October’s Willy Street Co-op Annual Farm Tour felt more like a July scorcher rather than a typical fall day. The only indications of autumn on this record-setting, warm day in early October (October 7th, to be exact) were the bright reds, oranges, and yellows of the changing leaves on our drive throughout southern Wisconsin.

Sugar River Dairy

The big bus left the Co-op early in the morning, and the first stop brought us to Sugar River Dairy near Albany, Wisconsin. Ron and Chris Paris graciously greeted us in front of their Grade A Dairy production facility.

While Chris and her team offered half of the group samples of fresh yogurt and gave us a rundown on the history of the business, Ron demonstrated their yogurt-making process for the other half of the tour-goers. Before entering the production facility where all of Sugar River Dairy’s yogurts are made, we were all given crisp white paper hats, which we donned before washing our shoes in order to maintain the dairy’s sanitary conditions.

Once inside, the group was able to get a good look at the production kitchen and the state-of-the-art yogurt mixing and packaging machine. A truck bay on the ground floor of the building is dedicated for their milk truck. Each evening before production, Ron pulls the truck into the bay and allows the milk in the tank to rest overnight in order for the milk and cream to separate before the next morning when Ron attaches a hose to the tank and pumps the separated milk into the production area where it will soon become yogurt. After the machine deposits the milk, with the fruit or flavors and live acidophilus cultures, into the individual cups, it heat-seals the lid. The containers then serve as incubators for the yogurt while the liquid cools and turns into creamy yogurt in their large coolers.

There is little to no waste in producing yogurt from the separated milk as one pound of milk routinely makes one pound of yogurt. However, utilizing the cream that was left from each tank of milk has been a challenge for the couple until recently when they began experimenting with making sour cream. As we gave our thanks and said our goodbyes, each tour member was given a sample of the new sour cream to take home. It was very tasty.

Ron estimates his business is one of only three yogurt makers in our great Dairy State, and the Sugar River Dairy production schedule keeps Ron and Chris very busy. After making yogurt three days a week, the couple also takes two days a week to make all of their own deliveries, and vend at a farmers’ market on Saturdays.

Pinn-Oak Ridge Farm

The bus ride to our next destination passed quickly with a few of the challenging Willy Street Co-op trivia questions and watching the beautiful fall scenery of rural southern Wisconsin through our windows.

Steve and Darlene Pinnow met us at their farm which overlooks the Turtle Valley in southeastern Wisconsin. During our lunch, we listened to the couple as they recounted the history of their farm. Darlene shared details about their decision to raise sheep for meat production after taking charge of caring for their animals for a while in the 1990s while Steve was ill. After struggling with their pigs, she decided she wanted something easier to manage and they set about testing the market for quality lamb products. Indeed, people were interested and Steve and Darlene haven’t looked back.

In the beginning, the couple sold about one lamb per month, but with a growing demand for lamb, especially in the ethnic markets in and around Chicago, their current sales top 2,000 lambs per year.

After lunch. we walked to the nearby barn structure where sheep had chosen to seek shade from the intense sun versus standing in the open yard. All of the Pinnow’s animals are held/sheltered over the winter months in the building with regularly applied hay as bedding over a cement floor. Primarily, the sheep are raised on pasture, and when they’re not grazing or before processing, are fed only a vegetarian diet of corn and soybeans.

Later, tour members took a short walk down the road to one of the farm’s pastures where many more of the animals were grazing, huddled together at the top of a knoll. Steve explained how the sheep stay together in the highest location to maximize the breeze and keep a watchful eye out for predators. Fences partitioned the pastures where Steve developed a system of rotational grazing for his animals.

West Star Farm

After expressing our gratitude for opening up their farm to us, we left Steve, Darlene, and their sheep and headed toward West Star Farm near Cottage Grove. We arrived just in time to see owner George Kohn pulling in from the fields on his tractor. From the Kohn’s beautifully restored red barn to the meticulous organization of the vegetable fields and machine shed, it was apparent that George is a very detail-oriented farmer.

George led the group through a thicket of hardwood trees between his fields from which he is in the process of removing a throng of invasive buckthorn. George illustrated for the group some of the effects of this season’s extreme weather when he showed us the garlic that was left in the ground during the drought because the soil was like cement and he was unable to remove it, either mechanically or by hand.

The once radiant flower gardens were already plowed over after the season’s early frost three weeks earlier, but George said many of their crops were affected by a mid-September frost this fall. Many less-than-perfect frost-damaged peppers were also still sitting in the field, evidence of George’s exceptional quality standards. George told the group that West Star Farm was not effected by the heavy mid-August rains because the fields are on higher ground, but the earlier drought had already done its own heavy damage to this year’s crops.

The greenhouses on the farm were boasting a bounty of winter storage crops—squash and garlic, cured and waiting to be eaten. The cool weather crops, such as spinach, were also growing in the hoop houses for one final fall harvest. George explained how the hoop houses allow the Kohns to expand their growing season earlier into the spring and later into the fall because they provide a sheltered environment and keep the frost off of the crops.

Finally, the group congregated around the water jugs, rehydrating after our walk around the farm on such a warm fall day before heading back to the bus. George and his crew waved goodbye and we were on our way home.

Thank you

Thank you to our local producers that allowed us to experience and understand the connection between the food we eat and the people who raise and make it. Thanks to those who attended this year’s Farm Tour as well. Willy Street Co-op looks forward to maintaining the tradition of supporting our local food producers and providing the connection between the farmers and the foods they bring to us.