Editor's note: This article is part of a series of articles featuring members of the Soil Sisters, an official program of Renewing the Countryside. The community of women farmers advocate for family farming and locally produced food.
MONROE, Wis. – Ashley Wegmueller cares for calves and heifers, and manages "The Dairy," a farm-stay business at Wegmueller Dairy Farm near Monroe.
When and why did you join Soil Sisters?
Wegmueller: I attended my first Soil Sisters event in summer 2015. I had just left teaching and wanted to have a market garden. I saw on Facebook an event called "In Her Boots" at a farm in Monroe. It seemed too good to be true, but I signed up right away. I was nervous about attending the event not knowing anyone, but everyone there was so welcoming and helpful. Every Soil Sister that I met was all about helping one another. It was unlike anything I’d ever really experienced. Typically people look at their "competition" in a guarded way. That was the complete opposite and so refreshing.
When and why did you begin farming?
Wegmueller: My grandparents, aunts, uncles and friends had dairy farms but I wasn’t raised on one. Our family had horses and mules, dogs, cats and a garden. One of my favorite photos from childhood showed my family's garden next to “my” sunflower.
I took a different career path; I became a teacher. Then I met my husband, a fourth-generation Brown Swiss dairy farmer. For the first six years of our marriage I didn’t have too much to do on our farm. But I always had a small garden -- and every year it became a bit bigger.
I was suffering from major burnout and was in need of a life change. I decided in 2015 to leave teaching to pursue other interests. My main focus was expanding my garden and growing produce for market. I started in summer 2017 managing baby calves and heifers on our farm. And in fall 2018 we opened Green County’s first farm-stay business on an active dairy farm. Since then we’ve hosted guests from across the United States as well as from Great Britain, Switzerland, India, Ecuador, Spain and Rwanda. We offer hands-on activities for guests who are interested. That includes feeding calves with bottles and hand-milking “Frankie,” one of our cows.
What do you produce on your farm and why?
Wegmueller: Our main product is milk. I still have a garden. But it's been more difficult finding enough time to do everything I’d like. We have dreams of opening an on-farm creamery and farm store where we could sell milk and other dairy products, vegetables, baked goods and other unique items.
Does your family help with the farm?
Wegmueller: My husband, Dan Wegmueller, manages our Brown Swiss herd. In the past several years he has modified the farm so we can manage it without hiring employees. We rent cropland to a neighbor-friend, which allows us to balance our workload. I still care for the calves and heifers as well as manage the farm-stay. Dan's sister, Genia Allard, bakes wonderful treats for our guests. We hope to one day feature her baked goods in our farm store.
How have you learned what you need to know to farm?
Wegmueller: I have tried to learn everything I can from anyone or in any way I can. Having mentors and other farmer-friends is a great thing because we all can learn from one another. We all have successes and failures. Sharing our experiences helps us all learn and grow.
Whom do you admire as setting a good farming or lifestyle example and why?
Wegmueller: Honestly I admire my husband. He's a fourth-generation farmer and has taken the farm in new directions. He has incorporated practices he learned while living abroad and isn't afraid to take a different path. We’ve made many changes on the farm and discovered we work well as a team. He’s the visionary – always thinking 10 steps ahead and from A to Z. I’m the details person -- and will determine how to move from A to B to C.
What are your biggest challenges as a female farmer?
Wegmueller: The biggest challenge is being considered a farmer and not just "the farmer's wife." It doesn't matter what one’s tasks are on the farm. Every person brings a unique set of circumstances to the table and offers a part to the whole.
What do you see for your farm and farming in general 20 years from now?
Wegmueller: We have met farm-stay guests from around the world. The majority want to know and support farmers. I feel as if there’s been a growing movement of people wanting to know more, make good choices and support their local farmers. Animal welfare, fair wages and taking better care of our planet are becoming more mainstream.
The agriculture industry seems to be moving to "bigger is better." But we're seeing that isn't necessarily true. The negative that comes with the "too-big-to-fail" mindset is that small farms are falling by the wayside. My hope is that it isn't too late.
What would you like the general public to know about farming?
Wegmueller: Work to know farmers. Support them whenever you can by purchasing directly from them. Attend farmers markets. Follow farmers on social media to learn the how and why of what they do. Cheap food comes at a cost. Know what that cost is.
What advice would you have for other women interested in becoming farmers?
Wegmueller: Just jump in. You'll never feel fully prepared and that's okay. You learn so much by trial and error. Become involved. Find your people and learn from one another.
Soil Sisters will host “A Celebration of Wisconsin Farms and Rural Life” Aug. 7-9 at various member farms. The weekend of farm tours and food is open to the public to “tour, taste, learn and play in the multi-faceted on-farm weekend involving more than 20 women-owned farms.” Visit soilsisters.wixsite.com/soilsisters and renewingthecountryside.org for more information.
Agri-View is looking for a sponsor for our Women in Agribusiness page - page A3 in each weekly edition. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.