By: Jan Carroll
Inga Witscher, host of Wisconsin Public Television’s Around the Farm Table, has been farming for nine years and now runs a thirty-acre certified dairy farm, milking eleven Jersey cows with the lower-tech bucket milking system. She is a fourth-generation dairy farmer, and it was her dad who talked her into moving to West-Central Wisconsin and trying her hand at this farm. The family had lots of experience with big vegetable gardens and an organic creamery as she was growing up. She was not sure about the new venture at first,but it didn’t take long before she felt at home. “I just fell in love with it. It completed me,” she said.
Witscher uses managed intensive grazing for the cows, a method that involves moving the cows to new pasture every twelve hours. This gives each patch of pasture a forty-day rest. Milk from her farm is shipped to Westby, Wisconsin, where it is made into butter, cottage cheese, and cheese and then sold in the Madison area. Witscher notes that even her cows eat locally, since she supports local farmers by buying hay and grain from them.
As a kid, Witscher says, everything the family ate was off their farm. She feels the trend toward organic sustainable farms that serve local markets will continue to grow because people are becoming more aware of it and more educated about it. She feels small and midsize farms will guide the community supported agriculture (CSA) movement. Although it can be an adjustment learning to eat some of the new foods you receive in CSA, she adds that “CSAs are great, because they push you out of your comfort zone.” Also, kids are growing up with fresh organic local food as the norm, so they will expect the same as they grow into adults who buy produce and other farm goods. “Wouldn’t it be great if we got rid of labels of local and sustainable because they had become so common?” she wonders.
Living in the city, it can be hard to connect with local organic farmers. Besides looking for them at area farmers markets, Witscher offers three ways to cultivate relationships with your local farmers:
- Throw a local-food potluck party, where each guest brings some local organic food or a dish made with a local organic food.
- She advises, however, to remember that these are working farms, and although farmers love to have you stop by, they will be taking time away from their work to talk with you, so limit your time there, bring a small token of appreciation like a bottle of wine, or offer to help with tasks around the farm, like weeding the garden. Leave your dog at home!
- Invite local organic farmers to speak to your group or at your event or dinner party. This is nice, she adds, because it allows farmers to get off the farm.
Witscher lists two challenges to small and midsize organic farmers. One is the lack of available land. She’d like to increase her herd to fifty cows, but she’d need more land to do so, and it’s hard to come by. If you can find afordable land, if it hasn’t already been transitioned into organic land, that process takes three years, which is quite an investment since it is expensive to convert regular land to organic land. That process of going organic is also an emotional commitment for the farmer because it can often mean you lose the camaraderie of local conventional farmers. Second, she agrees that organic food often costs more, but she explains that is because the cost of farming is high, especially organic farming. But, she says, even though the cost of organic milk is high, there is a huge demand for it. There aren’t enough organic farmers producing organic milk to meet demand. Witscher says she strategizes often about how to make the farm more financially feasible.
In looking to the future, Witscher would like to have better communication and mutual learning opportunities between organic and conventional farmers, to get to know and interact “just as farmers,” sharing ideas such as cover crops to prevent erosion. In organic farming, “the soil is the foundation of everything else,” she explains. From there, the main thing is to make sure the cows are happy and relaxed, and then fewer other issues arise healthwise. She is happy to report that women “are the fastest growing sector in agriculture,” though it has taken a while to become accepted.’
Season 3 of Around the Farm Table will be on public television later this fall, probably in October sometime. Check local listings for day and time. Witscher says the goal of the program is to promote original local products and to show people what those products are like and how to use them, with recipes and ideas. By visiting and featuring organic farmers from all over the state, Wisconsin viewers can become more educated, and hopefully this will encourage them to try more local foods! Witscher loves the way the program “connects the consumer to the farmer.”