It's official. We're looking for land.
It's been unofficial for a while. Like the few years of dreaming in Portland, when I didn't quite know how the farm would fall into place. Then I met N in Boston, and we formed a shared vision for our farm while also acting superbly academic through two very-hard-to-sit-behind-a-desk years of grad school in Boston. Ick, Boston. There is only so much farming to be done in Boston, so we created an academic project allowing us to work with farmers on business planning and development for more hands on experience. Cheese in Vermont. Rabbits in North Carolina. Cost-share for irrigation development on leased land in Wisconsin. Then graduation and back to the real world, kerplunk in Madison, Wisconsin. Somehow one step closer to farming, but still not actually that much closer.
I've been pondering this lately. The idea that we both possess foundational skills for starting a farm: growing vegetables, small business development, finding markets, goats, chickens and a wee bit of dairy to name a few. We are smart and hardworking and overwhelmingly stubborn. We even earned actual degrees, from which we can cite you the ins-and-outs of every United State Department of Agriculture acronym related to starting a farm: EQIP, NRCS, NIFA, FSA, BFRDP, CAFO, CRP, NPDES (ok, that one is EPA) and on and on and on. And despite the fact that we know all the steps and all the hoops we have to jump through to get there...the farm still seems far away.
Yes, I know. Secretary Vilsack called for 100,000 new farmers. The 2008 Farm Bill appropriated $75 million dollars of funds for Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Programs to provide education and training to get new farmers started. And of course, we have Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food and inspiring advocates like USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan leading this movement to get more people farming. Not to mention the growing market and awareness surrounding local foods. And yet, to be actually in it, planning a farm as a born-and-bred city kid without ties to the land (more specifically a specific piece of land), it feels so so so far away. Creating all these funding opportunities and support systems doesn't just magically create new farmers...it still takes lots and lots and lots of work on the part of the aspiring farmer.
Please do not get me wrong. I am so grateful that new farmer programs are a priority. I am thrilled to be enrolled in the Wisconsin School for Beginning Dairy and Livestock Farmers, and working my way to a business plan, community ties and as much experience as I can gain in raising animals on pasture in this home that is still new to me. But the leap from learning and planning to actually farming feels so far away because we don't have land.
However, that changed a bit today as we hopped in the car for a much-needed day of fun and adventure. The plan: visit New Glarus Brewing, enjoy some cross country skiing in the fresh snow and just explore some new territory southwest of Madison. Wisconsin's landscape is still new to me, usually inspiring constant awe, and today was no exception. I didn't know what to expect, but found promise in New Glarus' title (the city, not the brewery) as "America's Little Switzerland". Replica Swiss-style village, bakery, meat shop and all...count me in.
In short, as we drove the county roads and admired the freshly-snow covered landscape past Fitchburg, we sort of fell in love. Yup, kind of head-over-heals in love. The rolling hills, the beautiful and out-of-our-price-range farmsteads, a sense of 'rural' I haven't yet seen here. (Yes, ok, I realize the snow was covering vast acres of corn and soy fields, and provided sufficient pretense to imagine instead lush pastures underneath. But let a girl dream for a few minutes). For some reason I liked this area, we both liked this area. It felt like the best parts of Vermont mingling right here with the highlights of Wisconsin.
We've decided to tell every person we run into that we're looking for farm land, preferably with a house, barn and other structures. And yes, because we'd like to start a farm. This makes us look like starry-eyed crazy women to a lot of folks, but that's fine with me. I just thank goodness for those who actually take us seriously and offer sincere advice. This includes the woman who was looking forward to when we'd get married and share our passion for farming with our husbands. I take their land and farming suggestions with a double meaning. Here is information about land that may help you. I am telling you this because I believe you might actually be able to farm, and I support that. These are the good people.
Today we ran into lots of the good people. The owner of The Cottage Goddess shared the basic landscape of real estate in the area, recommended agencies to work with based on her land purchase experience and provided inside scoop on an upcoming auction. We felt a wee bit, well, excited. She even suggested a visit to the Paoli Bread and Brat Haus to learn about their tiny baking enterprise and relationships with local millers and growers. And Cherri at the Haus was just as helpful as she served us free cookies (January was free cookie month), showed us her facility (including the tiny "EZ Bake Oven"), shared the story of her space (the original town mill) and how she got there (an inspired idea on a bare bones budget). And more stories about land, where to find it and where to plant ourselves. Thank you world for showing us people successfully pursuing food passion and how to make it work!
Our mid-day activities were buoyed by such positive real estate and farming encounters. A fun hour or so at the brewery, which looked oddly like a Disney McMansion rendition of a Swiss chalet with the cleanest and most modern brewing quarters I have ever seen. There were tastes of Wisconsin Belgian Red with hints of cough syrup and sparkling cider (sorry) and the seasonal Golden Ale that tasted "like insect repellent" (sorry again). There was beautiful, sunny, exhausting skiing at New Glarus Woods State Park which reminds me how grateful I am to apply sunscreen in January. Also cookies, prairie and lots of cute cows. Nothing to complain about in there.
A good day indeed, and a sufficient kick-in-the-pants to officially(as in actively and intentionally) look for land on which we can raise delicious and savory food and run a small business (which is, don't forget, what a farm is). And so today it starts - with orienting ourselves to the real estate world of brokers and bankers while sending out good energy to find that little piece of soil to call our own.
Wish us luck.