In 1954, my grandparents, Francis and Jaqui Gutschenritter, bought just shy of 200 acres. They worked hard. They raised a family of six children. Grandpa farmed on his Allis Chalmers WD tractor. It was orange. Probably shiny at one time. My dad still tells stories about watching Grandpa sleeping on his tractor. He wouldn't miss the opportunity to get a job done. His kids would bring him dinner so he could eat and work at the same time. He was a land appraiser and professional witness. I didn't know him back then. I knew him as an older man with bratwurst fingers and deep-set eyes. His whole body bounced when he laughed. We watched the Packers play every Sunday during the season at his house next door. We still own the tractor, but it doesn't run and rust creeps over the classic color. Still, sitting by the veggie fields, it breathes life into the farm.
Grandma was a kind woman with a soft countenance. She didn't come from rural roots. She learned the country life. I've heard various versions of a story including Grandma chasing the family cow around town alone in her nightgown, eventually getting dragged back into the farmyard. Grandpa had bought it, then took a job as a land appraiser, leaving his wife to deal with the wily nature of their new cow throughout the day. Grandma taught me how to shuffle cards and play solitaire and war. She always had a puzzle to work on or a quilt to piece together. In the summer, she planted veggies and flowers in her garden on the south side of their house, where Courtney and I live now.
My grandparents lived full lives. I knew them as well as I could. Grandma died while I was young. Grandpa while I was in college. I'm old enough now to see parts of them in my aunts and uncles and my dad. Even in my cousins and brothers. Now, working the land, I see parts of them in me, too. I'm happy about that.
In 2011, while most of the family was living out of state, the farm went up for sale. Near a closing date that would have put the farm into conventional production for the rest of its life, my brother Chris and I proposed that we try to keep the farm in the family. My folks bought the farm from the extended family. We decided we'd sell veggies to neighbors. We started with a 25-member CSA program and a couple farmers markets. Chris and I had never had more than a small garden in our adult lives. We relied on our mother to teach us the basics of tending to vegetables.
It became obvious that we’d have to ramp up production if we were going to pay any of the bills. We doubled our CSA program the following year and dropped the unreliable farmers markets. That spring, Peter and Sonia Sandroni called me. They own La Merenda, a cozy and wildly popular restaurant in Walkers Point, Milwaukee. They were going to open up a brunch restaurant called Engine Company No.3 down the street. They needed someone to produce almost 200 dozen eggs every week. I told them I only had 20 chickens, but would make it happen for them. I built several mobile coops and bought 600 chickens. By the time the restaurant opened, we were producing enough eggs. My relationship with the Sandroni family is what I credit with the ability of our farm to grow.
Courtney and I came across each other at a farming conference in La Crosse. We had studied in Stevens Point together, but had lost touch for ten years. Courtney had a flower farm in Fredonia, Wisconsin for several years and was producing the most elegant arrangements for weddings and events. When we were able to spend time together, it was clear that we were meant to be together. In under a year, we married spontaneously in the pasture during the Swedish Midsomer celebration, surrounded by family. It’s still surreal to think about. It likely always will be. I only wish my grandparents could have met Courtney.
Courtney and I continue to grow the farm. We now feed over 100 families through our CSA program. We supply multiple restaurants and families with eggs, chicken, and vegetables. Courtney continues to produce floral arrangements, bouquets, and installations for all types of events in Southeastern Wisconsin.
My parents have been major supporters. They’ve made it possible for us to start buying the land from them. We can now confidently say that the farm will be preserved under our care for another generation. There are few things more satisfying to us than committing our lives to a plot of land. And we hope to encourage another generation of land stewards.
Grandma and Grandpa would be proud of their farm now.