HERBSTER, Wis. – A lot of people think the really important work is done at the highest levels of government and industry. They believe a wealthy tech-company CEO is more important than most folks. But world religions teach that the truly important work is done by regular people who toil day in and day out in anonymity. It turns out what seems unimportant to many is really the most important work of all.
About a year before the pandemic started Tim Duis and Erin Sullivan bought 39 acres on a remote dead-end road near the village of Herbster on Wisconsin’s Lake Superior shore. There’s evidence that long ago a farmstead existed there on the bank of the Cranberry River. In recent times part of the land had been cultivated in plots to attract deer for a hunting camp.
On a summer morning the couple paused from planting to talk about the farm they named Kiddlywink – after a favorite pub at Pendarvis, a site run by the Wisconsin Historical Society in Mineral Point, Wisconsin.
“We were suburban kids,” Sullivan said. “I grew up in a Washington, D.C., suburb. Tim grew up near Chicago. We both grew up with big home gardens.”
Duis said, “I remember going to the farm market in Lincoln Park in Chicago with my mom when I was little.”
Sullivan added, “I grew up knowing what a real tomato tastes like.”
Duis continued, “We were in graduate school and something just didn’t fit somehow. I had always been interested in nature and being outdoors. There are things you give up in any profession as you focus your energies down one path. And I had become interested in what I was cooking and eating. I got in the habit of buying fresh produce at a little store on my way home from the library at night. It was regular produce from the big supply chain, stuff from California shipped to Chicago. We got into the habit of cooking with fresh whole foods. At some point it all converged.”
They also began going to farm markets.
Sullivan said, “Our life began to revolve around going to the farm market twice a week. We got to know people. We made sandwiches with fresh bread and tomatoes. We got to know the people behind the produce, the farmers. We went from the fuzzy idea of ‘we like fresh food’ and gardening to the idea that people like us could actually farm.”
Duis said, “We ran a tiny (community-supported-agriculture venture) from 2 rented acres for five seasons. The land was between Sun Prairie and Marshall, Wisconsin; we lived in Madison. We commuted to the land, which wasn’t really a good fit. We took a trip every year around the new year. Most trips were in the direction of Mineral Point. We came up here on a whim; I didn’t think at all about settling here.
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Sullivan added, “It was minus-30 degrees! But we did pick up some real estate brochures. We saw what land was selling for here back then. We knew what land was selling for in Dane County; granted there is some really good soil there. But we looked at the price for the land with the house and the cost of equipment. We saw we would not have to go far into debt.”
Duis said, “It felt right with the woods and the lake.
“We’re growing vegetables with an emphasis on the late season. Last year we kept a regular volume of business going through Thanksgiving. This year we will push into December. Hardy root crops and hardy greens in high tunnels is our formula.”
Walking through fields with high tunnels full of growing plants, plots of vegetables growing, and pens of ducks and chickens, it’s easy to see that farming is no fuzzy idea to Duis and Sullivan.
Pointing to the growing grass surrounding cultivated land, Duis said, “We cut the grass for both bedding and soil amendments. We think, counting the land we are cutting biomass from, we figure we’ll be cultivating half of our 39 acres in the end.”
Sullivan added, “We have eight Ancona ducks, more on order and eggs in incubation. As soon as we put eggs in our incubator a duck started sitting on some eggs too. We have more than 40 chickens. We sell duck and chicken eggs, and produce meat for ourselves. We barter chicken for pork with another farmer to magically turn chicken to bacon for our own use.”
Duis continued, “We keep the ducks and chickens fenced and out of the market gardens. Where the ducks are now we’ll plant fall greens. Having the ducks eat early generations of slugs that would be laying eggs will limit the slug population on that land this fall.”
Food deserts, places where no grocery stores exist, frequently make the news in big cities. But much of rural America has become a food desert as small grocery stores in small towns have closed. Many folks in far-northern Wisconsin live more than an hour’s drive one-way from a grocery store with fresh vegetables.
Duis said, “It’s interesting that way up here in far-northern Wisconsin we have a neighboring farmer (Elsewhere Farm) doing a winter (community-supported agriculture) and we’re concentrating on late-season vegetable production. We grow root crops like parsnips, celeriac, turnips, carrots and this year rutabagas. We grow tubers. This year we’ll try sweet potatoes, probably in a low tunnel.”
Duis and Sullivan are direct-marketing their produce at local farm markets. They manage the farm market in nearby Cornucopia. They are also working with a local online marketing firm, Authentic Superior, to market through a REKO Ring.
Important work is being accomplished in far-northern Wisconsin. Broken international food-supply chains are being replaced by local systems and farms. Food deserts are being addressed. Farmers and consumers are linking through a variety of systems that give a sense of community while providing good nutrition and better health. Look to folks like Erin Sullivan and Tim Duis to see solutions to our some of our problems as they make steady positive progress.
Jason Maloney is an “elderly” farm boy from Marinette County, Wisconsin. He’s a retired educator, a retired soldier and a lifelong Wisconsin resident. He lives on the shore of Lake Superior with his wife, Cindy Dillenschneider, and Red, a sturdy loyal Australian Shepherd.