Around this time of year, attendance at farmers markets wind down. Yet some family farms in the Northwoods produce all year round, and they have a hard time reaching their customers.
Last year, a group of five women farmers found a creative way to fix that problem. Mackenzie Martin has the story.
Jasmyn Schmidt spends about 100 hours a week talking about or doing something related to local food.
She’s the Farm to School teacher for the Northland Pines School District. She’s also a farmer specializing in things like homemade pickles, jellies, chutneys, and kimchi. And she’s one of the creators of the North Woods Farm Share that has been operating for the last year.
Often Schmidt will send out all of the North Woods Farm Share emails from her desk Friday morning and then she might teach kindergarteners about eating cranberries. And then she’ll come back and answer three emails and then she’ll teach kids about plant parts in another classroom. Then she’ll grab her stuff and drive to St. Germain, drop off two Farm Share orders for teachers, and teach another lesson.
The North Woods Farm Share calls itself a farmers co-op CSA. Each week, members receive an email with the products available for the week, they order only the products they want, and then they have the option of five different Northwoods pickup locations in Land O' Lakes, Rhinelander, Three Lakes, Eagle River, and Minocqua.
Schmidt and four other women farmers created the North Woods Farm Share last year because farmers in the area have a problem. They depend on local customers. It’s great in the summer when the weather is nice and tourism is booming, but it's difficult to find and engage with them in the winter. Winter farmers markets have low turnout and it’s usually a lot easier to just head to a grocery store on your way home from work.
“Suddenly the season is over and you don’t have access to the customers,” says Schmidt. “And that’s sort of how this happened. Now we’ve got customers that can’t get to a Wednesday morning farmers market because they work and they’re locals, not tourists, and that’s who we wanted to serve. The people who live here.”
Schmidt says that they’re not trying to replace farmers markets, as much as just give local customers another option. The prices are the same and by sending out a list, customers can make sure they get exactly what they want.
“We mostly hear ‘I love that I get to choose,’” says Schmidt. “And ‘I love that I don’t have to order on weeks that I’m gone.’”
In addition to fresh produce, they have breads, fresh cheeses, meal kits, and more. They currently have 300 members, nine participating farms, and they pack between 70 and 80 orders a week.
The headquarters of the North Woods Farm Share is Hillbilly Hollow LLC in Eagle River. It hasn’t been around as long, but the owner of the store was one of the original pioneers that started it and it aims to serve the same goal. The store is exclusively stocked with products from local farmers by its owner, Kathy Martin.
“Farmers that are bringing in their products, I’m paying them cash up front,” says Martin. “So they’re not waiting to sell their products. They’re getting paid right away.”
That comes with risk for Martin.
“We just opened at the end of June,” she says. “So we still have a little bit of time to go before we can really say if this is going to work or not work, but I think there’s enough interest in local foods and supporting local agriculture that I think it will work.”
The benefit after all to buying local is that your money stays in your community.
“If you buy carrots from me, I’m going to spend the money here in this store or on gas here or on my kid’s school soccer fee,” says Jasmyn Schmidt. “If you buy something from the grocery store and it comes from Del Monte, that money is going anywhere. Mexico. China. California. It’s not staying in your community. We’re not even saying the money you’re spending on the Farm Share stays in Wisconsin, we’re saying it stays within a 50 mile circle.”
In the end, both Jasmyn Schmidt and Kathy Martin are farmers who had similar problems. They had products all year round but had trouble reaching their customers. And they act like banding together with three other women farmers last year was the only way to do it, but it wasn’t. Many in this situation might have been tempted to see each other as competition. Martin says they just never saw it as an option.
“I’m not trying to sell more than the next guy,” says Martin. “Because honestly, if one of us doesn’t succeed, none of us succeed. It’s that simple. And we all realize that.”
Is it hard being a farmer in northern Wisconsin? They both say yes, but Schmidt says it’s clearly rewarding or there wouldn’t be so many of them still trying to do it.
“We have family farms, people who have all four of their kids out in the field with them, we have farms that have been in the families for several generations,” she says. “We have a farmer who just decided two years ago that he was going to start an apple farm. So, I mean, the stories are all different, but obviously there is still value to it or we wouldn’t all keep doing it.”
The Northwoods Farm Share has pickup locations in Land O' Lakes, Rhinelander, Three Lakes, Eagle River, and Minocqua. Those interested in joining the North Woods Farm Share can send an email to email@example.com or go to their facebook page at North Woods Farm Share. A one year membership costs $15.
Hillbilly Hollow is located at 708 E Wall St. in Eagle River and is open every day of the week. They’re always looking for more products from local farmers to sell. Hours can be found at Hillbilly Hollow LLC on Facebook.
This story is part of our We Live Up Here series, where we tell the stories of the people and culture of northern Wisconsin. Some music for this story came from Podington Bear and Blue Dot Sessions: The Zeppeli by Blue Dot Sessions (www.sessions.blue).
This story was funded in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the State of Wisconsin. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this project do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Wisconsin Humanities Council supports and creates programs that use history, culture, and discussion to strengthen community life for everyone in Wisconsin.