WHEELER, Wis. – Caleb and Lauren Langworthy are diverting from the path of self-reliance that many farmers tread. The young farmers strive instead to make connections and build community because they believe interdependence is what creates a stable rural economy.
“Farmers in the past relied on one another,” Lauren Langworthy said.
It’s a philosophy that motivated the Dunn County couple to seek leadership roles with the Wisconsin Farmers Union and to reinvigorate their county’s Farmers Union group. And it’s why in part they buy hay instead of harvesting their own. They also purchase a Community Supported Agriculture vegetable share from beginning farmers; they’ve sold shares of their own production in the past. Networking and supporting fellow farmers with their time and pocketbook are important to the Langworthys – as is the do-it-yourself doggedness necessary to establish their own farming future.
The Langworthys operate Blue Ox Farm near Wheeler in northwest Wisconsin. Fans of American folklore, they named their farm for Paul Bunyan’s mythical towering companion.
The couple purchased 153 acres in 2013 by utilizing a beginning-farmer loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency. They’ve also tapped programs from the USDA National Resource Conservation Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Dunn County Land and Water Conservation to improve farm conservation and soil quality. They have fenced 55 acres for managed grazing and plan to fence an additional 30 acres in 2019.
While they started with high-tunnel certified-organic vegetable production, they’ve since switched to livestock production. Caleb Langworthy said labor and margins were concerns with fresh-market vegetables.
“And our sandy soil wasn’t being supported by that annual-production model,” Lauren Langworthy said.
They rotationally graze 150 Coopworth ewes and their lambs – a breed developed in New Zealand. A small herd of beef cows was recently added – Scottish Highlands bred to a Hereford bull. The Langworthys strategically graze their beef cattle in their woods. They said they’ve seen marked improvement in a short time in the understory quality and productivity. They’re working to build soil organic matter with techniques such as winter bale grazing by their livestock so manure is strategically deposited.
Lamb and beef are direct-marketed via social media and to former Community Supported Agriculture customers in Minnesota’s Twin Cities. They also wholesale lamb to food cooperatives and restaurant chefs.
The Langworthys are natives of Zumbrota, Minnesota. After high school Caleb Langworthy worked on vegetable farms. That’s where he caught the farming bug. He earned a degree in agriculture from Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. He then taught school and managed a large market garden that fed students at Golden Hill Area Learning Center in Rochester, Minnesota.
Lauren Langworthy attended Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, before working with 4-H and Extension Master Gardeners in Olympia. Now she’s the program director for the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service. Based in Spring Valley, Wisconsin, the organization spearheads the MOSES Organic Farming Conference held every year in La Crosse, Wisconsin.
She’s also a state director for the Wisconsin Farmers Union. Her husband is president of the Dunn County Farmers Union. The two assumed leadership roles after participating in a Farmers Union Enterprises leadership-development program in Wisconsin, Minnesota, North and South Dakota, and Montana. Their first experience was in Montana where they met leadership-program predecessors Tenzin and Stacey Botsford of Red Door Family Farm near Athens, Wisconsin. Tenzin Botsford said he appreciates the Langworthys.
“They’re proactively engaged and (are) kind-hearted and caring people,” Botsford said. “They’re interested in learning and helping to direct (public) conversation in a productive manner.”
Darin Von Ruden, long-time president of the Wisconsin Farmers Union, is a dairy farmer from near Westby, Wisconsin. He said the Langworthys have not been bashful about jumping into leadership roles and provide outstanding service to the organization.
Von Ruden said the organization has been attracting many beginning farmers similar to the Langworthys. He attributes the influx to issues the organization addresses. It hosts a Community Supported Agriculture conference every other year, which he said tends to draw young people interested in a more non-traditional avenue into farming. The organization also sponsors an emerging-leaders program in November for new members.
The Langworthys will host a Wisconsin Farmers Union-co-sponsored pasture walk Aug. 22, the fourth pasture walk they’ve hosted. One of the written goals of their farm is to provide space for the community to interact and learn. Hosting a pasture walk fits with that goal. It’s a way to meet more farmers and overcome divisions within agriculture, Lauren Langworthy said. She said farmers have far more in common than not.
“Farmers are such a small population broadly that we have to stick together,” she said.
Farmers are independent and professional problem-solvers, Caleb Langworthy said. But supporting one another is what makes the countryside a vibrant place to live.