Oconomowoc couple relishes role as innovative farmers, educators

Gloria Hafemeister
Michael and Courtney Gutschenritter enjoy farming and building a future for their children Ylva Joy, 3 and Hanna Faye, 1.  They also enjoy promoting agriculture in any way they can.

Oconomowoc – For some farmers, telling the story of agriculture is a year-round effort, not just reserved for special weeks like National Agriculture Week, celebrated every year in March. This year the Agriculture Council of America has set aside the week of March 21-27 to celebrate and acknowledge the agricultural industry and the role it plays in stabilizing the economy.

Michael and Courtney Gutschenritter, who now farm full-time despite not growing up in farming families, fully understand the importance of educating their customers and non-farming neighbors about agriculture. To spread the message of agriculture, the couple host numerous farm tours and are interviewed in many publications about their innovative farming ideas.  They also maintain an active marketing and promotion effort on social media.

“Through social media, we offer a clear and accessible story of our farm family for the public to follow along with,” Michael said.

Courtney says they also write two newsletters: one for the general public so they can better understand the thought, passion, and work behind running a farm with a young family. The other newsletter is for egg farmers who want to elevate their business and create more enjoyment and profitability on their farms.

“Our social media outlets both reach about 3500 people and our newsletters reach about 700 individuals. We also host pasture walks and occasional tours for the public and other farmers.” Courtney said.

The couple got into the farming business ten years ago simply as a way to prevent their family farm located in the rapidly developing Oconomowoc area from being sold to anyone outside of the family.

Michael was living in Colorado at the time when he learned that the farm his grandpa had bought in 1954 and where he and his family had lived since 1985 was going to be sold. Without any actual farming experience, Michael expressed interest in moving back to Wisconsin to try his hand at farming. In the years that followed, his relatives have expressed gratitude that he was able to return and keep the farm in the family.

Courtney had a bit more experience under her belt having spent several years working and learning on diverse farms around the country and in Italy. She eventually moved back to Wisconsin and started a prominent flower business, growing and arranging flowers for weddings around the Midwest.

Custom-raised heifers stand in a pasture behind the family's barn covered with solar panels installed nearly five years ago by Michael Gutschenritter’s dad who also installed a solar hot water heater in his house.

In his first year of farming, Michael spent time growing a loyal customer base with a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model, selling weekly boxes of fresh vegetables and eggs to local families. Since then, Courtney joined him and together they grew the farm through multiple phases. Today they specialize in pasture-raised eggs, lamb and wool products, as well as raising custom grazed heifers for the nearby Koepke farm. They are also proud of the farmer-to-farmer education they are able to provide.

The Oconomowoc couple's conservation efforts include never having exposed soil on their land.  They have accomplished this through the establishment of perennial pastures and using grazing strategies to maintain them.  Working in partnership with the NRCS, Michael and Courtney are enrolled in Environmental Quality incentive programs and have also planted 150 bur oak trees along interior and exterior fence lines.

Learning from challenges

Coming back to the farm present a few challenges for the couple. However, they managed to meet those challenges and continue to learn from them.

Like many businesses, the Covid-19 pandemic presented a hurdle for them initially but they dealt with the issue in a positive manner which results in an increased the market for their eggs. Before the pandemic rocked the economy, the couple's hens were supplying eggs for 15 restaurants, all of which shut down within a week. The shut down left them with no primary customers and an additional 1150 dozen surplus egg inventory.

Because most grocery stores were running out of eggs during the panic shopping, Michael and Courtney quickly acquired shelf space at 11 additional grocery stores.  With their daughter strapped to her back, Courtney and Michael’s mother packed dozens of eggs so they could deliver them every day. The increased demand led them to invest in a new industrial egg washer via a grant. The investment helped them to supply grocery stores in a more efficient manner.

As the Gutschenritters built their business, they worked closely with local mentors who they say helped them to think clearly about the necessary steps to improve the farm.

They talk every few months with Steve Hartwig, an organic egg producer in Wisconsin, about a wide range of egg production details that are difficult to learn without mentorship.

The couple works closely with Kirsten Jurcek, a Wisconsin beef grazier who comes out to their farm three or four times a year to walk the pastures and answer questions about animal performance and its relationship to the Gutschenritter's pasture management.

Each week Michael and Courtney meet with Charlotte Smith to develop their mindset skills. Not only has this helped the way the operate the farm business on a daily basis, it has also changed how they function as a family with two young children – Ylva Joy, 3 and Hanna Faye, 1.

Laying hens move through a pasture on the Gutschenritter farm. The family's conservation efforts include the establishment of perennial pastures.

Experimentation pays off

Experimentation has been a necessary component of their business. Three innovations have proven effective in streamlining their management.

The first is the a system they've dubbed HenPen. The self-designed fencing system facilitates the daily move of poultry, their coop, and the fencing ‒ a fundamental tenant of pastured poultry. The system saves labor and enhances bird health and expedites pasture recovery by up to 7 days. The innovation has allowed them to grow their flock of hens from 1800 to 2800 birds without investing in additional infrastructure. 

They also designed a reliable winter water system for poultry, which involves recirculating large amounts of clean, warm water.

Lastly, they created a lighting system for the mobile chicken coops. Despite being away from AC power, the system is able to provide the right amount and type of light required for healthy egg production no matter where the coop is in the pasture.

The couple plans to sell the self-penned manuals of all their designs and innovations on their website at a cost of $75 to $1000 per manual.

A flock of sheep enjoy established perennial pastures kept robust via grazing strategies. The Gutschenritters hope to grow their wool enterprise to become 35% of the farm’s financial picture within the next decade.

Calculating risks in new product sales

The couple has also taken some risks experimenting in the area of new product sales. Together they felt wool was an undervalued fiber in the farming community. As a result of that foresight, they retained the sheepskins from their ram lambs, tanned them and sold them online resulting in a 65% profit margin. 

They also save all the shorn wool and work with a custom weaver to process the wool into blankets. The unique blankets are sold on their website and generate a 57% profit margin. Taking these experimental risks has paid off and has created a huge demand for their wool products as a result. As they grow their flock to 200 ewes, the Gutschenritters plan to focus their marketing on clients in Chicago, New York and San Francisco.

Together they have come a long way in the 10 years they have been on a the farm. Today their goals include growing their wool enterprise to become 35% of the farm’s financial picture, continuing to improve the egg enterprise and serve as a model for other farmers by selling manuals and books and pursuing speaking engagements at conferences, making education 35% of their farm’s income in the next decade.

As the landscape of farming changes, they also plan to explore innovative ways to build their business and refine their grazing management to sequester 1% more carbon each year.