TOWN OF EAU PLEINE - Stacy Martin does not look like a typical farmer, as she's tromping through pastures in yoga pants. She sounds more like a self-help counselor, talking about finding her true self, than someone who raises livestock.
And she doesn't run her farm in a typical way, either.
The 32-year-old married mother of two young boys took a unique path to develop a mini-ranch. It is the opposite of a CAFO, or concentrated animal feeding operation, the type of industrial mega-farm she thinks can harm the environment and treats animals as objects. She's sharing the story about her ranch because she believes her experience holds value for people looking for food produced in healthier, more sustainable ways than those designed to maximize profit.
She presides over a small herd of beef cattle, a slew of chickens, a few pigs and some hives of bees. Her operation takes place on about 10 acres of a 40-acre parcel north of Junction City. She calls the farm MooPoo Ranch. Martin sells a limited amount of her grass-fed, free-range beef, chicken and pork — along with honey and eggs. The customer base is so small that she doesn't earn an income from the farm. Money from her sales is used to pay the operating expenses.
Her husband works on a line crew for Wisconsin Public Service and helps out on the farm when he's available. But Martin runs the ranch.
Martin has reached this place by way of trial-and-error experience that included years of working for a CAFO as a cropland specialist and then as a state Department of Natural Resources regulator who oversaw large agricultural operations. She's outlined her journey, and what she's learned along the way, in a self-published book called "One With Nature, One With Love."
Stacy Martin's MooPoo Ranch can be considered a micro-farm. She wants to use it as example of a factory-farm alternative. Keith Uhlig/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
Martin's goal for the ranch is to continue to provide food for her family. But more important, she said, is an underlying purpose to maximize happiness for herself, her family and the animals for which she cares.
"My intention is to use my ranch as an example for the world to see a healthy, sustainable way of producing food," Martin said. "There's a huge disconnection today between people and their food, overall. ... That's where I'm moving toward, bridging that gap between people and food, and giving people the tools they need to produce their own food."
The book "One With Nature, One With Love" is just one avenue Martin uses to share her viewpoint. She manages a website, www.moopooranch.com, that includes a blog she updates regularly. She also posts video logs about the ranch and its management on her own YouTube channel. So far she's created 35 videos that explore subjects such as her mobile chicken house (to ensure that chicken manure doesn't become concentrated in one spot), visits by Pete the Bull and how she prepares her pigs for butchering day.
Martin doesn't aim to be an anti-CAFO activist. She instead wants be a voice for a small farmer.
Helping people 'find peace'
In some ways, Martin is using a former colleague's experience as a template for her goals now. When Martin worked on the large farm, she got to know Kim Bremmer, an agriculture consultant and speaker who has formed her own business, Ag Inspirations. Through Ag Inspirations, Bremmer helps farmers tell their stories as a way to bolster their own businesses and the industry in general.
When she and Martin worked together on the CAFO, Bremmer was a nutritionist for the dairy herd.
Bremmer doesn't believe that the types and sizes of farms matter as much in terms of the environmental impact and healthy food production as the farmer who runs them. For example, a large CAFO could run an operation that's cleaner and better for the environment than a small organic farm, if the CAFO is managed well and the small farm poorly.
But she thinks Martin's goal of spreading the word about the daily operations of Moo Poo Ranch is important, because she's using media and messages that appeal to the millennial generation, a massive group of people who are further from farming than any of their predecessors.
Martin, Bremmer said, "is taking everything she learned and incorporated it into the life she wanted."
Martin in her book details the journey to micro-ranching while she delves into the more personal parallel story of self-fulfillment and self-discovery.
"It's not so much that I want to help people raise animals," she said. "I want to help people find peace. I want to help people find the deeper meaning in life. And I want people to become reconnected to themselves in the process. Because that's exactly what I've done over the last several years over a lot of struggling to find my purpose."
Martin grew up in Rothschild and is a 2003 graduate of D.C. Everest Senior High School. As a kid, she loved animals and was fascinated with the idea of raising them. As a girl, she didn't quite know how to actually do it, and she couldn't be sure she ever would get the chance.
She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point with a major in soil and land management. But she still wanted to work with animals, so she found a job on a central Wisconsin CAFO where she eventually became an agronomist and certified crop adviser.
She learned about cattle, the use of pesticides and herbicides and all of the other aspects that make CAFOs efficient as businesses. But Martin could never find peace while working at that industrial scale.
Meanwhile, during this time, she began to raise her own beef cattle, just a couple at a time, and began to dabble in raising chickens, bees, pigs and ducks.
"I didn't know what I was doing," Martin said. "I kind of learned as I went."
'Never felt settled'
Martin then went to work for the DNR, inspecting large farming operations and approving agri-business permits as they related to manure- and crop-management.
That job took an even deeper toll than working for the mega-farm. "I didn't see any value or promise in the environmental regulations (I was enforcing)," she said.
Those regulations, set by legislators through the political process, "don't truly protect water, ground water or surface water. ... I felt I was working solely as business support, and not environmental protection, and it made me sick," Martin said.
Martin believes that DNR regulators are doing their jobs as best they can within the confines of the law and the political system. But the system as a whole is broken, she believes, and being part of it produced a sense of anxiety. She had to walk away.
"I just never felt settled, and I struggled with that," Martin said, referring to both the work with the CAFO and the DNR. "I was always looking outside of myself for my answers for anything. Through the process of raising animals, I became aware of the fact that everything I need is within me."
Her own intuition and observations helped guide her to raise healthy animals, and Martin used her intuition to find a way best for herself, too. That's when Moo Poo Ranch became more than a ranch. It became a way for Martin to talk about the things she is passionate about: quality food, nurturing animals, maintaining a healthy environment.
None of it is designed to imply that her way is the only way. Martin thinks everyone needs to determine what's best for them in how they eat and live their lives.
"I'm not proclaiming that anyone should do it this way," she said. "I'm following what I feel is right. And that's the principle. That's what (this) is all about."
Learn more about MooPoo Ranch
Stacy Martin aims to teach people about the life of small-scale farmer using a variety of media. Her website can be found at www.moopooranch.com. She produces video blogs on YouTube, search for MooPoo Ranch one the video-sharing site. Her book "One With Nature, One With Love," can be purchased on amazon.com for $12.