MONTICELLO, Wis. – The daily demands of farming frequently leave little time for reevaluation. But after having owned and operated Grassroots Farm LLC, a community-supported agriculture farm, for seven years FL – aka Farmer Lindsey – Morris made the time. Tired of being caught in the “hamster wheel” of what was becoming an ever-more-competitive market, she rented her land to a cattle grazier and took a sabbatical.
Morris traveled in 2016 to the Women in Sustainable Agriculture Conference, which was held in Portland, Oregon. The theme of the conference was “Building Connections Toward Resiliency.” That theme has since played a big role in her approach to farming. She focuses on diversification, selling direct and building rural-community connections.
The conference she attended in 2016 included a tour of a 450-acre diversified farm. The operation produced everything from cottonwood and perennial ryegrass seeds to green beans and sweet corn for canning. Interested in learning about different types of farming Morris later worked at that farm.
“I felled cottonwood trees, and cleaned and bagged seed,” she said. “And I had time to research and read about business models.”
The more she learned the more she saw the value of the land she and her mother, Gail Carpenter, own near Monticello, she said. She also saw the value of farmer cooperatives, nonprofits and her local community.
“The rural community is always in her thoughts,” said Matt Sheaffer, president of the South Central Chapter of the Wisconsin Farmers Union.
Before buying 35 acres of land in 2007, Morris had worked three years for Matt Sheaffer and his wife, Peg Sheaffer. The Sheaffers managed Sandhill Organics in Prairie Crossing, a conservational community near Grayslake, Illinois. They operated a community-supported agriculture business to serve customers in the Chicago area. They also sold vegetables at farmers markets in Chicago’s Lincoln Park and in Oak Park, Illinois.
Morris started as a field worker at Prairie Crossing. Within two years she was promoted to crew lead and equipment operator. That experience plus her affinity for research and vegetable production led her to start in 2009 a community-supported-agriculture business on her own farm. She sold certified-organic vegetables to customers in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood. But her sales plateaued as more vendors and a grocery that sourced locally produced food entered the neighborhood. So she decided to distinguish her business; in 2010 she added meat to her product offering.
A vegan at the time, Morris did her research and acknowledged that livestock have an important role in the environment, Sheaffer said.
“That impressed me,” he said. “She stopped being a vegan and became a champion of grass-fed beef.”
Morris started raising a couple of hogs. She has since raised cattle, lambs, chickens, turkey and geese. Selling meat has enabled her to extend her community-supported-agriculture subscription season. She sells to subscribers in Milwaukee and Madison, Wisconsin. She also offers a special Thanksgiving share. Selling direct is not every farmer’s passion, but Morris is a champion at it, Sheaffer said.
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“She’s a good salesperson and has a great ability to communicate,” he said.
She puts those skills to work as president of the South Central Wisconsin Hemp Cooperative. With help from Kelly Maynard of the University of Wisconsin-Center for Cooperatives, the farmer-led cooperative filed articles of incorporation in February 2019.
“We spent the next six months developing bylaws, communicating with the community and organizing group buys,” Morris said.
She and Steven Acheson, who farms near Blanchardville, Wisconsin, became acquainted through their vegetable-farming businesses. They became friends, working together to learn more about industrial hemp even before the 2018 farm bill legalized industrial hemp for production and sales. They networked with other growers to form the cooperative. It’s comprised of nine farmers who are growing and marketing certified-organic hemp.
“We have a weekly grower call,” Morris said. “Together we have 250 years of collective farming experience.”
All the growers are members of the Wisconsin Farmers Union. Two grants from the organization funded the cooperative’s startup effort. The cooperative’s members plan to brand “SC Hemp” and work with distributors to sell cannabidiol products in 2020.
“We’re trying to launch a branded product and recoup as much value as we can,” Acheson said.
He and Morris attended a lot of educational events together and worked as a tag team, filling in for each other when necessary.
“I’ve never worked with anyone who can be herself in so many circles and connect with so many people,” he said.
Morris has made connections that could potentially lead to a future venture – with food, farming and rural-community building as a foundation. While there are no specific plans yet, she said she envisions a “Community Powered Kitchen.” Area farmers could produce the food, which would be processed in a nearby commercial kitchen. To improve ease of access and affordability of locally sourced food the Community Powered Kitchen would offer to consumers sliding-scale meal-membership fees as well as to-go meals and work-to-eat trade programs. The kitchen also could provide good jobs for people in rural communities.
Carolyn Carter, a bachelor of science-registered nurse with Heartland Hospice, has discussed the concept with Morris. With Carter’s experience in health care, the venture could possibly include physical- and mental-health monitoring.
The time that Morris took a few years ago to work in related – yet different – farming practices as well as researching business models has led to her new opportunities. And it seems she’s taken that 2016 conference theme to heart as she’s “building connections toward resiliency.”
Lynn Grooms writes about the diversity of agriculture, including the industry’s newest ideas, research and technologies as a staff reporter for Agri-View based in Wisconsin.