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In Edible-Alpha® podcast #85, Tera talks with John Wepking about building Meadowlark Organics, a diversified small-grain farm enterprise on 800-plus acres in the Driftless Area of southwestern Wisconsin. Their conversation shows how mentorship and sweat equity can lead to a successful farm transition.
John met his future wife and business partner Halee while working in restaurants and bakeries in New York City. Both ready for a change, they moved to John’s home state of Wisconsin and attempted to revitalize his family’s farm. After toiling away but seeing no clear road to sole ownership, they answered a Craigslist ad from an organic corn and soy farmer in the Driftless Area who wanted to pass on his knowledge and eventually his land. Paul Bickford had envisioned a young farmer or couple with a bit of equity, which John and Halee didn’t have, but he hired them anyway for their passion, work ethic and eagerness to learn.
Thrust into the mix immediately, the couple learned a lot from Paul in short order. Meanwhile, they secured an FSA microloan for beginning farmers and purchased 22 breeding heifers and a yearling bull. With a 5-45-50 loan, they bought 80 acres of hilly grazing pastures, flatter spaces to grow annual crops and a homestead.
To generate income while their cattle matured and they could grow their herd, John convinced Paul to plant 40 acres of hard red winter wheat to be milled at Lonesome Stone Milling 20 miles away. Paul had never grown grains before, but John knew from his bakery and restaurant experience that he could build a market for organic small-grain flours. The plan worked, so they expanded their grain crops and on-site processing capabilities, with working capital provided by a value-added producer grant. Paul’s long track record, credit worthiness and experience helped them secure debt financing along the way.
Not long into their partnership, John, Halee and Paul began discussing farm transition. While Paul could always just sell off his land and equipment upon retirement, he feels it’s more important to shepherd the next generation of farmers—just like his father did for him—and ensure continuity on the farm. According to their transition plan, the couple is purchasing the first half of the farm on a 20-year note and will eventually secure the second half.
A similar thing happened with Lonesome Stone Milling. After toll milling for Meadowlark Organics for several years, owner Gilbert Williams wanted to transition his business, so he sold John and Halee his mill. They are now moving it onto their farm, along with a few other mills for different grains. They aim to continue scaling up their flour operation, sourcing a variety of small grains from other local organic farmers, thereby uplifting the community around them.
Check out the podcast to hear Meadowlark Organics’ full story, including more details about their financing, diversified income stream and path to farm ownership.