville, Wisconsin that was selling his herd, and mixed in with his conventional Holsteins he had 10 purebred Guernsey cows available. After ordering some milking equipment online and visiting a few raw milk farms, I made the trip up to Wisconsin and purchased my first two Guernsey cows, Custard and Sapphire. We quickly sold out our initial 30 available herdshares, and so I went up to Dodgeville and purchased two more Guenseys, Joy and Alice. Picture below is Custard grazing our backyard (notice swingset and screened porch behind).
The evolution into raw milk sales changed many aspects of our fledgling farm operation. It was very labor intensive, requiring an extra two hours of milking and cow care every morning and evening, in addition to the chicken chores and care of the beef herd. We also had added a group of pastured pigs to the wooded area behind our house. These extra chores required help, in particular when I had to travel for my insurance job. I was fortunate that some young people from nearby Carpentersville were very interested in grass-based farming, and so Darrell Williams and Natasha Carlsen joined the team in summer of 2012. Tasha and various members of her large family continued to help out on the farm until they moved out of the area in the summer of 2019.
By the summer of 2013, we were milking eight cows, one at a time with a bucket milker, in the little horse barn behind our house (pictured above). Demand for raw milk was growing and we had a long waiting list of potential herdshare members. I realized we needed a real dairy barn and a lot more pasture to support this growing dairy enterprise, and started driving around the area looking for old dairy barns that were in decent shape and had access to ample pastureland.
In Part 2 I will describe our time at The Ranch, and then in Part 3 the lengthy process of negotiating the lease for the Brunner Forest Preserve property and all the work that went into rehabbing the barn and farm store, with lots of great pictures.