In the almost 10 years that Rufus Haucke of Keewaydin Farms has been growing produce for Willy Street Co-op, his business has undergone many changes.
He started in 2005 as a part time, one-man chard-growing operation on a quarter-acre on his parent’s dairy farm near Viola, Wisconsin.
Later, he founded and ran “Just Local,” a distribution company which, at its height, distributed organic produce from 120 local farms in the area, including from his own farm as well as many small Amish operations.
As you may imagine, the logistics of coordinating that many farms (especially Amish farms with no reliable phone or internet communication) is no small feat. Just Local operated out of a warehouse facility in Viroqua, at least a 30-minute drive from the majority of their farmers’ and employees’ homes. Rufus had to employ one full-time person just to drive between the farms, determine what produce was available, relay orders, and then pick up the fresh produce. Rufus himself often made the trip from Viroqua to the Viola area more than once per day, spending many hours behind the wheel. Though he was only farming a few acres of his own, the demands of his growing business meant he had less and less time to do what he really loved: farming.
Then, last fall, Rufus and his core employees at Just Local made a decision to simplify: devote less time to driving, and more time to farming. They gave up their warehouse space in Viroqua and moved all operations to Rufus’s family farm. They scaled back the number of growers they work with by more than half, and planned to grow a much higher proportion of their produce at Rufus’s family farm. In order to scale up production, and also continue to act as a warehouse for multiple growers, the facilities at Keewaydin needed some TLC.
That’s where we come in.
Willy Street Co-op’s Local Vendor Loan
As one of three recipients of a Willy Street Co-op Local Vendor Loan, Keewaydin Farms has been able to purchase the equipment they need to make their farm/distribution center concept a reality. When I visited in late May, Rufus and his Operations Manager Jennifer Rengert proudly showed me the improvements they’d made over the winter and spring, many of which were made possible by the Co-op loan. They showed me the freshly poured concrete loading dock adjacent to a newly outfitted pack shed; a huge new cooler space; new (to them) equipment that would allow them to farm more efficiently, and most exciting to me, the building blocks for three new hoop-houses. If everything goes according to plan, these hoop-houses (essentially large unheated greenhouses) will be erected in the late summer, and planted full of kale, chard, radishes, and other produce that will fill our shelves into January and beyond.
Before I left to return home on that beautiful almost-June day, Rufus just had to show me his new flock of 99 laying hens. Watching them happily pecking at grass in the idyllic farm setting of Wisconsin’s Driftless region, I commented, “What a wonderful place to be a chicken!” Rufus replied with a big grin, “What a wonderful place to be a human being!” I couldn’t agree more.
How fulfilling it is to know that our Co-op has done so much to help this family farmer get back to what he loves, while continuing to play a huge role in his local food economy, and also providing delicious produce to our Owners in the dead of winter. That’s a win–win–win, and money well spent.