Homesteading For A Living
By Kenny Coogan
“Our original goal was to produce as much of our own food as possible,” Landis Spickerman, 53, of High Bridge, Wisconsin, says. She and her husband Steven, 56, began living on the farm part-time during the summer months of 1989, while they were building their home. They moved to the farm full-time in 1991.
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They planted fruit trees and started a garden before they lived on the farm. As the garden grew, they simply got to a point where they had more food during the growing season than they could eat. At first their sales were small – a few heads of lettuce and other produce to the local food cooperatives in 1993—and then it slowly snowballed.
“It went slowly and ‘full-scale’ production didn’t happen until many years into this venture,” Landis says.
As the homestead became more developed they read many books, used common sense, and grew the farm in a steady but sustainable fashion. Landis tells me that they made mistakes and learned from them, reinvested everything they made in better equipment, learned the value of good record keeping and quality control and began to really look at themselves as a business. Today Hermit Creek Farm is a full-scale produce farm grossing six figures and employing four to five folks during the growing season.
“To scale up, we needed to infuse more capital than we could generate,” Landis explains. “Since that decision point, we have used several loans including from family, a local bank, from our local food cooperative, and from FSA (USDA Farm Service Agency).” They used the loans to purchase equipment, build a heated greenhouse and packing buildings, and purchase additional farmland. Today, they still reinvest nearly 100 percent of their farm earnings back into the farm after 22 years of commercial operation.
Steven learned early on how much work running a farm was. Growing up, he watched his neighbors take a couple of long-handled hoes and walk their soybean fields in the summer after dinner. As they walked, they hoed the fields. Steven says, “They had the cleanest bean fields in the county.”
What his childhood neighbor’s dedication resulted in was immeasurable. “Their keen understanding of their land and what it and they could produce through their daily habits and personal attention to detail was the path to success,” Steven said.
For those who want to make the shift from homesteader to entrepreneur, the Spickermans have several suggestions. When they started they self proclaim that they were young and naïve enough to not really have concerns. “We were physically fit, strong—both of body and will—and were used to hard work and simple living,” Landis says. For their first five years on the farm they lived without electricity, for a decade without refrigeration, and they still don’t have running water in the house—they have an outdoor shower, water in the packing building, and a sauna for winter bathing.
Another important decision that they made in the beginning was to be an organic farm. In 2001, they became officially certified.
They have been teaching various aspects of farming for a number of years now including as part of the Land Stewardship Project “Farm Beginnings” program. They serve as mentors in the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Services (MOSES) “Farmer-to-Farmer” mentorship program. They also teach workshops and classes on their farm.
Since they keep accurate records, they know exactly how much it costs and how much they earn by the square foot of growing space for each crop grown inside a high tunnel. This informs them of the payback on a tunnel purchase and dictates if they should purchase additional tunnels. The same goes for field crops.
COMMUNITY SUPPORTED AGRICULTURE
“We started marketing our produce as a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) during the first few years of our farm as a business, which means we have been a CSA for 21 or 22 years now,” Landis says. This year they have about 175 CSA members, which generate 60 percent of their farm income.
“CSA is what we like to call ‘relationship farming,’ in that everything you do and grow on the farm is done directly for a person who has joined as a CSA member,” Landis explains. “As part of that, we liken ourselves to the same concept as say a family having a ‘family doctor’ or ‘family dentist’ but in our case, we’re your family farmer.”
They want to be the farmers whom customers think of when they’re thinking about what to make for dinner. “We want you, the customer, to know where your food is coming from, to have a direct link or tie to the land and people responsible for growing your food, to have trust in the food system and to feel good about helping support a family farmer,” she says.
“Customers join our farm as a member by purchasing one or more of our share options,” Landis says. Some CSAs are simple with one share type option—traditionally a mix of in season produce for a set number of weeks. As the Spickerman homestead has matured, so has the types of shares and length of their season, which now runs from late May to the following March. Shares are on a weekly or every-other-week schedule, and each share or veggie box contains seven to 12 separate items of what is in season. Since the shares follow the changes of their northern season, what costumers find in their box changes, as well.
Typically less than one percent of the total volume of what goes into their CSA share on an annual basis is from resources outside of their farm. Items include local honey, foraged wild rice, locally or regionally grown certified organic blueberries and cranberries. In addition to produce, some shares include local certified organic eggs and artisanal goat and sheep cheeses. The Spickermans say that they feel synergy gained by partnering with other small, local farms. Diversifying what their customers get is a large part of their success they believe. They say that social capital should not be underestimated.
One of the hardest parts of managing a CSA is producing enough food for all the shares. With money taken up front, the farmer is responsible to grow the food and meet the demands of their members. “This leads to a certain amount of stress and anxiety as the growing season progresses, as even with the most seasoned grower, there are just so many variables that are largely out of your control,” Landis says. She mentions that weather, disease and pests are additional concerns.
Having sold unproduced food is not all bad. The benefit of getting paid first is having the essential funds at a time of year where farmers are buying most of their annual inputs and bringing on employees. “Most farms use short-term operating loans to do this, and in a way, it’s our members who are giving us that loan and they are paid back in product,” Landis says. Having the money at this time of year also gives CSA farmers a good idea of exactly what they need to produce.
The use of high tunnels and a heated greenhouse allows them to push the seasons a bit, which is how they can have certain crops much later into the fall or even winter, such as kale and spinach in January. “We also have a root cellar and cold storage capacity that we fill with crops such as carrots, potatoes, parsnips, beets, rutabaga, onions, winter squash, cabbage, celeriac, and kohlrabi,” Landis says. In addition to that, they grow shelf stable crops like dry beans and produce maple syrup that are included in their CSA share.
By having multiple high tunnels, this allows them to rotate crops and have substantial indoor growing space and product volume. Their heated greenhouse produces vegetable transplants for spring and early summer transplanting. They transplant most of their vegetables instead of direct seeding, because this is another way to push the season. In a typical season, they transplant more than 70,000 seedlings! Later in the year, one or more of the high tunnels becomes an onion curing facility. They store winter crops in their 100-year-old root cellar, which they rebuilt about 20 years ago. The root cellar maintains a steady temperature of 36°F. Since a few crops, such as winter squash and onions, prefer it a bit warmer and dryer, those go in their own separate storage location.
Due to their latitude and mid-continental location, which is too cold and cloudy for actively growing during the winter months, the Spickermans focus on preserving their food in holding areas. “Kale, Napa cabbage, spinach, bok choi, and a number of other cold hardy veggies can be started late summer and grown to maturity in the fall, then held and harvested through at least early to mid- January (in a mild year, maybe even February) before desiccation gets the better of them,” Landis explains. “Spinach grown the same way will look dead and gone all winter in a high tunnel only to spring back to life come the lengthening and warming days of March,” she adds. “Areas further south or closer to one of the coasts than our Lake Superior location will have better success with winter production.”
CARRYING ON THE MISSION
“Our core mission as a farm is to create positive change,” Landis says. She tells me that their mission statement is fairly nebulous for a reason. “A diverse farm operates in many realms and we wanted a mission statement that reflected all of those realms and spoke to our own values of environmental advocacy, social justice, and organic food production among many others.” For them, creating positive change means improving soil health and water quality, creating a healthy work environment for both their employees and them and increasing on-farm biological diversity. They also aim at providing healthy, nourishing, affordable food for their family friends and neighbors. Being good stewards of the land and working toward a future that includes small farms and healthy communities are also important to them.
For more information on Hermit Creek Farm and the Spickermans, check out hermitcreekfarm.com.
Kenny Coogan, CPBT-KA, is a regular pet and garden columnist and has authored an ecological themed children’s book titled “A Tenrec Named Trey (And other odd lettered animals that like to play).” He has a B.S. in animal behavior and is a certified bird trainer through the International Avian Trainers Certification Board. Please search “Critter Companions by Kenny Coogan” on Facebook to learn more.
Sound Advice from Landis
Essential questions for those interested in starting a farm
WHAT IS YOUR PASSION?
“For us, we have both always grown plants, so a produce farm was a given.” Your passion has to carry you through the initial stresses of starting a business.
BASED ON YOUR LOCATION, WHAT CAN YOU MARKET?
“We live in a very rural area and we simply do not have enough people willing to buy fresh, local, organic produce close enough to us to really sustain a farm large enough to truly call ourselves successful.” They make 29 deliveries for their CSA.
WHAT WILL BECOME OF YOUR HICCUPS?
“Learn from your mistakes. One mistake that we made was where we chose to live. We figure perhaps only about 1% of the overall population really ‘gets’ the local, fresh, organic food scene and if you are in a rural area, you have severely limited your potential market.”
HOW WILL YOU TRACK SPENDING?
“Track all calculable activity and cost for your farm.” This will allow you to better set the price of your products and inform you of whether a given product is even worth growing, and if you need to invest in a tool to help reducecost, or calculate the ROI.
WOULD YOU PERSONALLY PAY MONEY FOR IT?
“Keep what you want to do simple, at least at first.” Don’t invest in something that you wouldn’t want. It’s hard to sell something you are not interested in.
IF YOU DON’T ALREADY HAVE LAND, THINK ABOUT WHERE AND HOW YOU WILL BE MARKETING YOUR PRODUCTS?
“In reality, it is easy to grow food (veggies, fruit, and animals); the hard part is selling it at a profit.”