Back to the farm: Program aims to beef up farming in the state
By JOE ORSO | La Crosse Tribune
Andrew and Ana Skemp were on the path to the heights of academia. Now, they’re on a farm.
Their decision to leave the University of Arizona with master’s degrees to begin farming bucks convention but makes them part of a small, burgeoning movement.
“We were kind of on the PhD track but decided we were more excited about moving back here,” said Andrew, 30, sitting in their home on Hwy. YY surrounded by bluffs. “We’re in the driftless Midwest. This is one of the most beautiful places in the country, and it’s where we’re both originally from.”
Four years after returning to La Crosse County land that has been in Andrew’s family since the 1940s, the couple is participating in Farm Beginnings, a 10-month program for new farmers and farmers making the transition to sustainable practices.
The farmer-led program blends courses on planning, goal setting and sustainable farming with mentoring and farm tours.
It began when a group of farmers calling themselves the “Wabasha County Give a Damns” reacted to what they saw as a worrisome trend: Who would farm in the next generation when some of the brightest people were moving away from farming communities?
The program, run by the Land Stewardship Project, initially held courses in southeast Minnesota in 1997. More than 60 percent of its graduates now farm.
“The conventional wisdom out there is you’re crazy to have this idea” to begin farming, said Karen Stettler, program director of Farm Beginnings. The program “builds enthusiasm and hope and a sense of I’m not alone in wanting to farm.'”
Wisconsin has lost half its farms in the past 50 years, with only 76,000 active farms statewide in 2006, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
But while the number of farms has declined, Farm Beginnings grows. It now offers programs in southeast Minnesota and southwest Wisconsin, has helped start similar programs in Illinois and North Dakota, and has inquiries from other states.
One focus of Farm Beginnings is for farmers to create holistic goals.
The Skemps, both Aquinas High School graduates, named as goals providing their family with a traditional, rural setting as well as choosing sustainable solutions over the quickest and cheapest ones. They also plan to farm organically.
In January, three beef cows were delivered to the farm, which is down the road from Andrew’s family’s larger operation. The couple also breeds horses and is considering raising pastured chickens.
Andrew teaches communications skills at Western Technical College, while Ana, 29, began staying home last March with their new daughter, Audrey, and plans to manage the farm.
“We want Audrey to grow up in a traditional, rural environment and to be intimately connected to seasons and the outdoors,” Ana said. “To have a good understanding where her food comes from and to understand the hard work that goes with raising your meat.”
Planning farm succession
“Farming into the Next Generation,” a workshop by the Land Stewardship Project for beginning and established farmers becoming involved an intergenerational farm business, will be held Feb. 8 and 9 and March 14 and 15 in Winona, Minn. The registration fee per farming unit is $150, which covers materials and lunches. If more than four people are in your unit, $50 will be charged for each additional person. For details or to register, contact Karen Stettler at (507) 523-3366 or firstname.lastname@example.org.