FITCHBURG, Wis. – Kevin Oppermann has always been a farmer – first a “carpet” farmer and now a beef farmer.
“I was a ‘carpet farmer’ when I was a kid,” he said. “I played with toy tractors on the living room floor.”
Raised in Brookfield, Wisconsin, he would later work in the software industry. But he said farming was never far from his mind. He now owns Highland Spring Farm near Fitchburg where he enjoys the outdoors – and his Scottish Highland cattle.
He once enjoyed spending time with his maternal grandparents, Bill and Muriel Stoneman, he said. They farmed in the Fitchburg area where they sold “Stoneman’s Famous Sweet Corn.” Oppermann would manage the sweet-corn stand during summers home from college. Now he sells the Stoneman-brand sweet corn at farmers markets.
Oppermann’s passion for farming and direct marketing was evident in the capstone project he chose as a senior business-administration student at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. For that project he grew and sold sweet corn. He also raised capital to purchase two cows and two calves to feed family and friends. And he wrote a paper examining the loss of family farms and strategies to save them.
Earning a bachelor’s degree in business administration and management in 2006, he then worked as a project manager for Epic Systems Corporation in Verona, Wisconsin. That’s where he met his future wife, Keely.
He continued to raise steers and sell beef while still at Epic. Then came an opportunity to purchase 160 head of cattle from a farmer who was reducing his herd.
“I went from having 40 to 200 head of cattle in two hours,” he said.
The farmer from whom he bought the cattle had been supplying beef to a restaurant in Madison, Wisconsin, so Oppermann had an immediate market. But he also was working to build his own customer base of restaurants and farmer markets. Working two jobs became increasingly difficult, he said, so he left Epic in 2014 to farm full-time.
“I also wanted to work outside and be my own boss,” he said.
Being his own boss meant cold-calling and visiting numerous restaurants in the Madison metropolitan area. He gave samples to restaurant chefs and managers who regularly purchased products from local farmers. He also told them about the beef produced by Scottish Highland cattle.
Beef from the breed is well-marbled and tender. It has less fat and cholesterol but greater protein and iron content than beef from other breeds, according to the North Central Highland Cattle Association. Scottish Highlands have long hair that keep them warmer than other breeds in winter so they don’t produce as much fat, Oppermann said.
He currently sells beef to three Madison-area restaurants and to three corporate kitchens. Customers also can visit the farm’s website to order online. Oppermann processes two steers every other week to meet demand.
Joshua Chavez is the head chef at Longtable Beer Cafe in Middleton, Wisconsin.
“Kevin is a great cattleman and is easy to work with,” Chavez said. “We purchase his ground beef for our burgers, and also chuck- and pot-roast cuts for our beef stews.”
Longtable Beer Cafe and Brasserie V of Madison are both owned by Matt Van Nest. He began purchasing ground beef almost exclusively from Oppermann a few years ago. He liked it so much he purchased it for Longtable as well, Chavez said.
“We source locally produced meat and produce as much as possible,” he said. “But sometimes it can be difficult when flooding and other bad weather negatively impact supplies.”
Oppermann’s cattle are rotationally grazed. He markets them when they reach 1,100 to 1,300 pounds. That may require keeping them as long as 24 to 32 months. Their hanging weight is in the 600- to 700-pound range.
“Kevin has a keen eye for meats,” said Ben Zimmerman, manager of Westside Community Market in Madison. “And he serves on our board, which is great because he brings new blood to the farmers market. With more Baby Boomers retiring, he’s helping to lead the next generation of vendors.”
Westside Community Market is open from 7 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Saturdays from mid-April to early November at 750 University Row in Madison. The farmers market features about 45 vendors each week, depending on seasonality of crops.
Being located near Madison is advantageous because of the number of people interested in locally grown food, Oppermann said. That sentiment is echoed by Zimmerman.
“Food is really on people’s minds here,” Zimmerman said. “The area has long been supportive of local growers and sustainable-farming practices.”
Oppermann also sells beef at the Monona Farmers Market in Monona, Wisconsin. It’s held from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sundays from early May to late October at Ahuska Park, 400 E. Broadway, Monona.