FB honoree Kellie Zahn helps build ag program for Native American community

Dan Hansen
Growing up on the farm Kellie Zahn's first love was the animals. She started by feeding calves, and still has a passion for them.

CLINTONVILLE, Wis. – Growing up on a farm often includes forging strong bonds with animals and the land. For some that means remaining on the farm, while others find a path to a career in agriculture off the farm.

Kellie Zahn has continued to help out on her family’s multi generational Waupaca County dairy farm while building a successful agriculture career off the farm.

She was honored with Wisconsin Farm Bureau’s Young Farmer and Agriculturist Excellence in Agriculture Award at the organization’s 102nd Annual Meeting in early December.

The award is presented to a Farm Bureau member between the ages of 18 and 35 who is actively engaged in agriculture but derives the majority of his or her income from an off-farm agricultural career. The winner is selected based on his or her knowledge of agriculture, leadership in Farm Bureau and other civic organizations.

“This contest highlights individuals who have positively impacted Wisconsin agriculture, Farm Bureau and their communities while motivating others to do the same,” said WFBF President Kevin Krentz. “Kellie is an incredible advocate for agriculture and Farm Bureau member.”

Zahn has been a Farm Bureau member since 2012 and serves as a board member and YFA Chair for the Shawano County Farm Bureau. “I enjoy helping to build this network of young farmers within the community,” she noted.  

Zahn will compete at the American Farm Bureau Federation’s Annual Convention in Atlanta, Georgia in January and receive $1,500 from GROWMARK, Inc.

Passion for agriculture

The youngest daughter of Douglas and Mary Behnke, she earned a bachelor’s degree in agricultural business from UW-River Falls and worked as an agronomist for a local cooperative. Then five years ago Zahn became the agriculture agent for the Stockbridge-Munsee Native American Community.

On a recent Saturday morning, Zahn took a break from grinding corn on the farm to share with Wisconsin State Farmer details of her work as an agriculture agent and her involvement in a variety of other activities, that include working with youth in her church.

Growing up on the farm her first love was the animals. “I started feeding calves, and when I was 9 I was bringing cows into the barn for milking, and cleaning stalls,” she recalled. “Animals were my first passion, and I still really enjoy working with them.”

She never once seriously considered a career outside of agriculture. “I knew this was my passion. Now I find it to be such a gift to be able to grow food for people,” she acknowledged. “To be able to use the skills and gifts that I have to grow food for people is something that I find very rewarding.”

Zahn was looking for new challenges – something with a little more flexibility so she could spend more time at the farm – when the position with the Stockbridge-Munsee Community became available.

MORE: Wisconsin Farm Bureau YFA Conference full of engaging moments

Building a department

“It was a brand new position for an agriculture agent,” she said. “It started with two bullet points as part of a strategic plan that included the tribe’s interest in investing in agriculture. When I started, there really wasn’t much of a job description – maybe a half-page list of duties.”

The Stockbridge-Munsee reservation comprises a checkerboard pattern across two townships in western Shawano County. “The tribe has a population of around 1,600 members, with 600-700 members living on the reservation. Some members live nearby, and there are others living across the United States,” she said.

The position, and her duties, have grown over the past five years. 

“It’s been really fun being able to build an agriculture department. Right now we have six acres fenced in, and we’re growing vegetables on two acres of that. We’re growing cover crops on the rest of it to slowly build the sandy soil and expand the areas where we can grow vegetables,” she said. “We also have four community gardens that I manage.”

One of the things Zahn has been working on over the past couple of years is bringing indigenous crops back to the community. 

“Some tribes have a really strong history of seeds that have been passed down from generation to generation, but that really wasn’t the case here,” she said. “There really wasn’t the huge bank of traditional seeds at this community, so I’ve been working with some tribal members who are really interested in growing indigenous foods. I’m working on tracking down some of these seeds, and bringing them back to the community.”

As agriculture agent for the Stockbridge-Munsee Community, Kellie Zahn checks on the fall corn crop.

Two seasonal high tunnels serve as three-season greenhouses for the community. “In one of them we had tomatoes and cucumbers growing through November. We also had lettuce and spinach growing in another one,” Zahn related.

While the focus is on indigenous corn, beans and squash, the top-producing items this year were cucumbers, watermelons, tomatoes and beans. “This year we harvested over 9,000 pounds of produce,” she reported.

Learning and sharing

Zahn focuses on helping community members learn more about planting and growing crops. 

“I try to have between 15 and 20 classes each year that focus on starting plants and caring for plants while they’re inside, along with information on planting and growing techniques,” she explained. “We’re really try to connect with people whether they’re growing a couple of tomato plants on their porch, or if they have big gardens. We try to make sure we have something for everybody.”

Zahn also offers some bee-keeping classes, and food preservation classes. “We just try to cover a variety of areas to connect with all members of the community,” she stressed. 

Seed saving is also part of her work with the community gardens.

“We have a couple of different varieties of blue corn and white corn, and we have to keep those separate so they don’t cross pollinate,” she emphasized. “We also have to keep our beans and our squash separate, and we have those in our other community garden plots, so we can save seed from those and share them with community members.”

A large part of Zahn’s work during the winter is preparing grant applications for various community projects. 

“Right now we’re working on infrastructure around the farm,” she said. “We were able to put a well in this year, and have a wash-and-pack facility onsite to take better care of the vegetables.

"We were awarded a grant this past fall to build a retail space so we can have more of a center for distributing the food. We have a community supported agriculture (CSA) program serving about 55 families who were receiving a box or two of vegetable each week during the summer, and I’ve been bringing all that back to my office, so it will be nice to get a building down by the garden.”

She’s also working on creating freezer meals and mixes so that food is more readily accessible for everyone in the community.

Ryan and Kellie Zahn, left, are joined by her parents, Doug and Mary Behnke, on their Waupaca County dairy farm.

Future on the farm

Although Zahn plans to continue in her position as agriculture agent with the Stockbridge-Munsee Community for the next three years, or more, she and her husband, Ryan, are working toward ownership of her family’s farm.

“We were married in 2012, and Ryan has been working full time with my parents since 2015, and I help out on weekends and during the summer with harvesting and crop scouting,” she said. “We’ve been talking seriously about transitioning ownership of the farm for the past three years, and in early December we officially formed an LLC with my parents for the operation of the farm.

“Over the next several years Ryan and I will be slowly working on purchasing the farm, transitioning to the next generation, as my parents are looking to retire,” she said.

Zahn admitted the prospect of ownership is daunting at times. “The farm is so much larger than when my parents bought it, but they really want to see the farm succeed, and are working with us to make sure we can have a smooth transition. Ryan and I are excited about the opportunity.”