These women were willing to find a niche in the ag industry
MADISON – One of the workshops at the virtual annual Wisconsin Farm Bureau convention this year featured four Wisconsin farm women who successfully found niches in order to diversify their farming businesses.
All four panelists offered advice to those considering diversifying: just do it.
Birth of the 'pizza farm'
Heather Secrist, owner and farmer at Suncrest Gardens Farm, described how her farm evolved since 2004. What began as a little farmer’s market stand in her hometown of Alma grew to a year round CSA and then shifted to what she terms “a pizza farm.”
She began by running her home grown ingredients (vegetables, meat and eggs) through her own farm kitchen where she creates ready-to-eat foods out of all the items they raise at the farm. Gradually the business grew.
Her husband Jason runs a 90-cow dairy farm that has been in his family for over 150 years. Their sons enjoy being a part of each farm’s different operations and living out in the country.
The rustic barn on the farm provides a place for many gatherings. There’s seating for 72 in the barn (reduced to 32 due to COVID 19) with a wood-stove to make the space warm and cozy during the cooler seasons.
Goats serve diverse population
Leslie Svacina developed a meat goat business on her family’s farm in St. Croix County. Her husband, Scott, has a job in agri-business so when they decided they wanted to have a farm of their own they knew it had to be something she could handle herself. After some market research she decided raising goats on pasture would be a way they could farm without owning a great deal of land and it would be livestock she could manage herself.
Her past marketing experience told her that specialty markets were a way for young business owners to enter the industry.
Through market research Svacina found that goats were something in demand, especially with the diverse population based in nearby Minneapolis-St. Paul.
She says most goat meat is shipped in from Australia because it’s not something readily available in many U.S. markets.
“There was an opportunity for me to break into that market for people who wanted a local option,” she explained.
She points out that it takes a lot of time to build relationships and deliver a customized product.
She and Scott purchased the farm in 2011 and spent the first few years building new fence, putting in a seasonal water line, installing animal walkways, and updating the outbuildings and farmhouse on the former dairy. Later Leslie purchased her foundation herd of Boer goats and has been growing the herd ever since.
She started small, marketing through the local livestock barn at first. Now, she has a herd of 40 breeding does with a goal of about 60. To reach that goal she markets only the male goats.
Gelato was the way to go
Amber McComisch is a dairy farmer who wanted to find a way to diversify and make use of some of the milk produced on the farm. After a little market research she decided gelato was the way to go.
She and her husband Joe and operate a farm with his parents milking about 230 dairy cows in rural Shullsburg.
Desiring to supplement the family’s income, she started mixing batches of gelato last year, perfecting her creamy concoctions through trial and error. She started making the product in an ice cream machine in her kitchen.
As her business grew she moved to Platteville Business Incubator and began selling her flavors throughout southwest Wisconsin and northwest Illinois. As business increased she decided to rent a space in Darlington and open a shop that also includes specialty coffees.
The timing of opening her downtown business might have ended the venture before it began for some people but McComish figured out a way to open her new business despite the summer COVID 19 restrictions. She especially felt compelled to push on with her business when the bottom fell out of the milk market bringing the biggest drop in the prices paid to farmers for their milk in all of the years they had been in the dairy business.
Because of the restrictions, they decided to postpone the opening of the shop for a week and then open with a pickup service. It turned out to be a great way to get exposure for their gelato because people – eager to get out took advantage of the opportunity to pick up treats for their family – stopped by to see what this unique product was like.
Strawberry farm a good fit for family
Danielle Clark was also searching for a way to be involved in agriculture with her husband while remaining at home to care for their three sons.
She and her husband Tim come from multi-generation farm families and each wanted to be able to educate non-farmers about the importance of agriculture. When a long-time pick-your-own strawberry farm came up for sale in their county they decided it would be a good fit for them.
She admits, “I never even picked strawberries before so I had a lot to learn but we had some help from the former owners and other strawberry growers who helped us learn the ropes.”
Being a seasonal business they sought ways to add more enterprises.
The 19-acres of strawberries take a great deal of management and hand-work and sometimes finding enough help can be an issue. That’s why the “U-pick” works well for them.
Knowing the importance of pollinators on the farm, Clark decided to add 20 bee hives and get into the honey business as well.
She also raises some cut flowers to market privately and at some local floral shops.
This year they have diversified even more by adding goats to the mix. Along with it she has developed some specialty products that she markets at the farm.
The four women talked about challenges and sources of help as they entered their individual enterprises. All agreed that it was easier to create a good product than it is to market it.
Secrist said labor was an issue as their on-farm business grew but she found help from interns from the local high school. One intern stayed on and brought new knowledge to the business.
In winter she engages the employees in brain-storming sessions to figure out ways to make the business run smoother.
Svacina said she gained knowledge about raising goats on pasture from other farmers. She also sought out cook books and recipes for goat meat and has shared ideas and recipes with potential customers. This served to bring customers back for more meat.
McComisch initially found help from others utilizing the facilities at the Platteville business incubator. She also sought advice from the dairy product experts at the Center for Dairy Research and obtained marketing advice and exposure from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation.
The local Chamber of Commerce assisted in promoting her shop locally and most recently she has started promoting her gelato and business on YouTube.
Clark said she initially got help from other strawberry growers on the logistics of growing the berries. She says, “Networking through the Wisconsin Berry Growers Association was very helpful.”
She also makes good use of social media in promoting the special events and additional products at her farm.