Driftless Organics, located in rural Soldiers Grove, is showing the way for young Americans to once again embrace the career of family farming in a sustainable and profitable way.
The average age of the American family farmer has increased from 50 in 2007 to 58 in 2012, and overall the number of family farmers has shrunk in the same time frame by four percent.
Furthermore, the number of new farm start-ups is down as well. Between 2007 and 2012, new farms of less than 10 years have shrunk by almost 20 percent, and of less than five years by 23 percent.
Bucking this trend, Driftless Organic partners Josh and Noah Engel, and Mike Lind, all under the age of 40, have dug in on the organic farm originally farmed by Josh and Noah’s father, Dave Engel. Together, the three young farmers have created a vibrant, regional, organic vegetable business, along with an organic grassfed beef operation. Driftless Organics is also known for its production of organic sunflower oil.
Dave Engel had been an organic dairy farmer on the farm for years before selling his cows and getting out of the business recently. Dave Engel was one of the “founding farmers” of Organic Valley/CROPP Cooperative. Marta Engel, Josh and Noah’s mother, runs a holistic veterinary practice.
Back in 1993, at the tender ages of 9 and 11, the young Engel brothers were fired by a dream of growing “the best organic potatoes to be had.”
That spring, in a small field on their family’s farm, they planted over 20 varieties of potatoes. In the fall, they dug up a delicious rainbow of potatoes, and fell in love with all the shapes, sizes, colors and flavors that the fertile, organically managed ground had yielded.
Out of this modest, but ambitious beginning, the dream has unfolded. Now, the Driftless Organic business partners and a staff of 15 full-time, year-round employees grow over 200 varieties of vegetables and oil-seed crops on over 60 acres of ridge and valley fields. During the growing season, an additional 25 to 30 full-time seasonal employees augment the staff.
Meet the farmers
Josh Engel was born and raised on his family’s organic dairy farm in rural Soldiers Grove. Josh is responsible for starting the production of Driftless Organic’s famous sunflower oil. He has also been instrumental in bringing biodiversity to the farm in the form of small grains, biofuels and other edible-oil crops like pumpkin seeds.
Josh’s wife, Theresa, is a dynamic player in the local and regional food movement. In her role with the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP), she is instrumental in promoting many programs that benefit local sustainable producers.
A year-and-a-half ago, the couple welcomed potentially the next generation of organic farmers in the Engel family into the world with the birth of their son, Otto.
Noah Engel, Josh’s younger brother, was also raised on one of the area’s first organic farms. Since he was old enough to walk, Noah has been playing with and working with tractors. To this day, tinkering in the shop is his first and foremost passion. Noah takes the lead in keeping the farm’s many tractors and implements up and running, and is also the mastermind of the irrigation infrastructure and the vegetable washing and packing lines. He also takes the lead in weed control and nutrient management on the farm.
Noah’s wife, Ximena Engel, was a schoolteacher prior to the birth a year-and-a-half ago of another young Engel, Yesmani. Since the birth, she has chosen to devote herself to motherhood.
Mike Lind is the third full-partner in the business. In addition to his work with the organic vegetable farming, Lind has branched out with partner John Danforth, in an organic grassfed beef endeavor. Mike joined the farm business 10 years ago.
Their website boasts that, with the formation of Big River Beef, they are “proud to offer certified organic, grassfed beef, that is not only great-tasting, but pretty darn affordable as well.”
Mike’s wife, Dani, worked as the produce department manager for the Viroqua Food Co-op for years before striking off on her own to form Rooted Spoon Catering.
The vegetable business
About 30 percent of the Driftless Organic vegetable business is devoted to servicing their Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) business. Another 10 percent comes from farmer’s markets, and around 60 percent is in the retail, wholesale and restaurant business.
Driftless focuses their efforts on local and regional CSA subscribers, as well as farmer’s markets. They also focus on retail, wholesale and restaurant customers in major markets in the upper Midwest, like Chicago, Minneapolis, Milwaukee and Madison.
What is a CSA? CSA is a farming model that allows small farmers to directly market their produce to the community, and for the community to directly support their local farmers.
As with most CSAs, the way it works at Driftless Organics is that consumers will purchase a “share,” which entitles them to weekly or bi-weekly deliveries of a box full of organic produce grown throughout a designated season. Consumers pick up their share at one of many convenient pick-up sites.
Their website says, “Being part of a farm like ours is about more than just receiving a box of awesome vegetables. You will be able to enjoy the freshest produce available, knowing that it’s grown locally and organically by us – all the while having a direct connection with the people who grow your food. We’ll have the peace of mind that you, the eater, will be by our side through whatever the season throws at us. Weather and pests can be pretty scary risks for small farmers like us, but they are much more bearable when shared by a bunch of good folks who want to eat healthy and support the local food movement.”
Subscribers also receive a weekly newsletter with recipes, cooking tips and updates from the farm. Through the website, there is an even more access to an extensive database of recipes and information about the farm as well.
Perhaps best of all, each year during the harvest season, subscribers are invited to visit the farm for their annual Harvest Party.
‘Olive oil’ of Midwest
In 2007, Josh Engel identified a big hole in the sustainable and local food supply – cooking and salad oil.
He set out to fill this gap by producing a high quality, healthy and organic oil.
This vision was realized with Driftless Organic’s ‘Organic Sunflower Oil: the olive oil of the Midwest.’
Each summer, the farm grows huge fields of sunflowers reminiscent of those in the state of Missouri. They are quite a sight as one comes over a ridge, and sees a shining field of yellow nodding heads, turning to follow the path of the sun as it crosses the sky each day.
Their sunflower seeds, used in making the oil, are grown on certified organic ground, and harvested, cleaned and pressed in mid-October.
The oil is cold expeller pressed in order to preserve optimal flavor and nutrient composition. The simple controlled mechanical extraction method (never exceeding 120 degrees Fahrenheit) produces a pure, full-bodied oil with premium nutritional integrity.
Driftless Sunflower Oil can be obtained at natural and mainstream grocery stores throughout the region, and is a beautiful, sustainable and local organic option for salad and cooking oil.
Responding to the times
“In the last couple of years, we’ve really seen our grocery store business growing, while growth in the CSA business has leveled off,” says Josh Engel.
Apparently, about five years ago, there was a spike in the number of CSAs.
A positive development has been that more health insurance companies offer members a ‘wellness rebate,’ used to offset the cost of paying for a CSA share, to reward them for eating more fruits and vegetables.
“CSAs don’t work for everybody,” Engel explains. “People are busy, and don’t have the time to get to the pick-up location to get their box. Some people are just overwhelmed by the quantity of produce they receive, and others are put off by the amount of different vegetables they receive, having a preference or need for specific favorites or particular recipe ingredients on any given week.”
“People in the cities aren’t necessarily oriented to cooking at home all the time, or don’t have the time to cook,” Engel points out. “They also don’t like to purchase food that they won’t be able to use.’
Engel cites the flowering of local and organic options at restaurants in the larger markets as another factor in why some consumers cook and eat less at home.
For this reason, and following the blossoming of the number of farmer’s markets in the region, the Driftless Organics has had great success with this direct-to-consumer marketing strategy.
“Ten years ago, there were only a tenth of the number of farmers markets there are today,” Engel points out.
“We offer a market card to farmer’s market customers, where they pay $50 and get $55 worth of vegetables,” Engel says. “This allows them to buy the vegetables they like or need, in the quantities they prefer, throughout the growing season.”
Not just natural stores
“All the mainstream grocery stores like Piggly Wiggly and Lunds/Beyerly’s are selling organic produce and natural products these days,” according to Engel.
Today’s grocery chains, for example Metcalf’s Sentry Hilldale in Madison, even offer home delivery services, making it easier for busy eaters to obtain the foods they want without the inconvenience of going to the grocery store.
“Home delivery is a tremendous service that grocery stores provide to their customers, and is a model that is almost impossible for small, independent producers to provide,” Engel notes.
What about the future?
When asked what exciting things the future holds for Driftless Organics, Engel responds, “We’re already doing exciting things! Our goal is to keep getting better and better at what we’re already doing, and to continue to produce consistent quality.”
Driftless Organics has a website that offers information about their farm, the CSA, their vegetables, as well as hundreds of recipes. You can find them at www.driftlessorganics.com.
They can also be reached by phone at 608-624-3735.