Justin Duell recognizes few would view his recent career change as a logical leap.
He was making good money in financial planning and tax preparation, but it became clear where his heart was — and it wasn’t in the office. So Duell bought a farm.
“I’m learning as I go, and I haven’t messed anything up yet — at least not too bad,” Duell said.
Duell, 32, is in his second month as a full-time farmer and knows every second will count if there’s a chance to make do without a supporting job. He’s committed to trying.
He operates The G Farm, located on Manu Road and adjacent to U.S. 10.
Duell is a one-man show, and his life shift has required both brains and brawn. It's taken planning, financial restraint and a healthy dose of ingenuity, but he continues to notice that in trading his khakis for a pair of manure-caked jeans he’s living the adage that there's a difference between making money and making a living.
“It’s been pretty empowering, actually,” he said.
'This is our farmer'
Duell purchased the 27-acre former dairy operation last year and continued to work at the office while learning the ropes. His methods differ from what most imagine at the mention of Wisconsin farming.
He doesn’t do dairy, nor have fields of corn or soybeans. He’s banking on diversity.
Duell, who jumped full-time into the farming operation in early spring, adheres to the philosophy of regenerative agriculture, which is aimed at improving the land just as much as reaping its bounty.
He has 10 cows grazing the grassy pastures. He started a nursery and a large garden for vegetables. The G Farm is home to chickens and ducks and the turkeys will soon arrive. Duell sells directly to his consumers and figures he can prepare 1,800 birds for local dinner tables before winter returns.
There’s plenty to juggle, he said, but he arrived used to having a number of balls in the air.
“I think I was more worn out two years ago when I did 550 tax returns,” Duell said. “I’m sore, but my brain isn’t as tired.”
Duell set out to appeal to the environmentally minded consumer. His customers carry deeper concerns than many about how their food is produced and how animals are raised.
Tanya Johnson of Appleton said there's another benefit — meat from Duell's farm tastes better.
Johnson, a social studies teacher at Celebration Lutheran School, developed an interest in the environment and agriculture as part of her studies. She learned of The G Farm through a friend and it's become their go-to source for chicken and beef.
She said she appreciates his philosophies, but there's also something special in the ability to talk to the person producing her family's food.
“I like that he invites people to come out and visit and be part of it,” she said. “It makes you think, ‘This is our farmer.’”
'Food is medicine'
Neighbor Justin Olson credited Duell for improving a property that had been degrading before he purchased it.
"I think all the neighbors appreciate how hard he's working," Olson said.
Duell said the land will continue to improve by way of his farming. He grazes his cows and rotates them through different pastures. It simultaneously feeds the animals, benefits the soil and promotes grass growth. Similarly, his chickens are kept in the pasture in bottomless cages and moved daily. The birds get better nutrition by foraging in the grass, and the grass benefits from the nitrogen in their droppings.
Duell’s pigs have a role in the farm labor. They put their rooting instincts to work in a combination of hay, manure and feed, continually turn it about and start nutrient-rich compost that’s returned to the land.
Emily Heeg of Hortonville met Duell through a permaculture design course. They became friends, and she'll go to work in his garden this year.
Not just anyone could do what Duell has done, she said.
His love of the outdoors and the freedom of farming contributed to his change in path. She said his resourceful nature and calm among risks will make it work.
She said the farm is producing quality food, but will also set a good example and teach.
"We should be thinking about what we're putting in our mouths," Heeg said. "They say food is medicine."
Land rich, cash poor
Duell’s story isn’t quite the “Green Acres” variety urban-to-rural tale.
He spent his younger years on his family’s dairy farm, but his parents divorced and he moved to the Fox Cities. Agriculture wasn’t on his radar when it came time to think about career options.
He served in the Army and then settled into another family business, this time financial planning. His experiences on the farm, though, didn't leave his blood.
He started a garden and raised a few chickens as a homeowner in the Town of Menasha. His grandfather granted access to his Manawa maples, and this year Duell produced 19 gallons of syrup.
Duell figures his new life on the farm wasn’t so much a decision but the culmination of a journey from “a garden to chickens to maple syrup to finally asking, ‘What do I want to do with my life?”
He suggests his path isn’t so illogical.
Duell’s prior career taught him the tax benefits, grants and subsidies available for agriculture. It also offered lessons on how to build a small business.
And while it taught one definition of wealth, the farm has taught another. He said he's land rich and cash poor, but he's satisfied.
It's hard work and there's little time to put the feet up for a marathon television session.
"What kind of quality of life is that any way?" he said.