WISCONSIN DELLS — Ahead of the Resilient Farms Conference on Dec. 11, UW-Extension Farm Management Program Outreach Coordinator Trisha Wagner said that during challenging times for agriculture, farmers realize there is often opportunity.

More than 100 farmers interested in exploring new business ideas for their farms in times of lower milk and commodity prices met at the conference, planned and hosted by Compeer Financial and UW-Extension. Two dozen sessions were offered, with farmers sharing their ideas that included value-added products for dairy, raising and direct marketing beef or chickens, adding speciality crops, hemp production, agritourism and more.

“We’re all here to figure out a new way forward,” said Dick Cates of Cates Family Farm, Spring Green, who served as the event’s emcee. “With creative thinking and imagination, there are so many possibilities out there.”

Farmers with woodlands took special interest in several morning sessions that focused on earning income from their woods.

Leasing hunting rights

Paul Dietmann, a senior lending officer with Compeer Financial and owner of 67 acres in Clyde, rural Iowa County, shared with attendees how he earns income off that land by leasing the hunting rights each year. He has been welcoming hunters to his land, diverse with woods, some corn and pasture, for several years now.

“Wisconsin is a great place to lease out hunting rights,” Dietmann said.

Hunting is a tradition in Wisconsin; most hunters prefer not to hunt on public lands; there is lots of game; and Wisconsin has a recreational immunity law, which releases the landowner from liability if they charge less than $2,000 annually for the hunting rights. There is certainly a demand as well, as Dietmann found out the first time he advertised his hunting land for lease.

“If you put the word out, you’ll be flooded with people,” he said, explaining how within the first 20 hours of posting a detailed ad on Craigslist, he had more than 50 people respond and actually had to take the ad down. “You’ll have more of a problem with the amount of people than finding people.”

Dietmann screens potential lessors by emailing a questionnaire that requires details such as references, the number and names of people who would be hunting on the land and if the hunters were looking for something in particular. In Wisconsin, landowners also have the ability to check Wisconsin Circuit Court Access to see if the applicants are paying their bills or have felonies.

The first five people that completed the questionnaire are the ones Dietmann showed the property to, he said. He set up one-hour appointments one morning and allowed them to walk the land with a map to see if it was what they were looking for.

“Ultimately, you decide,” Dietmann said. “You’re entering a relationship and they’ll be on your land when you aren’t. So pick the hunters you want on your land — don’t let them pick you.”

Dietmann also provided a copy of his hunting lease, which includes information such as a legal description of the property, the type of game that will be hunted and the dates of the seasons, when payment for the lease is due, a clause that details the right to rent again or not and that the landowner retains the right to farm, cut wood and complete other activities, the maximum number of hunters that will be on the land and their names and disallowing damage to the timber and property.

Dietmann also offered a few tips, with the most important to keep clear, open communication. He also recommended starting with a single-year lease, respecting the hunters’ rights, avoiding conflicts with neighbors by keeping that communication channel open and not to expect the lessors to do anything but hunt on the land.

Tapping into another opportunity

Jeremy Solin of Tapped Maple Syrup shared how he started a small business from his woodlands to keep the forest and farm connected on his 100-year-old family farm near Antigo.

“It’s always been an interest of mine to see what we can do with maple syrup,” he said.

With a family tradition of tapping maple trees to make syrup, the Solins invested in a sugar shack, an evaporator and two certified kitchens, specializing in infused maple syrup and barrel-aged syrup. They partner with Great Northern Distillery to make their unique product, selling to 25 partners across the state that include restaurants, coffee shops, a chocolatier and cocktail establishments.

To Solin, the crazy thing is that people are willing to pay more for an experience rather than a product, so he has been focused on events that celebrate his family’s maple syrup. He held a maple syrup release party this year and several hundred people showed up; Solin is also planning a “Dinner in the Woods” this spring featuring his maple syrup and expects it to sell out rather quickly.

While the family has seen the benefits, there are certainly challenges, especially since making maple syrup is so weather dependent. The family taps 1,500 to 1,600 trees each spring using buckets and has ambitions to reach 2,000 taps, totaling 1,000 gallons annually off their 20 acres of woodland.

Finding a niche with fungi

Ingrid and Rae West of Stoughton saw yet another opportunity in their woods, sharing with attendees how they grow shiitake mushrooms on logs once harvested from their woodland property in Vernon County. The idea was first sparked after they were required to implement management practices through a managed forest program — the result was logs, which they cut to the right size and inoculated with the fungus.

“We’re mycelium farmers,” Ingrid West said. “When they fruit, that’s our product.”

She referred to herself as a small-scale boutique shiitake grower, producing clean mushrooms from different types of logs, including red maple, aspen and oak. While they first started growing shiitake mushrooms, they have diversified a bit into wine cap and oysters. They also dry the mushrooms and make mushroom powder as value-added products.

“For us, we’re filling a niche in higher-end mushrooms that are not always available,” she said.

The mushroom business is quite labor-intensive, requires lots of research, can take a lengthy time to produce and can be expensive, but West feels they’ve found their niche. However, she recommended that if farmers are interested in mushrooms, they need to ask themselves if they have the passion and patience for the unique crop.

A new craze: hazelnuts

According to Jason Fischbach, UW-Extension agriculture agent for Ashland and Bayfield counties, interest has been growing around another new product from the woods — hazelnuts. He advised attendees to visit midwesthazelnuts.org for more information on the crop, stressing the opportunities in growing, processing and value-added products from hazelnuts.

Turkey is the No. 1 country in hazelnut production, but production there is declining, which may be a reason that interest is increasing. The state of Oregon, specifically the Williamette Valley, has seen a real boom in hazelnut production, with new cultivators driving demand and production there.

That native American hazelnut is one variety that grows well in Wisconsin, growing into a sprawling bush that can grow up to 10 feet tall and produce small but flavorful nuts. The nuts are harvested right from the shrubs much like how blueberries are harvested, Fischbach said.

However, like many new enterprises, it will take upfront costs and a few years before a farmer will likely see positive cash flow for hazelnuts. But Fischbach argued that now is the time for farmers to take this crop on if they have an interest.

“If you have any interest, buy some plants and plant them this spring,” he said. “The sky’s the limit.”