Strong, resilient relationships. Remarkable stories of entrepreneurial spirit and determination. As we set out to build this business, we expected to learn of many stories along the way. It is one of our core principles to focus on stories and the heritage of people in SW Wisconsin, especially the traits that make people in Wisconsin truly nice and hospitable. We are always looking to hear the “story” behind the land, the people, and their struggles. The immigration and settlement of Wisconsin and the pioneer days are often filled with amazing recollections. We knew we would come across stories of grit, hard work, and uncertainty. But we have been pleasantly surprised that our collective “story” from the past continues to remain today as we examine the relationships we are noticing in our tour partners.
We started this journey of meeting with partners at the end of November when this idea for a tour business was just that-an idea. We had a vision of what a great tour would look like. Marty and I have taken countless tours in other cities and we knew what kind of stops would be interesting if we did a tour in SW Wisconsin. We knew we wanted microbrews, wine, and cheese-those are no brainers! But we weren’t considering farms at first. The industry has been taking a beating and we weren’t sure if people would find them interesting. And we thought it would be hard to get farm partners. After we decided to look into farms, we discussed different farms and talked about what we thought people would want to see. The first farm that came to our minds was Hatfield Organic Dairy.
We have followed the story of Dennis & Virginia Hatfield on Facebook for the last few years. Virginia has shared their struggles in public often, about their fire in the parlor and their subsequent rebuild. There is something about honesty in trials and tribulations that attracts us. We were so impressed with their triumph over tragedy and how their family overcame some major obstacles. We knew we wanted them to be a part of our tour as they just had received organic certification. They were a traditional Richland County farm that had overcome many obstacles and had reinvented themselves for the future of dairy farming.
As we met with them we noticed Dennis had a great strength of character and a deep love for their farm. It was interesting to watch their dynamics as Ginny is the more outspoken one. Their courtship story, which is incredibly interesting and will be told on the tour (sorry no spoilers here) is sure to have you chuckle. It was obvious that their marriage had weathered some very difficult times and yet you could see his appreciation of Ginny’s hard work in milking the cows every day and you could see her great respect of Dennis and his leadership on the farm. They are a current example of a strong marriage that has been tested and tried and came out on the other side stronger.
We visited that same weekend with another partner business, Hillsboro Brewing Company. Marty has known Snapper Verbsky for many years and when we met with him and his wife Kim. It was incredibly exciting to see their new venture, Willow+Oak event space and the new location of the brewery/bar/restaurant. We had met Kim before and have always been amazed by her energy. She is a fireball of activity and very dynamic. Snapper is the creative one-doing renovations and using his talents with construction to take discarded buildings and make great spaces out of them. He is truly visionary and can see great possibilities with space. As we left the meeting that night, we remarked to each other how incredible their relationship is and how they complemented each other. I guess we notice the interactions of other couples and often talk about how they click.
Marty and I have been married for 31 years today. Marriage for us is a huge part of our story and we have had many ups and downs. But we are truly best friends and we love to see other couples with the same tenacity. It’s human nature to notice others and we admit to analyzing couples all the time. Amongst ourselves, we will talk about their personalities and strengths. These are just things we notice. It has become apparent to us after meeting with a few different partners how strong and resilient the partners that we are having on our tour truly are.
The next partner site we met with was Nate & Kayla of Blue View farms. Newlyweds, married for less than a year, they are walking in the footsteps of many of other couples that have gone before them. Kayla works as an RN at the local hospital to carry the benefits and health insurance. Nate runs the farm day-to-day with Kayla’s help when she is able. They have triumphed over a few very difficult times already in their young lives but you can see their resolute desire to work Blue View farms together. They are off to a great marriage and appear to have a strong foundation laid to build upon. As the old farts in the room, it’s great to see their young love and appreciation for each other.
It is generally very apparent to us as we examine other relationships that there is usually one in the couple that is the talker and the other one is quieter. Honestly, it takes balance to have a long term relationship. Both partners cannot be the same, it just does not work. At least in our opinion. The next business partner we met was Dean Baumgarten at Narrow’s Creek Winery. It was obvious from moment one that Dean was the talker. We didn’t actually meet his wife Vicky that day but as we heard him talk about their new winery venture. It was obvious that Vicky was the creative one and Dean was the social one, or as we discussed in the car following, “Dean is the Marty of the relationship”. They run Narrow’s Creek Winery together now as they are heading into their retirement years and they are having a great time. We recognize their relationship as it is very similar to our story. Relationships need to grow and evolve over time. We believe many get complacent and forget that with each new stage there are adjustments to be made. You must grow towards each other and continue to complement each other with personality traits and be each other’s cheerleader and friend.
The next couple we met shared with us their courtship story and we loved to hear how they decided to be farmers. Chad and Robin committed to working hard together to build a farm out of nothing. They didn’t own a farm, they had little experience with animals and they had limited foreknowledge of farming life. From the decision to raise goats over cows and every decision they have made since, they are definitely in this farming thing together. The first few years of goat farming had many challenges and honestly, would have destroyed a weaker relationship but their commitment to the animals, their farm and each other is truly wonderful to see. They still have many challenges as they go from working other full-time jobs to working just the farm in the near future but with their determination and their love for their animals, we can see them accomplishing their goals. We came away from our meeting with them very impressed with their relationship and tenacity.
The next couple we met was Darick and Melissa Luck. We met Melissa before on separate occasions and this was our first time meeting Darick. By this point, it was becoming obvious to us that we were meeting some amazing couples that typify an entrepreneurial spirit. Darick and Melissa resemble our status in life as well. They are empty nesters, retired early from other careers, and looking for new adventures and ideas. They have raised their kids, traveled the world and are scratching out a business with some very unique opportunities. Darick is a caretaker, reverently dismantling old barns and reclaiming all their parts to resell. He loves unique animals and it was interesting to hear how Melissa bought him a yak for his birthday a few years back. Such an unusual gift for most but Darick has an appreciation for unique animals. They have a menagerie of animals on their farm and Melissa handles the businesses. She has taken her amazing skill set from her previous job running the UW primate lab to coordinating their new niche businesses. Their nontraditional retirement has set some very important priorities of family, travel and being able to chart their own daily schedules.
By this point, I was trying to figure out how to celebrate all these amazing relationships. Their stories are so rich and compelling, varied and unique. At times, this business feels like more than just a way to occupy our time or a financial benefit. There is a feeling of manifest destiny or a calling, almost. The stories are really powerful and I feel like society has vilified the work of farmers as if it is something lesser than other careers. But I am beginning to believe it is one of the highest callings for a career and for a marriage. Many of our ancestors became farmers out of necessity but many found a great way to support their family. We cannot forget the heritage that our grandparents passed down to us. And we cannot forget the land and animals.
Our next partner couple, Corey and Sarah have had such a unique journey to SW Wisconsin. They have lived in many places across America and they have had many unique careers. Sarah, the school teacher, and Corey as a chef. They have started restaurants together and lived in the great frontier of Alaska. With a lot of hard work and determination, they came to the Driftless seeking a homestead and connection to the land. They have many animals but their love for their pigs out on pasture shows their appreciation for the way nature intended pork to be raised and an appreciation for well-flavored meat. As a chef, Corey wanted a connection with his food sources and he seeks to provide the very best ingredients in his recipes. They see SW Wisconsin as an area of opportunity to carve out their dreams. A place where they can afford land and care for it and the animals they love.
Our next farm partners are Claudia and Jerry Berres, a retired chemist and physician respectively. They intentionally sought their land many years ago and bought it from Avery Marshall-a previous extension agent and legend in Richland County. They have worked the land together and built a beautiful ranch. Their love for each other is exhibited in the caretaking of their home and property. Their common goals and shared responsibilities on the ranch require a resoluteness in their relationship. Their ranch and relationship is a shining example for future generations.
Another business partner, Oakwood Fruit Farms is a great example of multiple generations coming together to run a successful farm. The Louis family started the orchard in the 1900’s by Albert Louis, then Bill Louis in 1934, and in 1955 John & Vonnie Louis took over the operation. Today, Jody & Steve Louis and Judy & Greg Alvin (siblings/spouses) run the operations. Well over 200 acres of orchards and vines, and a seasonal bakery. The children and grandchildren all take part in the harvest. Any family that can work together for over 5 generations is truly remarkable and their marriages are all strong. A modern-day story of triumph over adversity as they also had a tragic fire in their business just a few years ago.
Our next couple truly amazed us, Graham and Margaret Phillipson of Littledale Farm. Graham is a contrast of a character to the average Richland County resident, Margaret the ultimate hostess. Together they have an obvious love for each other and equally, a great sense of humor. They moved out of the city years ago and carved out a beautiful homestead for themselves. They are great storytellers and their story easily could fill a book. They leave you longing to know more about their relationship and their lives. Married for many years and showing no signs of slowing down-that’s what we all want!
By this point, we are truly humbled to be a part of this. This business is taking on a life of its own and we hope to do our very best to tell their stories. We feel like we got fresh eyes to see all these great things in our own backyard that have been there all along. We honestly didn’t have any idea that all these great farms were out there. We hope you can meet all of our partners on a tour this summer and see for yourself these great relationships.
We have had farms from neighboring counties/areas contact us and we have decided to stay in our triangle of focus. We are resolute to narrow that focus to the Richland County area. Particularly, the area between Viroqua, Spring Green, and Reedsburg. Those particular communities already have strong tourism markets. We are seeking to bring awareness of the great agritourism activities going on in our area. There is a change coming, love is in the air! The great relationships in the past that settled Richland County continue on today in these caretakers. Let us celebrate their love for each other today.