Nicole is a beginning farmer who recently purchased a small organic farm in rural Wisconsin. After working for ten years in the conservation field helping farmers, she is now looking forward to beginning farming on her own. Your 2 Cents helped her established a pastured poultry operation by providing funding for her to invest in the necessary supplies to start her operation.
Tell me a little bit about your farm.
It’s an eleven-acre organic farm in Wisconsin, in the southwest corner of the state. I haven’t pursued becoming certified organic as of yet, because my gross income isn’t high enough yet. There’s some exception when you make under $5,000, you can still use word “organic” without getting certified. I’m following all of the organic rules, but haven’t gone through that expense. My main crops are pastured chickens and seed garlic, and I’m starting to establish raspberries and blueberries.
The breed of bird we’re raising is really neat – Red Ranger broilers. Traditionally, most people that raise meat birds raise white Cornish crosses, which are not the best on pastures because they’re not good grazers. They like to sit in front of a feed trough and eat, because that’s what they’re bred for – to grow fast. I was interested in a growing heritage breed that strives in a pasture. It’s fun to see how well they’re doing and see them foraging and eating clover and grass. They’re active and they like to move around and that’s been fun to see because it’s something different from what a lot of people are doing. We’re now getting ready for our second batch of birds, a dark Cornish breed from England that also does really well on pasture and was one of the original breeds that the Cornish cross was bred from. They’re another slower growing breed.
Did you come from a farming family or did you get into later in life?
I did not. I grew up on Long Island, New York in the suburbs, but my job out of college was working with farmers. I’ve always been interested in the environment and over the course of my career, I wanted to know where my food was coming from and developed interest in farming myself. On Long Island I couldn’t really have my own farm so I found an apprenticeship on an organic vegetable farm. I started searching for places with affordable farmland, and that brought me to Wisconsin. There’s a pretty strong local food movement here, so it’s been a good fit. I rented for a while, then found this land last September with my fiancé, Roy. The land was certifiable organic when we brought it so there were no prohibited substances sprayed on it, which was super exciting.
What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced starting your own farm? And how did you overcome them?
Access to farmland. Finding farmland that’s affordable, good quality, and has good neighbors is hard. Being organic, the crops that are grown on neighboring farms are a concern to me because I might possibly have to form a buffer between myself and those farms. It was also tough to find the right size. There were larger tracts for sale that obviously cost more money and give more room to expand, but since we wanted to keep our startup cost low, it was hard to find the perfect small tract of land that had good soil and was certifiable as organic.
What has been the most rewarding part of purchasing your own farm?
The daily satisfaction of seeing progress happen and projects get accomplished. If you compare it to renting land, you’re making all these improvements but you don’t own land. You’re benefitting someone else’s land and soil in the long term and adding micronutrients through compost, but it’s even more been rewarding knowing that I’m improving my own land for the long term. I plan on being here for a while, so I’ll get to see the results of investments I make in the soil and the land.
Why did you choose to make your farm organic?
It’s just something I strongly believe in and has been a part of my lifestyle for the last ten years. I’m not interested in spraying chemicals that no one really knows effects of and I think being organic is just healthier all around for myself, my family, my community and environment.
What are the biggest issues facing farmers today?
The weather and climate change. It’s hard to plan daily activities when you don’t know what your environment is going to bring. So figuring out the timing of planting and cultivation and seeding is challenging, and so is dealing with the crop loss that is sometimes a result of it.
An issue with raising birds on pasture is insects. We get really bad gnats during a certain time of year in Wisconsin, and they’re these little things that buzz around your head and like to bite you. People around here have a big problem, because they can actually end up killing your flock by suffocating them. They swarm around and get in their nostrils and I was worried because they’ve been especially bad this year. I didn’t know how it would affect the birds, but since Red Rangers are a breed that’s especially active, they’ve been able to shake them off and keep them at bay, whereas other people this year have actually lost some of their birds.
What do you think is the most hopeful or exciting thing happening in the organic food and farming community right now?
The interest from consumers is really exciting. The demand for organic and local foods is growing and I’m seeing an increase in local community famers’ markets. People are interested in where their food comes from. They want to meet their farmer and know who they are. Things like that are what changes the food system.
What made you apply for the Your 2 Cents grant and how do you see it helping your business?
I’m still in my startup period, so I thought maybe I could apply and it would help me make it through while I’m getting started. It was a total shot in the dark and I was super excited to get approved. It really helped me to put the right infrastructure in place for the chickens. We live in a pretty rural area with lots of open space and lots of wildlife, which means a lot of predators. Everything loves to eat our chickens, but the grant allowed us to put up proper fencing and establish a robust chicken protection system. We can keep our birds safe and happy and allow them access to pasture every day. Having that little bit of extra money let us experiment with designs for the mobile chicken coop or chicken tractor and see what worked best.
What is one tool you couldn’t live without?
I would have to say my wheel hoe or hand hoe. I use the hand hoe all the time for weeding since I can use it to weed almost anything, so it’s pretty handy. We even used it to plant potatoes!