Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Small organic farm hopes to be a model for a healthier Earth
Bossie Cow Farm, near Random Lake, is an example of the kind of farm that makes up the 266 certified organic dairy farms in La Farge-based Organic Valley cooperative.
And it must be a noteworthy example, as U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar paid the farm a visit in mid-September on a campaign tour.
“I’m still pinching myself to think that a senator and a presidential candidate was here,” said Thelma Heidel-Baker, who grew up on the farm and now runs it
with her husband, Ricky Baker.
But politicians aside, Heidel-Baker hopes their “diversified organic farm,” which is owned by her parents, David and Angelita Heidel, serves as a model for how small farms can be productive and viable while also “using a system that’s good for the environment.”
With their many farming responsibilities and two small children, things are busy for this young couple.
Her husband is full time on the farm, but Heidel-Baker, who has a doctorate in entomology, works a full-time offfarm job as scientist-in-residence at Riveredge Nature Center in Ozaukee County.
“So I do education of children on the importance of nature, and the outdoors, and where your food comes from,” she said.
She also serves as a “grazing ambassador” with Grassworks, a nonprofit organization in Wisconsin that promotes grazing.
Heidel-Baker recently talked about her farm, climate change and the future of food production:
Question: Tell us a little about Bossie Cow Farm.
Answer: I’m the third generation of my family that is on this farm. My grandparents bought it back in the early 1950s, my grandpa ran it and then my dad took over and then we took it over several years ago, as my parents got older.
We purchased the cows from them in 2017, but they still own the farm — and we rent from them. There are about 80 acres of pasture.
We are a dairy farm. We produce Organic Valley milk and we have about 50 cows. And we are organic certified, of course. It’s a grass-based farm where the cows are out on pasture most of the year. In winter, the cows are brought into the barn where they have free access to the outdoors, stalls and feed.
We also raise chickens, beef and pastured pork, which we sell direct off the farm. We’re trying to diversify our income sources as well as trying to just use the land in lots of different ways.
Q. Did your husband grow up on a farm the way you did?
A: My husband Ricky did not grow up on a farm. He grew up in Grafton, and he is now the primary farmer. He didn’t really have any connection to agriculture until he met me. And so we had conversations about whether or not this is something we really wanted to do.
But we liked the idea of being able to grow our own food and of our kids being close to family and being able to continue on something that has been in the family for a long time. So he has become the farmer, thanks to some amazing (farmer education) programs that we have here in Wisconsin that have provided him the expertise and support to be able to run this farm. And we’re now into our third year of running it ourselves.
Q. When did you join the Organic Valley cooperative?
A: Our farm has been part of Organic Valley since my parents first got it certified organic back in 2003. So when they certified the farm, they looked for a company that aligned with what they believe in — and it’s a business — so they also wanted to find a group that would provide a good pay price.
So when my husband and I took over the farm, it only made sense to continue on, to still be part of a co-op that supports small farms like we are, small grass-based farms.
Q. Your family has been farming since the 1950s. Are climate change trends something you are increasingly worrying about?
A: It’s hard for me to say if there have been trends over that whole time, since the 1950s, but thinking about this, what’s important is how we will handle the extremes when they happen. We had that polar vortex last winter, which was brutal, how can we handle that? How can we manage our land to be able
to withstand that and come through and feed our cows next year? How can we handle extreme rain events where we get two, three, four inches of rain in a very short period of time?
So those are the things that are going to happen and they are not going away.
We live in an area here in eastern Wisconsin where there are probably thousands of acres that didn't get planted last spring because the corn and soybean growers couldn't get out into the fields.
What we have found with our grazing system is we can handle those rain events because our healthy soil acts as a sponge and takes it all in. We can get multiple inches of rain and it goes right into the ground, which is exactly what we want to see. It's not running off, there's no erosion happening.
And the other thing is droughts, or periods where we don't get a lot of rain in a long period of time. By having the grazing management system, we have a huge diversity of plants out in the pastures, and diversity is good because you can have plants in there that can handle water stress or heat stress. So some things will grow even if others will not.
Q. What are your thoughts about food production going into the future?
A: We have a growing population, so we want to make sure they are fed. And we want to make sure there is an Earth for us to live on that can support all of us.
But I don't think it's just making sure that they have food. It gets back to how that food is grown. The way we grow the food — whether it's livestock or plants — has to be beneficial to the environment.
We could all go to an all plant-based diet, but it doesn't help our health or the environment if those plants were grown using lots of chemicals and fuel.
Food that's healthy for people and healthy for the environment go hand-in-hand.