By Eva Crawford
Farming is hardly new for Joel Kuehnhold, founder and owner of Lonely Oak Farm in Milladore, Wisconsin. A retired teacher and lifetime farmer, he grows and raises vegetables, sheep, hogs, beef cattle, meat birds and laying hens, runs a Community Support Agriculture (CSA) program and hosts a weekend brunch-on-the-farm.
Growing up in a farm community with his whole family involved in various agricultural ventures, Joel knew from a very young age that he was not going to ignore the farming gene that ran through his veins. Today, what makes him stand out from the rest is a devotion to organic growing methods and a commitment to community involvement that’s at the heart of everything he does. From weekend farmhouse brunches to a true CSA model, Joel involves the whole community in the risks and rewards of farming in rural America.
Clean Plates had the pleasure of a farmside chat with Joel, and covered everything from his legendary brunches on the farm to old family advice that is sure to stay not just with him, but with you.
Clean Plates: Why did you decide to start farming, following In your family’s footsteps?
Joel Kuehnhold: My parents had a few acres, and they allowed me to raise meat birds and lambs to show at the fair when I was a kid. My family’s tight-knit and I have many uncles who farm – one of my uncles had Wisconsin’s first organic cranberry marsh – so in the summertime, I was constantly bailing hay, pulling up weeds, picking berries. It’s totally in my background. I never knew anything different.
When I was a little kid, we were picking raspberries behind my grandma and grandpa’s machine shed, and I was like ‘grandma, I want to be a farmer like grandpa when I grow up.’
She was like, ‘no, you don’t want to work that hard. You should be a teacher like your other grandpa.’ My mom’s dad was an English teacher, but he milked cows as well. So I went there the next weekend and I was like “grandpa, I told grandma I want to be a farmer when I grew up and she said I should be a teacher like you,’ and my grandpa was like, ‘no, you don’t want to be a teacher. You should be a farmer, just stick with that.’ I grew up and became a teacher and a farmer.
C.P.: How did you decide what to grow and raise?
J.K.: I rented my first farm, which was 20 acres, and had a barn that defied gravity—it was in such disrepair. I went with sheep because I wanted to maximize my profit. But I knew it was too small. There was a farm up the road that was 80 acres, absolutely beautiful. My great-grandma was a midwife, and actually delivered the guy I bought that farm from, and his twin sister, in the house. My original goal was just to expand my flock. Now I have 200 head of sheep, all grass-fed, 4 ½ acres of vegetables with a 40-member CSA, 200 laying hens, Tamworth hogs, and a small herd for Wagyu beef, a highly-marbled Japanese breed. We also have a canning business with spaghetti sauce and salsa, and launched a brunch on the farm and periodic events. The canning business was new last year and I thought, ‘I’ll do 500 quarts of sauce and that’ll last me twelve months,’ since I was charging 8 dollars a quart, which I thought was ridiculously expensive. I sold out in two months, so we’re really scaling that up.
“Organic has made a movement from the fringe into the mainstream”
C.P.: A farm brunch is pretty unique. How did you come up with the idea?
J.K.: I wanted something laid-back that would tie into everything we were doing, and that was different. So I came up with brunch, because who doesn’t like pancakes or quiche? None of us involved had ever worked in a restaurant. We went to a bar and drank beers and talked about the flow of the restaurant and our menu. We went into it just kind of winging it, but making sure that everything was super organized, and we nailed it! Everything comes from the farm that can, or from nearby.
C .P.: You’ve been around farming your whole life. Have you seen people’s views of organic food shift at all?
J.K.: Absolutely. Organic has made a movement from the fringe into the mainstream. People are realizing the impact that farmers have on their environment and their community. They’re so far away from where their food comes from, and are hungering to get back to their roots, to be a part of something.
People are also concerned now with food pricing, what is fair, and how to cut out the middle man. Why is the grocery store making more money from a gallon of milk than the dairy farmer who does all the work? The CSA model is particularly important because its makes sense socially, economically, and environmentally. You’re a partner with the farm, sharing in the risk, and everything stays in the community.
C.P.: Farming is hard work. What are some of the challenges you face?
J.K.: One of the biggest challenges was finding funding. I was just at a loss. I had gone to regular banks and told them I want to buy a farm, but they wanted 25% down. I would have ended up juggling all these loans, and they’ll own you for the rest of your life. Then I learned about the beginning farmer programs through the USDA—1.4 percent interest – which is nothing – and 0 percent down. So the resources are there. You just gotta not give up.
Now, with all these new things that I’m starting, the challenge is a steep learning curve. There are a lot of times as a farmer where it feels like you’re hanging on to the tail of the horse and the horse is galloping away, and you’ve just barely got a handle on it. But if you just keep plugging away, everything turns out fine.
C.P.: Want to share any dreams?
J.K.: I really want to improve the genetics of my sheep flock – right now it’s a total mixed breed. Other than that, I just want to do stuff well while at the same time keeping community at the core. I think, ‘how can I get more people engaged in the farm, to be a part of it?’ I’m not sure I need to add anything else to the mix other than just to make it better. Also I’d love to be able to take a Sunday afternoon off and go canoeing.
C.P.: Any last words of wisdom?
J.K.: There was a time that I lost a bunch of sheep to a bacterial infection. I was telling my uncle, and he goes, ‘you know, if you have livestock, you’re gonna have dead stock. If you’re gonna have good, you’re gonna have bad. Just keep going. Keep a positive outlook and that big picture vision.’