CORNELL — Ashly Steinke didn’t grow up on a farm, but he always understood their importance to small communities. His wife, Stacy, did grow up on a farm, and Ashly said he knew, at some point, farming was something his wife would like to do again.
As the couple was considering getting into farming, Ashly and Stacy were discussing what could be done to help small towns thrive like they were when they were growing up.
“We were talking about when these communities were at their best, what made these small towns vibrant and how we could help bring that back,” Ashly said. “It seemed to us, it was when we had all these small farms. We thought, ‘How do we bring that back?’ We decided to start a small farm.”
In January 2014, the Steinkes started Sedge Wood Farms southeast of Cornell, where they graze British White Park beef cattle they direct-market to consumers. The Steinkes’ newest venture is running an Airbnb vacation rental from one of the farmhouses that came with the property.
Ashly said the vacation rental is another way the couple is trying to use their farm to support local communities, as they are hoping to provide visitors to the Barn on Stoney Hill — a wedding barn five miles down the road — with another option for a place to stay while they are in town. The vacation rental was finished in January. So far, they’ve had one guest and several friends stay in the house. Ashly said they have 55 dates already booked for the summer.
“One of the reasons we did it is to provide that service for the wedding barn and hope people support that micro-economy,” Ashly said. “So far, it’s going pretty well.”
Ashly is a wildlife biologist by training and something of an unlikely farmer, said Stacy, who also works for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources as a water resources professional working on private well water quality.
“I didn’t see him farming when we met,” she said. “The wildlife biologist in him didn’t like to see conventional farms destroying wildlife habitat.”
Before farming, both Ashly and Stacy worked in conservation-related fields. At one point, the couple created a wetland mitigation banking company to help businesses restore wetlands that have been lost to impacts like drainage, dredging, ditching or other types of wetland conversion. When a company fills in an acre of wetland, they have to buy 1.5 acres of credits back, Ashly said.
They restored 120 acres of wetland in the area before a frac-sand company offered to buy the business.
“Investors in the frac-sand boom were calling, and we were tired of dealing with corporate America,” Ashly said. “We sold out — and it was a really good deal for us — and bought a farm.
“I’ve always wanted to farm, I married a farm girl, and I knew she wanted to farm eventually, but I never knew how to get there.”
He did know he didn’t want to leave behind the education he had gotten in wildlife biology as he got started in his newest endeavor.
While working as county conservationist in Taylor County, Ashly said, he learned — with the help of Bob Brandt, a grazing consultant working in Taylor County — that he could combine his background in wildlife biology with farming.
“We knew we could marry wildlife, raising good beef, and we could clean up our water,” Ashly said.
The Steinkes, who own 340 acres and farm a total of about 560 acres, have restored several wetlands and planted native prairie plants on the farm and the property their home is on.
The first wetland they restored was below their house off the farm in 2010. The following spring, they planted 6,000 trees and added 6 acres of prairie. In 2016, they restored 47 acres of wetland and prairie on the farm.
“That’s all ducks and geese and a bunch of swans,” Stacy said.
“We talk about bees being in decline, but they’re not on our property,” Ashly said. “We try to provide as much as we can for native pollinator habitat.”
Across from the rental property, the Steinkes restored a wetland that was being used as a marginal field. They brought in bulldozers and plugged ditches on the field.
“It was across the highway and we really couldn’t put cattle over there. It was always wet. Even for making hay, it was really dicey,” Ashly said. “After we seeded it down, we had 500 Canada geese on it for a month and a half.”
“Conventional farmers do not understand planting trees or the prairies,” Stacy said. “But we love native plants and butterflies and wildflowers and deer habitat.”
Ashly said some wetland restorations will be incorporated into their farming operations, with native grasses being grazed by the cattle.
“It’s actually really good for wildlife habitat, if you do rotational grazing,” Ashly said. “So we’ll be moving more dirt this spring.”
They are working on a couple of 1-acre potholes this year and planning a 7-acre monarch butterfly planting with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and replacing the barbed wire with wildlife-friendly fencing.
“Just enough to keep us busy,” Stacy said.
The Steinkes have about 25 cow-calf pairs of British White Park cattle, a breed they decided on after attending a pasture walk in northern Wisconsin.
“There was a young kid, about 10 years old, at the pasture walk,” Ashly said. “He walked out between a mother cow and her calf and put his arm on both of them. I said, ‘Those are the cows I need.’
“They’ve been super friendly to work with.”
They finish all of their steers on grass and buy in 20 to 25 feeder calves from another grass farm to finish and direct-market.
“They do really well on a grass-based diet,” Ashly said. “And they seem to overwinter well.”
The British White Park have black ears and noses. Though all-black British Whites do pop up on occasion, Ashly said, the trait is recessive. Still, there are two all-black British Whites in the herd at Sedge Wood Farms.
The Steinkes’ boys, Grayson and Lane, get the first heifer born every year. The Steinkes don’t calve their animals until they are 3 years old, which Ashly said has cut down on calving problems in the breed.
“The first heifer we ever had born, and it’s rare, was a red-faced British White. She had a red nose and red ears, and she’s the only one we’ve had like that,” Ashly said. “She belongs to the boys. She gets bred this summer.”
Beef from Sedge Wood Farms is available direct from the farm and from Just Local Food Cooperative in Eau Claire. They also provide beef to two area restaurants — Northwoods Brew Pub in Osseo and Lake Wissota Bar and Grill in Chippewa Falls.
Sedge Wood was, at one time, three different dairy farms, which has presented some challenges when making the conversion to beef, Ashly said. But that’s another thing he said he sees as an investment in the greater community.
“With the dairy farms, there’s no beef infrastructure,” Ashly said. “Beef are a completely different critter than a Holstein cow in a stanchion. You have to buy handling facilities and panels and better fence.
“It costs money to do, but hopefully, it’s a decent investment. And hopefully, we can give it to the kids someday.”