ANTIGO, Wis. – Igl Farms is proving smaller farms have staying power. Brothers Brian and Brad Igl and their father, Tom Igl, have carved a niche with organic production in Wisconsin’s potato industry.
Family members say they pride themselves on growing nutritious food for their customers. And with their Organic Spuddies brand, they’ve literally put a face on organic-potato production.
The Organic Spuddies logo features three potato heads wearing hats. The resemblance to the brothers and their dad is unmistakable. The Igls said it’s important customers know how, where and by whom their food is produced. The family does the day-to-day farm work as well as answering the phone when customers call.
Igl Farms consists of about 300 owned acres in Langlade County, Wisconsin; the third-generation farm has been in the family since the 1930s. The brothers’ grandfather, Herman Igl, was one of the first potato growers in the Antigo area. In addition to about 65 acres of organic potatoes the current family grows organic oats. The oats are under-seeded with clover and sold primarily to organic dairies.
Alfalfa and grass are grown for hay; they direct-market grass-fed beef. The Igls have a commercial Angus cow-calf herd of about 60 head. Feeder calves consume dry hay and cull potatoes in winter. Beef is direct-marketed by word of mouth.
Brian Igl, 50, served with the U.S. Army in Germany; he earned a degree in the German language from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He returned to the home farm in the mid-1990s; by that time his father had sold his small dairy herd. But now at 80, Tom Igl is still behind the tractor steering wheel.
Brad Igl, 46, has a master’s degree in agricultural engineering from UW-Madison. He worked for major farm-machinery manufacturers before returning to the family farm in 2005. While he jokes he returned after 15 years to farming for “fame and fortune,” he said he actually found it difficult to sit at a desk. He longed for the challenges and ever-changing tasks that farming offers.
The family started transitioning to certified-organic in 1997 though at that time organic agriculture wasn’t yet popular. Potato prices were terrible in 1996, Brian Igl said. He and his dad received a $400 check for 40,000 pounds – and they didn’t have the volume needed to compensate for poor prices.
It was after listening to an uncle extol alternative agriculture that they decided to grow potatoes organically.
“Any sane person would have quit long ago,” Brian Igl said. “There have been a lot of struggles. But my eyes were opened to a different way of doing things.”
Healthy soils balanced in minerals go hand-in-hand with organic farming to achieve the farm’s goals. They are among only a handful of Wisconsin growers raising potatoes organically, said Tamas Houlihan, executive director of the Wisconsin Potato and Vegetable Growers Association.
“They’ve been doing it for a long time and do it well,” he said. “They’re well-respected in the industry. They do a fine job of raising potatoes; they’re very conscientious.”
The family persevered in learning, refining organic methods. They concentrate on improving soil biology and nutrients with cover crops and crop rotation. Their fall-planted cover-crop mix is winter rye, oats, buckwheat and a tillage-type radish. They mechanically cultivate – and even pull Canada thistle and wild radish by hand. They depend on varietal resistance to prevent disease problems. They use minerals for healthier tubers, and sanitation and coolness to maintain tuber quality in storage.
They’ve worked on potato trials with Doug Rouse, a UW-Madison professor. Rouse has studied potatoes in mixed crop-livestock systems to determine the influence of reduced potato-acreage density on pest problems. Results suggest a dramatically reduced need for pesticides.
The family markets some potatoes through the Wisconsin Food Hub Cooperative, a Wisconsin Farmers Union project. It connects small farms with larger retailers. Food outlets access multiple farms via a central entity; the warehouse is in Waupaca, Wisconsin. Brad Igl is vice-president.
Sarah Lloyd is special-projects coordinator for the Wisconsin Farmers Union. She’s the director of development for the cooperative, which is owned by farmer-members and the farm organization. She said the Igls were early members.
“Brad is really an important part of the cooperative and building the cooperative to be a strong actor to get better market access for members,” she said.
The cooperative was launched in 2012 and has grown to more than 40 farms. About $2.6 million in produce was sold in 2017.
The Igls say they see continued challenges for small potato farms. It’s difficult finding smaller potato equipment. Food-safety demands by government and food retailers regarding produce farms are intensifying. Profitability is always an issue.
But with biological and organic methods the brothers and their father are confident their faces will remain on bags of Organic Spuddies into the future.
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