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Beginning, veteran farmer grazes his way to success

Tivoli Gough
Merrie Schamberger, NRCS Winnebago County District Conservationist, and Justin Duell, The G Farm Owner, view cattle by the barn.

LARSEN, WI - Entering Justin Duell’s farmhouse, you’ll see his passion for farming stands out quickly. A shelf of homemade maple syrup graces the entry, calling to all visitors who stop at The G Farm in Larsen, WI.

Duell is a beginning, veteran farmer who joined to serve in the Army after 9/11, then came home to finish school, get a job, and ultimately, start a farm. He doesn’t have your traditional farmer’s background. He did tax preparation for 10 years and still does it today, only doing so to keep his newly found farm passion alive.

“It really was an initial concept of preparedness. I kept looking at my cupboards and found nothing in there, so I decided to start with a little bit of canning and gardening,” said Duell. “While living in the city, I scaled up and got a few chickens, to have some continuous production. I was allowed 5 pets, so I had 4 chickens and my dog, Jack.”

Duell enjoyed canning, gardening, and raising chickens, so he wanted to expand. His father and grandfather had a property with many maple hardwoods. He decided to start making maple syrup.

“I only made $90 from the syrup the first year, but I realized I loved the work and wanted to continue making syrup, so I decided to rent land from my grandpa to use the trees on his property.”

Duell developed a preliminary business plan, estimating the trees in the woods and the potential income.

“I thought, I can really do this; I wanted to replace the tax preparation with farming; eventually with the goal of being a full time farmer,” said Duell.

G Farm founded

The G Farm was founded in August of 2014, before Duell acquired any farmland. He started the infrastructure and then purchased farmland to ramp up production.

New farmer Justin Duell promotes his business on the side of the G Farm Barn, using his farm logo and website. The internet and social media helped the veteran explore and learn the different facets of farming.

“I wasn’t fulfilled completely at the end of the day with my current tax work, so I asked myself what am I going to do, then it was right in front of me; do what I really enjoyed, so I decided to actively farm,” said Duell.

Talk about a modern farmer, Duell listens to podcasts to learn about sustainable agriculture. He also keeps an active Instagram, Facebook, blog and website for The G Farm. Through social media, podcasts and books, he efficiently learned how to set up the business aspect of his farm, how to make an entity, and more.

Income through chicken production was Duell’s main entry point; he purchased a 27-acre farm in Winnebago County. Duell gained a USDA Farm Service Agency loan, purchasing six pregnant cows, and one cow/calf pair. He currently grazes 11 cattle.

“I am trying to move to a comfortable capacity for my barn and farmland,” said Duell.

When Justin acquired the property, heifers had previously been kept in the barn over winter and two fields were being cropped in alfalfa. Corn was tried in another field and plowed ruts were left because the corn didn’t work due to poor soil quality. He knew he had some work to do to improve his land and was ready to get started.

NRCS partnership

He attended a permaculture design course and heard about the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) through Peter Allen, grazier and teacher of the course.

“I learned about sustainable agriculture and learned so much about successful farm strategies. That’s where I learned how to work with the NRCS. I am so thankful I’ve had the opportunity to work with local District Conservationist, Merrie Schamberger. She has a great background in permaculture; she’s progressive, offering ideas and solutions; she goes the extra mile sharing articles and materials that can help me on my farm,” said Duell.

“He is the first farmer I’ve had that really is actively into silvopasture, agroforestry and shelterbelts; so I share pertinent materials with him. Justin has really done a lot of legwork for his farm to be successful and the beginning farmer program with NRCS helped him achieve his goals,” said Schamberger.

Through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), a conservation activity plan for grazing was developed.

“Justin was able to start by developing a plan for his farm, to effectively manage and plan out the installation of grazing practices with the help of NRCS,” said Schamberger.

Starting with a conservation plan gave Duell the opportunity to put his goals down on paper, and see what was realistic as a beginning farmer.

“It helps you plan what you can do directly with the space you have,” said Duell.

Duell recently received another EQIP contract for pipeline, fencing, watering tanks, and re-seeding pasture for 2017. The plan is to restore the old corn field and re-plant it with hay and other pasture plants that will benefit Duell’s entire grazing system.

“I have been rotationally grazing from day one. I started with two acres and two paddocks to move them around a little bit and it’s evolved from there,” said Duell.

The goal is to get the interior fencing and paddock fencing in this year, once the pasture is seeded, and start following a more definitive plan for moving the cattle. Duell has also applied for a high tunnel to be able to start his garden growing season earlier.

Grazing network

Schamberger constantly works to establish a grazing network in Winnebago County, connecting Duell with others who are doing similar work.

“We’ve had 10 new grazers in the last couple years, and networking with one another is very beneficial. Through these connections, Justin was able to build a relationship with another grazer to have his cattle graze on their property to breed. It also provided time for his pasture to re-establish,” explained Schamberger.

Duell is also an active participant in the Conservation Stewardship Program through pasture planning and planting trees and shrubs that produce flowers and berries for wildlife in his pastures.

“He is hosting a pasture walk on the farm this year to teach others how to effectively implement managed grazing,” said Schamberger.

Justin Duell’s freezer is filled with meat produced from the cattle that graze on his farm. This bounty is supplied to customers that visit his on-site store.

Duell is proactive and willing to help educate others where their food comes from and how to effectively graze animals.

“I want to be able to advocate for someone else to farm in a manner that is sustainable,” said Duell. His interest in silvopasture also sparked the need to plant more trees on the property.

In 2016, he planted 750 trees and shrubs including cherry, apple, raspberry, lilac, hazelnut, black walnut, maple and more.

“I created a silvopasture, planting eight rows of trees and some around the 3-acre pond, to provide a buffer along the field edge border,” said Duell.

The new EQIP contract will provide assistance to add rows of trees in a different pasture area as part of a shelterbelt. “Cattle can graze in between and it adds a windbreak for them, plus shelter for winter,” adds Schamberger.

A holistic approach

Duell’s ultimate goal is to provide great, locally sourced produce, pastured poultry, and other seasonally accessible items to his customers. He practices a holistic approach with principles rooted in creating a sustainable, diverse and well managed system. Cattle, pigs, chicken, and turkeys are raised in rotating pastures that will be increased with EQIP assistance.

“I also have a farm partner, Emily Heeg, I do a yearly garden with; we do vegetable stands and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA’s),” said Duell.

The garden is free from herbicides and pesticides. He and Heeg also utilize alternative techniques to increase soil fertility, avoid pest issues, and increase nutrient content.

Justin Duell shows where his chickens are kept. Duell initially started his operation with just four birds in his flock.

“You can’t have cows and manure, all this garden waste and compost; all the things you create, and not be able to use it, so I want to make my farm a full circle and use all the nutrients and products that I make,” said Duell.

Duell needs his conservation plan to work together with his farm goals.

“In my conversations with Merrie, I was able to make my goals achievable. Once we had a conservation plan, she shared lists of practices I could implement, so I had many options,” said Duell.

Quality and conservation

When asked about the importance of conservation, he thinks there’s no other way to farm.

“I send out a weekly email and recently it was about the importance of providing high quality food and taking care of the land in the process,” said Duell.

Duell works two jobs and keeps the farm going because it’s his passion. He knows the farm is the environment that makes him happy.

“I live a pretty minimalist life, and I want to work to build a healthy, vibrant future at The G Farm,” said Duell. “The toughest thing to do is to get started, and the beginning farmer program with NRCS helped me achieve my goals.”

Justin Duell and NRCS District Conservationist Merrie Schamberger in front of the barn store hours sign at The G Farm.

He feels most proud when he gets an email from a customer he has had a direct impact on. Whether it be through the food he produces, or through a farm visit, he realizes he’s making a difference.

“That positive feedback keeps me going,” said Duell.

His goals for the future are to keep the farm successfully running, while also continuing to do more on the farm with the help of NRCS.

“Justin is a great example of a beginning farmer who’s partnering with NRCS, using the programs to his advantage to get his farm up and running,” said Schamberger. “He has had to learn to be flexible; it’s good to have plans, but he realizes the timeline and what he can really accomplish in a year. He is realistic about goals; we can do everything he wants to do; and we are looking at the years and spacing of practices to accomplish this.”

Duell continues to push himself forward; in the next year he plans to build a fully diversified farm encompassing all the ecological benefits that a full eco-system brings. He truly wants to be your farmer, to bring high quality meat and produce to your dinner table