Manitowoc County farm ready for strawberry pickers
TWO RIVERS - Throughout a conversation with a reporter last week, customers trickled into Wilfert Farms store to buy some freshly grown asparagus.
This stream of customers will only grow bigger as summer brings crops — pick-your-own strawberries, pea pods, sweet corn, cauliflower and zucchini, all the way to fall pumpkins and squash.
Running a fresh vegetable and produce farm may not be the direction Dave and Terri Wilfert saw their lives heading growing up on dairy farms, but today they wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I love working with the people,” Terri said. “You see so many of them come back all summer, and come back year after year. You get to know the customers. I really like that.”
The farm is a family affair, with son Ryan helping to plant, cultivate and pick crops and daughter Kelly helping to sell produce, run the farmers market stand and promote Wilfert Farms through social media.
Originally, the farm was a dairy operation, but when the U.S. placed a wheat embargo on Russia in the early 1980s, Dave said the demand for wheat crops dived, and Wilfert Farms began to look at alternative crops, including carrots for food processors.
The carrots took off, and in 2000, Wilfert Farms grew about 5 percent of processing carrots in Wisconsin. The farm was the first to grow carrots in sandy (rather than wet) soil, and today the industry has switched to mostly sand-grown carrots in Wisconsin.
Dave developed his own — and very precise — irrigation system. On a windy day in the fields not far from Lake Michigan, he and Terri checked tiny carrot plants and said if the wind continued they would spray water on the fields so the seedlings wouldn’t be swept away.
“These are the things you learn over time,” said Dave, who takes pride in using the best seeds and plants available for his fruit and vegetables. “Quality is really important to us.”
With the success of carrots, the farm added more vegetable and fruit crops, now growing about 30 different kinds of produce.
The family started growing strawberries about 13 years ago, Terri said, and with plants full of blossoms, should be ready for picking in a few weeks. About half the strawberries the farm grows are sold pre-picked and half are picked by customers.
“I just love when kids come and their little faces are dripping with red juice from the berries they ate in the field, and I say ‘Do I have to weigh you today, too?’” Terri joked. “It’s always a fun time of year.”
Crops are grown continuously throughout spring through October to provide a steady stream of fresh veggies and fruit for customers.
“A lot of people say, ‘Oh, are you done planting now?’” Dave said. “They think we plant once in spring and then we’re done.”
That feshness is important, Dave said, and many customers will stop by several times a week or even nearly every day during the summer for the very newest produce.
It’s the attention to quality and freshness that makes Wilfert Farms stand out, Dave said. He’s proud people come from Appleton, Green Bay and even farther away to buy at the farm. Many will make a stop as they head to or from Door County on Interstate 43.
Community involvement also is important to the Wilfert family.
Dave is a member of the Manitowoc Chamber board, and works with the Mishicot School District’s FFA Alumni program. They also donate to three Manitowoc-area food pantries.
“For all the advantages our kids had, we both feel it’s important to give back to the youth in our community,” Terri said.
Wilfert Farms, celebrating 140 years this year, was named the Manitowoc Chamber’s 2016 Small Business of the Year.
Dave said it’s important to teach people about the agriculture industry.
“The U.S. has the cheapest and safest food supply in the world,” he said. “I don’t think people always know or appreciate that.”
Dave grew up in a house near the Wilfert store, and his brother lives in the old family farmstead a few miles away. Like his six siblings, Dave attended college, earning two bachelor’s degrees — one in marketing and the other in economics — from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.
Terri grew up on a dairy farm in Kewaunee County and has a bachelor’s degree in dairy science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
The couple is pleased their kids are involved in the farm, though Terri says they never pressured them.
“Ryan, from the time he was 2 years old, loved to ride around on the tractor,” Terri said. “Kelly was in to 4-H, the horse project, public speaking, that sort of thing. They both were active in FAA.”
Kelly said she loves working at the store and on the farm.
“We don’t see a gap between the product and the consumer,” she said. “If people buy produce from a grocery store, it’s at least four days old, and they don’t ever see the farmer who grew it. Here, they can talk to the folks who produced the vegetables and fruit, they can answer any questions you have and you can learn about how it’s grown."