Farm families have always worked together, sharing jobs and helping out as needed, whether in the fields, caring for livestock or repairing equipment.
In other industries, it would be called "cross-training." On the Gitto Family Farm n Kitchen, pitching in to help as needed is not something that is questioned. The philosophy of the entire family is "Just do it."
"With ten children, 8 of them living on the farm, they have varying calibers of talents," Greg Gitto explained. "Tim, for instance, can fix anything. Laura and Katie are good with the cows, and Jim, who is 15, knows all about breeding and crossing the breeds and keeping track of it all."
Rachel is in charge of the green house; Tony and Joe work with manure handling, barn cleaning, feeding and other jobs as needed. Ben, 11, washes equipment and helps where he can.
"Everyone has some specific jobs, determined by their interest and unique skills," Greg said. "After these jobs are done, they jump into someone else's job as needed. We homeschool, and the ones who are in school fit their school hours into their schedules."
His wife, Carol, added, "The whole family helps with harvesting on the days we go to markets. When someone needs to be off, they can all cover for each other."
The family is in their 11th year at the Madison Farmers' Market.
"It's a good market for selling, but it's also a good hub that helps us get out into other markets," Carol said.
They also go to markets in Oconomowoc and Milwaukee. Two of the girls generally go to the markets, and they get help from Greg's 84-year-old mother who is fluent in Spanish, something they say helps in communication with many of their customers.
The focus of the Gitto farm is split between raising their herd of about 65 Jersey and Jersey-cross cows and raising vegetables for the many farmers markets they serve all year round. Along with these ventures, they have found a great deal of success in the creation of their own unique, organic tortillas.
That venture began in 2011 when they leased a licensed kitchen in Lake Mills to make the tortillas they sell alongside their vegetables at farmers' markets. As folks began to recognize the unique flavor of their tortillas, word spread, and soon they found requests to supply them to popular organic markets.
Now they make 80 to 90 percent of the tortillas for wholesale markets such as Metcalf's, Willy Street Coop and Whole Foods.
"We're in 14 stores now," Greg said. "People really like our tortillas. People like that they can pronounce all the ingredients on the label. They are basic and wholesome. They don't have preservatives, but they will last in the refrigerator up to five weeks."
With the increasing demand for their tortillas, they are in the process of building their own licensed kitchen right on their farm. Plans are to open it this summer. They acquired some grant money from the state's energy program and Greg has been able to utilize his skills as a licensed electrician by doing the electrical work himself.
Greg had been a successful electrician in Waukesha County for twenty years before deciding he'd really like to try farming. The idea of farming also fit in well with their interest in providing the opportunity for their children to experience farm life and learn how to work together.
They sold their home in North Lake and moved to Jackson County where they started learning the ropes of farming. They worked long enough in dairying to know they wanted something more than just working with cows. Greg then took a job in Vernon County working on Harmony Valley where he learned a lot about raising produce for farmers markets and restaurants.
He said taking a pay cut when going from electrical work to farming was a big hurdle, but Carol and the family were very supportive of the idea. "You can't put a dollar value on everything," he said. "It's been a great family business and everyone is a part of it."
After moving a few times as they learned the ropes of farming, they settled on a farm between Watertown and Lake Mills in 2006.
They bought the 80-acre Watertown farm from Randy Schultz who lives across the road from them and now raises cash crops and steers. Since the Gittos began their organic business, he has also converted his farm to organic. They buy hay from him and appreciate the good working relationship they have with him as a neighbor. They also rent some additional land.
When they started in the dairy business, their oldest son, Tom, was a partner. The family milked 125 cows and bought their feed. "It was a model that worked back then because you could buy feed as reasonably as you could grow it," Greg said.
Then the bottom fell out of milk prices, and feed prices rose. Tom sold his half of the herd and took a job off the farm. The family continued to milk the remaining 65 cows, and after receiving their certification for organic, began shipping their milk to Horizon.
Another son, Steve, also works off the farm, but both Tom and Steve and their wives help out at the family business when they are needed. Steve and Ali have established fruit trees at their Lowell home and plan to market the fruit in the future.
They went through some challenging years, but their vegetable business continued to grow. They now plant 10 acres in vegetables and have incorporated a hoop house into the business to allow them to get a head start on some plants and to grow other plants during the cold months of winter.
Rachel is in charge of the greenhouse. She is especially busy in winter when she carefully monitors the temperature, covering plants with row cover in the evening and uncovering during the day. Roll up sides add air when the temperature gets too hot inside.
They start all their plants, including green beans, early in the shelter of a greenhouse. Carol says it is good marketing to be the first in the farmers' market with the popular vegetables.
The Gittos also process some vegetables that they make available at the winter markets. They do a pesto with greens, have roasted peppers frozen and regular frozen peppers, frozen broccoli and frozen winter squash.
Carol, Rachel and Laura have all taken food safety classes and have passed the tests to qualify for the processing in their licensed kitchen.
They also monitor what others have at the market and try to provide unique things that customers want. Their salad greens have been very popular, and they are able to raise them in the hoop house a good share of the year. They have a spicy mix and a variety of other greens.
Organic fits well with the Gitto family's outlook on life. "We just think that farming naturally without pesticides or herbicides is the right way to do it," Greg said.
He is careful not to be critical of other methods of farming and says there is certainly nothing wrong with other methods or the product they produce. For them, however, it is a way to stay relatively small and involve everyone in their large family. It is also a way to be somewhat self-sufficient, and there is some satisfaction in that.
The family utilizes modern technology, computers and continues to work on ways to automate vegetable washing, handling and cooling. On the other end of the spectrum, they work with ancient farm practices that farmers used for keeping cows healthy and crops productive before farmers had drugs, herbicides and pesticides.
In the gardens, for instance, the family spends a lot of time weeding by hand. They compost their manure, partly to burn the weed seeds while still preserving the nutrient value of it as fertilizer. They make sure the ground is well prepared before planting.
They use drip tape irrigation to provide water directly on the plant's roots and avoid runoff and evaporation. They also use a wand and hose to water plants.
Greg stresses that organic farming is not just the absence of something or farming by neglect. It is a different way of building the soil, managing the land and taking care of the environment. By using crop rotations, cover crops and green manure crops, they are able to make improvements in the land and grow healthy crops.
Organic farmers must not only follow approved standards, but they must also be able to prove they do. There is a lot of paper work involved.
"Every seed that goes in the ground, we have to have a seed packet to show the inspectors," Greg said. "Anything that we use anywhere on the farm has to have a receipt and a label with it, and they want to see it all."
One reason why organic products are more expensive is the added cost of production that comes from the certification and licensing, inspections and paperwork. Organic farming is also more labor intensive.