Once you’ve met Rufus Hauke, it’s hard to forget the excitement he exudes about farming and revitalizing the prospects for small-scale farmers. Last time we featured Keewaydin Organics (2008), he had just begun to work on his own version of a local fair trade project and was coordinating deliveries of produce from 10 local farms. After evolving the business, Just Local Foods is now a network of nearly 70 farms in and around Viola, Wisconsin. While catching up with Rufus on a recent visit to Keewaydin Organic Farm, he gave us an update on how his farm and the new business have grown since our last producer profile.
The Amish Connection
The Just Local Foods (JLF) network of farmers is comprised of about a 50/50 split between Amish and non-Amish farms, and Rufus has been extremely successful in working with all of them. All of the farms in the network are small-scale family farms. The nearby rural community of Hillsboro is home to many certified organic farms owned by Amish families, many of whom also grow for another large organic company. In fact, Rufus discourages his farmers from relying solely on one income source. He says, “Our philosophy has always been that they don’t grow exclusively for us; I encourage them to have a couple of customers. In most cases we’re supplementary. There are just a few that aren’t.”
Rufus described his affiliation with his Amish partners as a “very unique relationship.” He went on to say, “There are truly a lot of wonderful producers in this area—small-scale, a lot of younger generation. Something that’s happening now is that a lot of the growers we’ve worked with over the years, now their kids are coming of age and they’re getting their own place or taking over their parents’ operation, and we’re starting to work with them. It’s great because they have this bank of experience; they’re looking to establish their livelihood and it’s great to be a part of it. Some of them are becoming our main growers, many of them also have hoophouses [for winter growing].”
Managing that many farms, and with so many of them without telephones, Rufus relies on his field expert who is out in the community every day, on-farm, checking on how things are coming along and what’s available. This information then goes onto their availability list, which retailers use to select their orders. Once an order is received at JLF, the farms are notified (by phone or in-person) that day and on the following day the orders are picked. They’re then swiftly delivered to their customers on the same day. On average, Rufus tells us that anything delivered to our Co-op has been picked less than 24 hours beforehand.
Back on the Farm
Born into a life of farming, Rufus laughs when he recalls being a teenager and wanting to do anything but farming. After a couple of years looking around for other inspiration, he headed back home and now has no intention of leaving. Having now purchased the family home on the farm he grew up on, he’s managing 15 of the farm’s 200 acres with vegetables for Just Local Foods. Much of the remainder of the farm is cultivated in hay and cover crops.
On a tour of the farm, Rufus made a stop at the building he and his brother constructed entirely from timber harvested on the farm, which is being used as the farm office. Next to that, one hoophouse is planted in spinach for their winter production, which Rufus expects to last into March. Because of the lack of sunlight during this time of year, he says they won’t get much spinach out of it until mid-February when the daylight begins to lengthen. Another planting of chard and kale is growing in another hoophouse and Rufus plans to add salad mix and radishes soon.
Observing that one of the hoophouse frames looked as if it had been pushed in by a very large object, Rufus explained that this was the result of one very heavy windstorm. Appropriately, his father named the farm Keewaydin based on a phonetic translation of the Ojibwa word, Giiwedin, meaning the north wind. And wind remains one of the biggest challenges on this farm. “Sometimes in spring you get these winds, and you can just lean forward and it props you up,” he described.
Although a larger number of the employees on Keewaydin Organic Farm are seasonal and part-time, Rufus does employ two full-time workers year-round to manage his crops. For Just Local Foods, in winter there’s still a lot of coordinating, planning, reviews, paperwork, and implementing changes for the next year. Rufus and his two full-time staff for JLF are also working on building a larger customer base and trying to expand that.
Comfort In Continuity
In 2007, when Rufus was working with Avalanche Organics as a delivery driver, he began meeting many of the same buyers he would eventually be working with at area stores and restaurants. Pleased to still be working with many of the same people, Rufus enjoys the friendships he’s built with them over the years. During the time he was working with Avalanche, he says he was shocked by the customers who would see him in the delivery truck and come right over to ask about what he was delivering or offer words encouragement. “It blew me away that people would care that much to talk to the truck guy,” Rufus recalled. Eventually, witness to the severe flooding that ultimately shut down Avalanche Organics, Rufus was able to glean beneficial information and other tangible resources for his farm operation.
Why Now, Why Here?
With such a dramatic increase in business for JLF, Rufus identified more than one factor to their success, “We happen to be in a very rapidly growing local food area and the quality of the food we can get. Another part is a [consumer] population that’s more urban now, and they remember how it used to be and they want that for their kids.
“We’re creating all these little economies. We’re reinventing the wheel. Because small agriculture has all but disappeared, we needed to reinvent systems, provide employment, and this is all based on our customers who buy and enjoy the product. It’s a great relationship; we’re very lucky. Having grown up in this area, there used to be 30 dairies in my township, now there’s one—that all disappeared and now we’re in this trend where we’re seeing agriculture come back to our area, and the reason that’s happening is people are buying this stuff, and the money’s coming back to the farms to buy greenhouses and the right equipment, and live the life of a farmer and that is based on our customer base that is there for us year in and year out and it’s an awesome relationship.”
The last time we spoke, Rufus was dreaming of building a production kitchen for processing fresh farm produce. In early September of this year, the 2,000 square foot dream became a reality when he opened the Just Local Foods Kitchen in Viroqua. Two full-time and five part-time employees are already working in the kitchen to produce value-added products for their growing wholesale market. Eventually they plan to have as many as 15 full-time employees working in the 15,000 square foot facility, which includes ample storage for dry goods, walk-in coolers and freezers.
Although Just Local Foods is not organized as a cooperative, Rufus admits that cooperation is a huge part of this business. “Essentially we have all kinds of cooperation and conversation,” Rufus explained. “We treat each other with kindness and that’s essentially the core of my business. In the land of cooperatives I do have to explain myself, and beyond the lengthy explanation of why I did what I did, there are two underlying things: first, I like to do my own thing and those are my strong independent farmer roots, and second, we did have meetings with farmers in the beginning and the question was asked, ‘How do we want to structure this?’ The result was that they didn’t care; they just wanted me to sell their foods. Now, we talk together, we look at the books, and we discuss the issues. There are a lot of aspects of my business that are different than the conventional capitalistic model. I’m not looking to be a rich person. To me it’s not about the money; it’s about getting good food to people and sharing the wealth.”
Rufus enthusiastically added, “In our business, our best customers, our most loyal customers, are the people that we know we can talk to and have honest communication about how we’re doing financially or whether we’re doing the right thing or not. Those are all co-op grocers. They’re the trendsetters of this. The quality of the product they put out is vastly superior to what most anybody else is offering. Cooperation is at the heart of what we do. Working with over 70 producers, I’m not here to tell people what to do; I’m here to hear what they want to do.”
The many squash grown by JLF will be a feature at the Co-op this holiday season. Rufus says the keys to storing squash and maintaining longevity are providing stable temperatures and stable humidity. Also key has been refraining from washing them until it’s time to send them to market. Squash create their own layer of protection, and after washing that layer off; the squash begin to break down.
For more information about Just Local Foods, go to: www.justlocalproduce.com.