Recently I was fortunate to be “behind the scenes” as a guest while I listened to Tenzin Botsford tell the story of how he and his wife, Stacey, came to be owners of Red Door Farm near Athens, Wisconsin. Botsford’s talk was part of the Marathon County Historical Society’s oral-history project.
The society focused on agriculture this past June. I sat in while staff member Gary Gisselman interviewed Tenzin Botsford in a recorded interview that’s now archived and available on Marathon County Historical Society’s YouTube channel. It was interesting to listen while Botsford, someone I’ve known for several years, tell about what led him and Stacey to their diverse community-supported-agriculture market-garden farm near Athens, Wisconsin.
It was spring 2014 when Stacey and Tenzin Botsford broke ground for their house and planted strawberries on their newly acquired land in the northwest corner of Marathon County, Wisconsin.
“We had a driveway, but that was it,” Tenzin Botsford said. “We didn’t have a mailbox, address, electricity or well. We got water from the neighbor. It was just a cornfield.”
The farm currently comprises 36 acres; 8 to 10 acres are currently in vegetable production. With 15 acres under cultivation, land is regularly fallowed with cover crops for soil regeneration.
The Botsfords are no strangers to intense seasonal work. Their past endeavors as river-rafting guides for the adventure-tourism industry in the western United States taught them to rely on each other as a team. They needed to in order to meet the challenges of each day.
“We learned about hospitality,” Botsford said; guests were always present. “We both really liked being outside and physically active. We liked having tangible results for our efforts at the end of the day.”
He also spent time doing river-survey work measuring and monitoring the impact of runoff on waterways across the western United States. Spending time on waterways was a significant factor influencing the Botsfords to pursue agriculture.
“They’re such unique passages through landscapes,” Botsford said. “Rivers tend to be running behind the scenes of a landscape – whether it’s a farm, business or industrial area.”
It allowed him to see what comes out of those landscapes, he said, from the people who are engaged in working them to the actual runoff that comes from activity on the landscape.
The Botsfords noticed a level of deep contentedness amongst the family farms in their travels throughout the United States and abroad.
“There was a content and grounded sense that we found very attractive,” he said. “It felt like something we might like to explore.”
The couple’s conversations more frequently turned to agriculture when they talked about their future. Eventually Stacey Botsford was accepted into a vegetable-grower apprenticeship in Oregon; Tenzin Botsford continued doing river-survey work. The couple rented a house in the country. They raised a few pigs and some vegetables while taking farm business-management classes through Oregon State University-Extension. They had a lot of contact with farmers involved in market-garden production; they became immersed in learning small-scale sustainable-farming methods.
The couple had a lot of conversations about where they’d eventually like to farm, he said.
“At that point neither one of us had ever finished a one-year lease since leaving home,” he said. “Thinking about buying a place and settling in to it was a bit intimidating.”
Being close to each of their parents was important to them.
“With a baby on the way we realized we wanted to raise our kids near their grandparents and be connected in that way; we wanted that family-resource base,” Tenzin Botsford said. “We valued that enough to come home for. But we underestimated by a long shot how much we were going to need that familial tie over time.
“There’s a lot of hurdles to starting a farm as far as finding land and building your own production infrastructure and selling your product.”
Producing a healthy product and taking care of their land was a priority for the couple, he said. They knew out of the gate they wanted to pursue organic agriculture.
The Botsfords attribute much of their success to the mentorship provided by Stoney Acres Farm near Athens, Wisconsin. The producers there generously shared equipment and planting schedules to help Red Door Farm become established.
Tenzin Botsford built their house while Stacey worked at Stoney Acres to start the wheels moving. Ed Schultz, father of Stoney Acres owner Tony Schultz, split a parcel of land and sold it to the couple on a land contract to help them begin.
“The open arms that welcomed us into the community essentially as direct competition was more than helpful to us,” Tenzin Botsford said. “There’s not a whole lot of industries where you enter into a business and are welcomed as a competitor, much less shown the ropes and trade secrets.”
Tenzin and Stacey Botsford currently have two apprentices and are active in outreach programs helping other market-garden farms become established. The couple feels there are opportunities for others to enter the growing farm model. In an era when the average age of the U.S. farmer is 57 years old, a tremendous land transition will inevitably take place in agriculture. The couple say they’re happy to have found a niche, farming where collaboration with other producers serves the good of individuals and the entire group to produce a healthy product in a sustainable manner.
Greg Galbraith, a former dairy farmer who owns woodlot property in eastern Marathon County, Wisconsin, writes about the rapidly changing nature of the agricultural landscape. He has built a lifetime connection to the land and those who farm it.