Baaa-uy local! Farmers find value in selling locally
“Buy local. Support your local farmer.”
The support is appreciated. But it doesn’t take away the digging, hauling or mucking about in the heat or cold.
In other words, value-added farming still takes farm work.
Producers can add value to their products in many ways, said Walworth County UW Extension agent Peg Reedy. It might be as simple as the way farmers feed their animals—with grass instead of grain—or getting a certified kitchen to make homemade salsas or jams, she said. It also could mean direct marketing, or selling food straight to the consumer rather than to the commodity market.
“It’s anything that adds value or adds to the price you get for what you grow,” Reedy said.
The number of Wisconsin farms listed on the product directory on www.savorwisconsin.com has increased 21 percent in two years, said Robin Engle, spokeswoman for the Wisconsin department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. Organic farming in Wisconsin has increased 90 percent in 5 years, Engle said. The number of goat dairies has increased by 50 to 600 in the last year, she said.
For some Rock and Walworth counties farmers, responding to specialty consumer demands is a hobby gone wild. For others, it’s a way to survive in an exacting market.
For Darlene Pinnow, who raises meat lambs with her husband, Steve, in Walworth County’s Richmond Township, direct marketing is a means of holding on to a way of life.
“This has helped us stay in farming,” Pinnow said.
How it starts
If you would have told Dixie Johnson she one day would run a herd of 250 dairy goats, you could have pushed her over with a feather.
And even more surprising, she’s selling soap on the side to help her stay in goat farming.
Johnson was a city girl from Janesville who made the “fateful” mistake of taking her daughter to the Rock County 4-H Fair. Johnson’s daughter fell in love with the goats, and soon Johnson was helping her daughter raise goats for 4-H. Eventually she was managing an entire herd.
Four years ago, a door opened to another business opportunity. Johnson had been hospitalized, and some medications were making her skin raw and cracked.
Someone suggested goat milk soap, so Johnson tried a couple batches for herself.
Now she spends 20 to 30 hours a week in the soap kitchen, making scented lotions and soaps to sell, not counting the time spent making labels and, of course, taking care of her goats—her herd is down to 50 these days.
“It has turned into a phenomenal business,” Johnson said.
Her most popular product? Soap that conditions your dog’s coat and relieves Fido’s constant scratching. She also makes ginger soap to help pregnant women overcome nausea and lemon grass soap, which is a natural insect repellant.
She credits her willingness to make custom scents for her success.
“It sure helps supplement the goat income,” Johnson said.
Taking care of business
Steve and Darlene Pinnow were raising pigs in the ’80s. At the time, they had sheep for lawn mowing and 4-H purposes.
Now they have up to 700 market lambs, and their “WisconsinLamb” name brand has helped them become the biggest direct market lamb producers in the state.
Until 1997, the Pinnows were selling lambs on the commodity market. On occasion, they would sell a lamb to a friend, who would comment on how tasty the meat was.
Finally, after hearing the “direct market” buzzword one too many times in a conference, Steve got out of his chair and made his first sale.
Today, the Pinnows sell lamb meat to 60 restaurants in Chicago, Milwaukee and Kenosha. They harvested 2,100 lambs last year and have a goal of getting up to 3,000 per year in the next two years.
They sold 800 legs of lamb this Easter season.
Steve spends three days a week on the road, delivering product and making sales calls. One challenge in the direct market is logistics, Steve said. Darlene and Steve have worked hard to make sure that delivery routes make sense. When they look for new customers, they look first along an established route.
While selling meat to Chicago restaurants might not seem local, it’s more energy-wise than shipping meat out-of-state for processing, Reedy said. At that point, commodity meat could be shipped anywhere in the United States.
And it’s much more local than New Zealand, which is still the leading source of lamb consumed in the states, she said.
Merry Evans really, really loves garlic.
That’s the key to running a successful direct marketing business, she said.
Evans of Afton always has liked the atmosphere of farmers markets and finally decided she wanted to be on the “other side of the table.”
Evans started growing garden vegetables and watching the way other farmers worked at the market. Everyone always overdoes it at first, she said. Really, how many cucumbers can the public eat?
“You start thinking along those ways,” Evans said. “You watch the people next to you sell, and you think, ‘That’s kind of cool. I wonder what that is.’”
Eventually ground cherries and hard-necked garlic caught Evans’ eye. It was something “different,” she said.
Now she’s planting thousands of cloves, along with gardening and working full time at the Rock County Job Center.
“It makes you feel good,” Evans said. “Who wants to go home at 5 and put on your muck-mucks? But you get out there and say, ‘Oh, this is ready! I’m going to make this for dinner and then we’ll sell the rest.’”
New Beloit grocery to add to local fare
In May, local farmers will have another venue to sell their products.
And it won’t shut down in September.
A grocery store selling local foods will open in downtown Beloit in the former Woolworth’s building, 328 State St., Beloit.
Owners Jackie Gennett and Rich Horbaczewski of Grass is Greener Gardens, who have a long history with the Beloit farmers market, will rely heavily on locally grown produce. They will supplement with other groceries, beer, wine, baked goods and deli-foods that customers can enjoy at tables in the store, Downtown Beloit Association Executive Director Kathleen Braatz said.
“Imagine something similar to a Whole Foods grocery, but with a local focus,” Braatz said.
The opening of the 5,400-square-foot store comes at the end of a long fight to save the Woolworth’s building, which was once slated for demolition to make a parking lot for employees of Kerry, Inc.’s downtown Beloit headquarters.
The Beloit farmers market doubled in size from 43 vendors in 2004 to 86 in 2007, Braatz said.