RIDGEWAY — Last Sunday, June 30, promised to be an interesting one as visitors arrived at Meadowlark Organics to looming dark clouds off in the distance. As more than 100 people enjoyed coffee and breakfast treats made with organic grains, the clouds moved closer, opening up their gates just shortly after the guests arrived by school bus to the waving fields of rye, which were now whipping in the winds and rain.
But as many farmers do, including the Wepkings, who are amidst a transition of the farm from owner Paul Bickford, event organizers quickly adapted and the field day with a grains focus wasn’t a wash as it continued on into the afternoon under an old calf barn on the property and under several tents.
Paul Bickford used to be a dairyman, farming his land first in 1978 with 250 cows. He reached up to 350 cows in 1992 and dabbled with rotational grazing before selling the cows in 2011 and plowing under the pastures for organic corn and soybean crops.
With backgrounds in food and restaurants, John and Halee Wepking were working in New York City, eventually making the decision to leave and settle back somewhere in southwest Wisconsin. They had interests in farming, but with little capital to begin their own operation, found employment with Bickford on his certified organic farm in Ridgeway.
Bickford said that although the beginning young farmers didn’t have the money to buy him out right away, John Wepking had plenty of ideas to bring to the partnership, ideas that Bickford saw potential in.
“John and Halee have taken the farm in a different direction,” he said. “And their intentions are to take over eventually.”
Meadowlark Organics is a certified organic diversified small grains and food crops farm in the Driftless Area of southwest Wisconsin. The farm uses ecosystem services and land stewardship practices to guide their production practices, incorporating small grains into their rotation to ensure healthy soil, crops and water on their lands.
Since being hired by Bickford, the Wepkings have shifted the focus of the land to small grains and limited row crops over about 900 acres, grown for both food and feed. Many of their grains are milled locally and made into several different kinds of flours ideal for baking; the products can be found at grocery stores, bakeries and restaurants in northern Illinois and southwest Wisconsin.
In addition to small grains production, the farm also raises grass-fed beef in a cow-calf grazing system.
The theme of the field day was “Grain to Plate,” and attendees heard the story of how local grain seed from Meadowlark Organics traveled from their farm to their plates as they also enjoyed a locally sourced lunch later in the day featuring food items from area restaurants and businesses.
In the afternoon, presentations on post-harvest handling and processing, marketing of specialty crops and how to use locally stone-ground grain in the kitchen caught the attention of those who attended, as did a panel discussion on the role small grains play in a farmer’s lifestyle, from finances to community health to consumer health.
The field day had numerous sponsors, including the Organic Grain Resource and Information Network, also known as OGRAIN, and the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service, also known as MOSES.
There are several upcoming field days co-hosted by these entities in the upcoming months for those with an interest in grain, including an Organic Agronomy Training Series in La Crosse Aug. 14-15; an organic agriculture research field day on Aug. 29 at the UW Arlington Research Station; and the Midwest Mechanical Weed Control Field Day on Sept. 18 at Gwenyn Hill Organic Farm and Gardens, Waukesha.