STAR PRAIRIE — Farmers rely on local merchants, from farm supply retailers to restaurants to sign-makers and graphic artists — and those businesses also need farmers, according to Jody Lenz, who runs Threshing Table Farm near Star Prairie with her husband, Mike.
“We are all connected,” Jody said. “We can’t farm successfully without our customers and local businesses/suppliers from the city, and they, in turn, need us rural people and businesses.”
As people have become further removed from farming, the agriculture industry, as a whole, has lost its close connections with consumers, she said, adding, “As a business, agriculture has done a very good job of distancing themselves — not on purpose but through more consolidation.”
The importance of maintaining those relationships is why the Lenzes decided six years ago to join the New Richmond Chamber of Commerce. Jody began attending monthly meetings in the winter and early spring, as her farming schedule allowed.
“It was a big leap of faith. We didn’t know any farms that were joining,” she said, but “I did it because I feel strongly about being connected to my community.”
Chamber members make key decisions about land use and development and need to be aware of why farms matter, she said, but joining the Chamber also has been a good way for the farm to market itself. Numerous community members support her farm by purchasing shares in their Community Supported Agriculture program.
Four years ago, the Lenzes hosted their first “Farmin’ After 5,” a spinoff of “Business After 5,” on their farm. The family-friendly events have drawn more than 100 people each time, and after taking last year off, the Lenzes had several requests to do it again.
Open to Chamber members and their guests, the next “Farmin’ After 5” will be from 5 to 7 p.m. Tuesday, June 18. A free buffet of locally grown foods will be prepared by Table 65, and a hay ride and kids’ activities are planned. The Lenzes will highlight other farms, as well as businesses with which they partner.
“I attended one ‘Business After 5’ in Somerset and thought we needed to do this on the farm,” Jody said. “It’s a great event for Chamber members to come out to our farm and meet us, along with neighboring farmers and other rural businesses.”
Lenz said she’d like to see more farms join the effort, especially those who direct-market their own products. She also hopes more farms will consider joining their local chambers as a way to expand their market and foster connections.
Threshing Table Farm’s ongoing efforts to connect agriculture with other area businesses earned them the Chamber’s 2017 Small Business of the Year award.
“We’re proud of that,” Jody said, “but mostly, we are proud that the Chamber chose a farm.”
Connected to consumers
In its 12th year, Threshing Table Farm owns 10 acres and rents an additional 8. They grow 9 acres of vegetables and a couple acres of cover crops. The growing season has gotten off to a slow start, with too much rain and cool temperatures.
“Things look good in the greenhouse. It’s intense with how much we’re trying to get in the field. We’re trying to catch up,” said Jody, who grew up on a Kewaunee-area dairy farm and, after teaching several years, yearned to return to farming.
While the farm is not certified organic, they follow organic principles, she said. “The cost of being certified didn’t really make sense. To pass that (cost) on to (customers) when they’re not asking for it didn’t seem fair.”
The Lenzes maintain an open relationship with their CSA members, who are kept in the know through a weekly newsletter during the growing season and a monthly bulletin in the winter.
“Our members, because we have a good relationship, know what we’re doing. They know they can come by any time,” Jody said. “They trust us. … We have the opportunity to really know the people that we’re feeding. That, I think, is always the best.”
They sell about 20 shares through Hill-Murray School, a private school in Maplewood, Minn., that her children attend. The school, which plans to increase that to 100 within the next year, also buys plants from the farm for its school garden.
In areas of the farm that the Lenzes can’t easily access with machinery for growing produce, they graze pigs that belong to a neighboring farmer from spring through fall. The pigs clean up overgrown areas, and the Lenzes market his pork to their CSA members, so it’s a mutually beneficial relationship, Jody said.
“We were running scrap veggies to his place, and we all just thought this was silly, so he brought them here,” she said.
The Lenzes also have about 25 laying hens and 40 baby chicks this spring.
The welcome mat is out
“Farmin’ After 5” isn’t the only time the Lenzes fling wide the farm gate to guests. They have hosted several dinners on the farm the past few years through Taher, a contract food service management company that sells the farm’s produce into various school districts as well as cafeterias at companies such as Aveda and Honeywell.
In June and September, Taher brings chefs from throughout the U.S. to the farm to help harvest items and prepare meals on-site that are served to invited guests. Tickets for the events are $50 per plate and go quickly, Jody said. Also, late next month, the farm will host about 30 chefs from throughout the U.S. as part of a national conference.
“The hope is they’ll go back to their homes … and find farmers to work with there,” Jody said.
She said they always welcome opportunities to bring people onto the farm. Saturday mornings from July through September, they welcome visitors to take walks, help in the gardens and buy produce. They host a packing shed party/potluck each fall.
“There are so many people who don’t even know that they’re missing (being on a farm) because they’ve never had access to it,” she said. “It’s important we connect people to agriculture … and what it does for the soul. There are so few of us left to offer that, so few farms set up so people can come out and touch the animals and be in the dirt. At this scale, we can offer that, and we’re happy to do that.”
Jody, who works full time on the farm, said they’ve found their farm’s “sweet spot” and are content at their current size, selling between 75 and 100 shares per year, “as long as we can make a good living and like what we do.”
Their long-term goal is for Mike, an initially reluctant farmer who has grown to love it, to be able to join Jody full time on the farm. The farm has about five employees during the busy season and some customers who work a few hours a week in exchange for shares.
“When we need all hands on deck to pick green beans, they’re there,” Jody said.