KENNAN — His sight might not be as good as it once was, but Conrad Alexander has his eyes fixed on both past and future.
Now in his twilight years, the 89-year-old farmer from Kennan, Wisconsin, has a vision for small, self-sustaining farms that can support large families in an economically viable way.
“The people in this country is having a hard time getting the food out of the store. I think it’s going to continue and when you go to the stores and buy food, you really don’t know what you’re buying,” Alexander said as he gave a tour of his small homestead just outside Kennan. “I think it’s time that the people learn the value of a five to 20 acre farm to feed their entire family.”
Equipped with roughly 5-20 acres of good, tillable earth, a few cows, perhaps some chickens and hogs on the side, with a nice helping of berries for kicks, an extended family of 15-20 people can support themselves.
He estimates that, assuming average yields, a family can turn a $50,000 to $60,000 profit on a yearly basis once things are up and running 100%.
This unorthodox vision is molded by decades of experience, sharpened with a steel-trap mind that calculates complex yield equations with machine-like ease.
Off the top of his head, Alexander can recall with surprising precision what grain prices were in 1938, or 1978, or today, then use those figures to squeeze every cent of profitability out of an acre of soil.
He knows just how much a cow — depending on age, breed and size — can safely produce daily to maintain 4% milk fat without burning them out.
He’s lived long enough to remember his grandfather demonstrate that a mule is preferable to a horse for plowing because their hooves are smaller, just as he remembers the desolation of the 1980s farming crisis and the advent of automated agriculture in the 2010s.
He’s owned farms in Wisconsin and as far away as the Philippines. He’s worked as a machinist for more than 20 years in Chicago. He’s even served as a ballroom dancing instructor in his youth.
And the fruits of nearly 80 years of farm life? The dream of a small self-sustaining farm — complete with rows of berry bushes, a small dairy barn and a new greenhouse — that’s slowly being realized on Alexander’s little homestead just north of Kennan.
Alexander fervently believes in his vision. As the economy shifts and agriculture becomes increasingly corporate, he believes it is these small eclectic homesteads that offer a path forward for common folk — not only as a means to support families, but a means to provide healthier food that isn’t filled with additives.
On the face of it, the model isn’t all that revolutionary. By incorporating different aspects of farming into a cohesive whole — like growing grain to feed cattle, then using cow manure to fertilize fields, and so on — operators can maximize production and curb waste. If they’re smart, farmers can make the most of limited acreage during the warmer months, then lean on a greenhouse during colder times of year.
That’s the easy part. The more difficult aspect of the equation is acquiring the knowledge and experience to make it work with such fine margins of productivity. The devil in the details. Much of this is grounded in decades of life — experiences, Alexander often noted, that he’s eager to share — but there’s also an element of trial and error.
Does a farmer have a patience to find the perfect balance of mushroom mulch and humus to grow potatoes indoors?
Is a farmer willing to experiment with four or five verities of strawberries to see which one has the perfect growing period, yield and hardiness to survive the local climate?
Is the farmer capable of weighing the pros and cons of Jersey, Guernsey and Swiss dairy cattle, down to the tiniest margins of milk poundage? For his part, Alexander prefers Swiss, but swears by Guernseys up and down, in spite of popular perceptions of Jerseys.
These are considerations that Alexander makes every day.
“I have all this knowledge, but I don’t want to take it with me when I go,” Alexander said. “I’d like to give it to the people. I’d like to leave it behind to help those who need it.”
With this in mind, Alexander has invited anyone willing to stop by his homestead at 10538 Liberty Lane, Kennan, and discuss the specifics of small-scale farming if they’re open to establishing a similar homestead of their own.
My dining table is a family relic, one I have gathered around my entire life. At parties, my siblings and I still crowd so close together we could eat off each other’s plates. A mechanism that holds the leaf beneath the tabletop until I’m ready to slide it into place still works after 100 years.
Before my parents even met, this table was owned by my mother’s kin and then my father’s, as if swinging from one branch of my family tree to another. The 6-foot table, sideboard and six chairs were first purchased by the Cannie family in the 1920s for their rural Junction City farmhouse. The set likely came from as far away as Wisconsin Rapids. I wonder: Was it transported those 20 miles home in a horse-drawn wagon or were pieces strapped on top of an early model Ford truck? Surely it took two trips.
When my mom’s sister, Ida Klawikowski, and her husband Ed purchased the farm in 1940, the Cannies left their heaviest furniture behind. A few years later a housefire damaged the table and sideboard. My father’s parents, who lived one farm over from the Klawikowskis, bought the set for $40.
Today that would be about $620, a risky buy given every wood surface was covered in a tar-like resin and the style this set was based upon, gothic revival of 1600s England, was about as far away as a guy could get from early 20th century Wisconsin. Some call the sideboard a “credenza.” We called it a buffet.
My more immediate link to this story begins in 1944 at Lang’s Ballroom in Sherry-Blenker, five miles from my grandparent’s farm. One Saturday night, my dad was there with his long-time girlfriend, Shorty. They’d graduated from high school that spring, and WWII was raging on two fronts. Dad turned 18 in January, but he had a draft deferment as the only son left on the farm. That night the orchestra likely played “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else but Me)” and other hits which made couples hold each other close.
Joey and Shorty were sitting that particular number out when a curly-haired 14-year-old danced past them. Virgie Weinfurter was a bridesmaid in her sister’s wedding, and the whole community turned out for the band at Lang’s. Virgie gave Joey a big smile when she flounced by in her long pink dress.
Shorty asked my father, “Do you know that girl?” He shrugged. He might have waved to Virgie when she walked down the dirt road that connected the See farm to her sister Ida’s, but they had never spoken to each other.
“Well,” Shorty said, “she sure wants to know you.”
Dad told me this story 70-some years later. I pressed him for more details. How did he break up with his girlfriend and come to date my mom? He simply said: “I started going to Lang’s without Shorty.” His eyes still gleamed when he talked about Virgie as a girl. He was 92, and she’d been dead for six years. They were together for almost seven decades.
My recent search of newspapers turned up no record of the Klawikowskis’ fire. Anyone who would know the details is long gone. Likely neighbors came with buckets, maybe even my father. Somehow Uncle Ed was able to get the wheeled dining table and buffet outside. The Jacobean-influenced set with the bulbous legs was a little fancy for his taste but Aunt Ida adored it. The furniture was unlike anything this 23-year-old farmwife had ever owned. I wonder: How did she agree to buy a less formal set, one that better fit the farm and their growing family? She had two little ones already and twins on the way. No time to fix the damaged pieces. Eventually she and Uncle Ed sold them to their neighbors, Peter and Tillie See, who had just one son left at home, the handy one. That boy eventually became my father.
Dad was 42 when I was born. It wasn’t until I was 42 myself that I came to treasure his stories. I didn’t realize the gift of being the youngest of eight kids, a tagalong, was that for much of my childhood I had my parents to myself. They passed on to me their love of relics. This was why Dad gave me his beloved dining set, which he refinished twice in his lifetime: once in 1945 for his mother and again in 1990 for mine.
Almost a decade before he died, Dad chronicled the set’s history in his sloppy cursive on the back of a ripped-out notebook page, sealed it an envelope and duct taped it to the underside of the table in preparation for its trip to my house. He captured the names and dates but none of the stories this table could tell.
Before my parents married, when Virgie was just 18, she surely questioned if she could ever measure up to her future mother-in-law, especially around this table. Everyone knew that after Virgie’s parents died, she and the other seven youngest Weinfurter kids raised themselves. This tragedy must have shadowed them wherever they went. I wonder: Did my mother disguise her self-doubt by always wearing her best dress to sit at the See table?
Dad did not write how when he and Mom inherited this set in 1977, my mother never allowed the bare wood exposed, as if after her sister’s housefire and her mother-in-law’s scrutiny, Virgie See became the table’s ultimate protector. She changed out her cartoonish, vinyl tablecloths for Thanksgiving (cornucopias!), Christmas (gingerbread boys!) and Easter (bunnies!).
Dad did not tell how our table’s lifelong mate, the buffet, held decks of worn playing cards and 30 years’ worth of birthday cards and spent candles and stiff napkins saved for good. Or that in the top drawer was a caretaker’s journal on which my father tracked my mother’s illness — what she ate and when it passed through her and who came to visit — all carefully recorded in his arthritic printing.
Or how as kids spending the night at Grandma Virgie and Grandpa Joe’s, my son and his cousins threw sheets over the table and played beneath it on couch cushions that transformed the wood into spaceship or treehouse.
Now, given all this old table has seen, I wouldn’t think of covering it up.
It isn’t often that dairy judging contests are decided by a handful of points, but that’s how a group of FFA students at Chippewa Fall Senior High School snatched victory in late October.
Both in the team and individual categories, Chippewa Falls’ students eked out the highest scores during the 2021 Chippewa County FFA Dairy Judging Contest Oct. 20 at the Herrick farm near Boyd. Chippewa Falls’ FFA team was competing against FFA chapters from Bloomer, Cadott, Cornell and Stanley-Boyd.
Chippewa’s Cayden Blodgett, David Terhark, Mitchell Romandstad and Max Stary scored an average winning number of 219.75 out of 253 potential points. By comparison, Bloomer’s team racked up a team score of 217.5, while Cadott came in third with a combined score of 216.75 points.
“I’ve been around cows all my life,” Blodgett said. “I just tried my best and I didn’t think I’d end up first place, but I guess it was enough to win.”
Individual performances were just as close; the top six scoring individuals all finished within three points of each other. Blodgett took top honors with 222 points, while Terhark, Marcella Boehm of Cornell and Abigail Goettl of Cadott tied for second with 220 points. Bloomer’s Alexandriah Zakrzcwicz and Stella Nelson, plus Romandstad, tied for third at 219 points.
The dairy judging contest tested the students’ agricultural skills, from a 25-question assessment of general dairy knowledge, to an in-depth comparison of cows based on old-fashioned eye assessments, to an exercise where students judged verities of cheese by taste.
Under the supervision of Jason Benson, proprietor of Lymett Farm and the official judge, students examined four cows and ranked them by class. Cows were judged on aspects as varying as shoulder musculature, the animal’s teeth and udder health.
In the cheese test, participants had to identify a set of cheese varieties with only their noses and taste buds as tools.
Jeanna Burgan, the agriscience instructor and FFA adviser at Chippewa Falls, credited the school’s robust animal management classes for the team’s success. These classes always enjoy good attendance, she said, while the students involved are diligent and dedicated to their craft.
Between farm kids and those from non-agricultural backgrounds, the Chippewa Falls group is split about 50/50. Some students have driven cattle since they were little while others are only picking up the fundamentals of agriculture in class.
“When we teach them, they pick things up quickly and then apply it in a different setting. Overall, we have good kids at Chi-Hi,” Burgan said. “Some of these kids are farm kids and they know their stuff, but we were able to provide knowledge and background for the contest.”