KIEL - As farmers Steve and Marie Deibele navigate a tractor tire-rutted mud lane on their homestead on a dreary spring day, their passion for healthy land, healthy animals and healthy food becomes more apparent with each bootstep.
The pair raise beef cattle and Berkshire pigs, but unlike many others in the business, the Deibeles did not grow up on farms. Steve worked for years as an engineer out West, and Marie was born and raised in San Diego, California.
But what Steve lightly calls "horse-aholism," a strain of "animal-itis," drew him back to his roots in the Midwest. And as the pair researched farming, they quickly decided to avoid dairy farming, and instead focus on raising beef and pork in an environmentally friendly way.
Dairy farms, Marie noted, require milk parlors and more startup costs, plus the herd requires several milkings each day. Raising protein, on the other hand, allows the family to grow the farm at their own pace.
They began Golden Bear Farm about 15 years ago and haven't looked back. Today, they raise 250 pigs a year, with plans to grow to 1,000; and 30 cattle a day, with plans to grow to 45 or 50. Any more than that, and they wouldn't be able to do the kind of farming they hold dear, Steve said.
They direct sell, often to families, and deliver only in a few cases. The farm sells a quarter half or whole steer; and whole pigs, cut to order. They began selling at farmers' markets, and now have families seek them out each year.
The pair knew they wanted to raise food that is healthier for customers. Their animals are not fed corn, soy or GMOs (genetically modified organisms), and cattle are 100 percent grass-fed. Pigs have free access to barley, field peas, kelp and molasses, as well as seasonal fresh fruits and veggies.
Steve now works with local apple orchards to collect un-purchased fruit in late fall. He pays for the price of picking, which allows orchard owners to pick apples without worrying about the cost of labor if customers don't purchase the apples. Each pig receives about 1-3 pounds of apples each day throughout the winter, Steve said proudly.
"From a nutritional standpoint, it's great for the pig," he said. And the healthy foods make for better tasting pork, he said. He estimates only a third of 1 percent of Wisconsin residents have eaten pigs raised using organic standards, and that they would be surprised at the taste difference compared with the mass-produced pork most consume.
And not only is the beef and pork better tasting, the meat is also more healthful to eat.
The meat is lower in fat and calories, and higher in Omega-3 fatty acids, which helps heart health and reduces risks of obesity, arthritis, allergies, insulin resistance and autoimmune diseases, Steve said.
Their pastures are certified organic, meaning they use only organic seed and never use pesticides, or chemical weed control or fertilizer. If someone brings their own equipment to work the fields, it must be cleaned.
They also work to preserve topsoil and plant a variety of trees and natural wildlife. They've developed movable fencing so they can move both pigs and cattle from one pasture to another, which not only is good for the land, but also provides variety for the animals. They have access to a large paddock every day, and in the pastures they can roam freely, with plenty of fresh air and sunshine. Berkshire pigs, with their darker skin, do not suffer from the same sun issues as pink- and light-skinned animals, they noted.
The farmers also show concern for the mental health of the animals.
"We try to give them a lot of space," Marie said during a tour of the pig barn. "We studied this. What's the amount of space that's good for them? It adds stress if they're too close together. Like people, if they're too close together, they might get agitated. They need room to grow. We also have balls to play with, and we move them around the pastures. They need enrichment and mental stimulation. We want them to have a low-stress, happy life."
Because they spend so much time with the animals, the farmers are happy when the animals are happy, Steve added.
The biggest challenge for the farm is making sales, Steve said. Because Golden Bear does direct sales, people must go out of their way to pick up the meats at the butcher rather than at the grocery store with the rest of their food.
Steve Deibele, owner of Golden Bear Farm in Kiel, Wisconsin, is a self-proclaimed "horse-aholic." Deibele shares why he returned to Wisconsin to farm and talks about the benefits of raising happy, healthy animals. Josh Clark/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
"That's one thing we considered when we added the pigs," he said. "Since the convenience is less, people will spend the time if they can get more than one kind of meat. Many people who would call us up, would say 'I'd like to get a pig.'"
That also has its challenges. "We talked to our friends, and they said hardly anyone does pigs," Marie said. "That's because raising pigs is really, really hard."
Customers visit mostly from Sheboygan, Manitowoc and Calumet counties, with a healthy amount traveling from the Fox Valley and Green Bay, and a smaller number from the Milwaukee area.
Some people will call when they are traveling through, because they want to eat free-range foods while they are in the area.
The additional costs of buying farm-raised and organic meats and produce also can be a hindrance, Steve said.
"In our country, food is extremely cheap," he said. "People see a grape as a grape, or an egg as an egg. But if you look at milk and egg products, you can see the difference. If you have true free-range chickens, the yokes are a deep, deep orange. Pasture-produced butter will be a deeper yellow color, instead of the almost white butter you might see in the store. The differences are there, the challenge is making people aware. Clearly, our meat products are more expensive, we think it offers the best nutrition and flavor."
That dedication goes all the way to the heart of the Golden Bear name.
"Both of us have formal backgrounds in California, which is the Golden Bear State," Steve said. "Golden Bear is actually grizzly bear, and they've been extinct in California since the early 1900s from being hunted. To make our business animal-centered is important to us."
They both are dedicated to research and development of new, better methods as they come along.
"Just like other businesses, agriculture is in constant change," Steve said. "Look at how different things are from 10 years ago. What will farming look like in 10 years, 20 years or 50 years from now? What will people's eating habits be and spending habits be? What will grocery stores or restaurants be like? That all impacts what we do."
For information, visit www.goldenbearfarm.com or call 920-333-0005.