There’s a bit of a disagreement over how many enterprises were originally on a certain wish list when Hannah Frank and Justin Thomas were considering launching a farm.
“Didn’t we have, like, 40 different enterprises on our goal sheet?” Thomas asks Frank on an overcast day in July while the couple stands next to a hoop house on Rue de Bungaloo Farm.
“Oh, we did not!” Frank shoots back. “I’m going to have to go back and count them. I still got the binder. I think it was more like, maybe, seven. Not 40.”
“It was a lot,” says Thomas.
“Well,” concedes Frank with a laugh, “you have to work through them all and see what you like.”
Apparently, a dinner wager is on the line as to whose number is right. But one fact is clear: Frank and Thomas have used the holistic training they received through the Land Stewardship Project’s Farm Beginnings course to narrow down what they will focus on, and to figure out how to balance profitability and environmental sustainability, along with a little fun.
Since purchasing 12 acres of a former dairy farm from Hannah’s father, Dale, in 2021, Frank and Thomas have been busy building an agricultural business in north-central Wisconsin’s Marathon County. After just two years, their farm is already showing signs of being relatively diverse, even if the enterprises can’t be counted in the dozens.
As the couple’s good-natured argument makes clear, striking items off the wish list hasn’t been easy. But it was a particularly heart-wrenching decision for Frank when it came to one enterprise they had to put into the “no”column: a small dairy. That choice came laced with economic, quality-of-life, emotional, and familial repercussions.
“It’s kind of hard to have a normal conversation about that kind of thing. It’s stressful,” she says. “But when we were doing it as an exercise in the Farm Beginnings class it was really helpful for both of us to kind of lay out the things that we wanted to be happy, to not be totally stressed.”
When she was younger, including anything related to agriculture on a wish list was pretty much out of the question for Frank. In fact, she grew up on a small dairy just across the fence-line from her current farming operation. When she was about 15, her family sold the 32-cow herd because they, like many small dairies, were unable to make it financially anymore.
“I did not want to farm at all,” recalls Frank, 27. “I didn’t really like it, so I didn’t really pay very good attention.”
But she increasingly became interested in the source of her food and how it could be produced in an ecologically healthy manner. There are three well-established organic vegetable operations in her community — Stoney Acres Farm, Cattail Organics, and Red Door Family Farm — proof that a living can still be made in agriculture. Frank eventually majored in agriculture studies with an emphasis on environmental science at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.
Thomas, 44, grew up 15 miles away and although he didn’t come from a farming background, always had an interest in plants and vegetables. The couple met while they were both working at Stoney Acres, and eventually set about gaining as much farming experience as possible. Frank was particularly interested in “reviving the family farm” by starting a micro-creamery on her family’s land. She worked at the River Falls dairy plant and got cheesemaking experience at a micro-dairy in western Wisconsin. She and Thomas eventually enrolled in the Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms program and worked on two farms — one in Italy and one in France — that produced farmstead cheese.
At one point, their plan was simple, if a bit full-to-the-brim: launch a micro-dairy and market cheese off the farm, all while raising market vegetables. They had the hands-on production experience in dairy and vegetables down, but knew such an audacious plan would require business acumen as well. Kat Becker, the owner of Cattail Organics, suggested they enroll in LSP’s Farm Beginnings course, which, among other things, provides in-depth training on holistic business planning and goalsetting. During the winter of 2019-2020, the couple drove to the class in Menonomie, Wis., where they were able to crunch the numbers with the help of trainer and northeastern Minnesota farmer Cree Bradley, gather resources on regenerative agriculture, and, perhaps most important of all, run an increasingly lengthy wish list through a gauntlet of questions. Are their markets available in the area? How much infrastructure is involved? What is the up-front investment? Will we enjoy doing the kind of work involved with this kind of enterprise?
“Just how you envisioned your lifestyle, what you wanted your life to be like, in the community and as a person, and what would make you a happy person?” says Frank of the questions they considered during that part of the training. Then, turning to Thomas, she adds, “Just seeing what you had to say in response to those questions was good for us and our relationship. It’s not something that would always come up in conversation if you didn’t actually sit down and talk about it and put it on paper. If we’re mentally broke down by farming, then we definitely can’t do it successfully or well, and then we can’t feed people, and that’s not good.”
Thomas concedes that he had not really had much experience with big-picture, holistic planning. “We just farm and get everything done, and not plan for the future,” he says, explaining his approach to agriculture previously.
The Farm Beginnings course also put them in touch with other farmers who were stepping off the conventional path to make a living in agriculture. Frank and Thomas say that through Farm Beginnings and other groups like Marbleseed and the Savanna Institute, they’ve greatly benefited from visiting various farmers in the region and seeing what they’re doing to make a go of it — warts and all.
“When I see their farms are not perfect, it makes me feel very good in a way, because it’s like, ‘Oh I don’t have to do everything right and I can still be successful and there’s no one set way of doing things,’ ” says Frank. “It makes me feel you don’t have to attain every standard of perfection.”
One question the couple mulled over at length was whether operating a micro-dairy was viable. Eventually, they realized after going through goalsetting and planning that they really like working with plants outdoors. In addition, having a livestock enterprise would tie them down to the farm more than they’d like; they love traveling. Finally, Frank and Thomas found the regulatory, economic, and marketing environment for on-farm cheesemaking not as accommodating in Wisconsin as it is in, say, France.
“It’s very dreamy to make cheese in Europe,” says Frank. “It is not as dreamy here.”
But Frank admits she fantasized for a long time about dairy cows returning to her family’s land.
“People were excited about it, and for awhile I felt like I was letting people down and I felt guilty about it,” she says. “But there’s a reason there’s not a lot of micro-dairies. Going through the Farm Beginnings course, doing the holistic analysis of what we wanted, we realized we shouldn’t do it just to do it. It has to be something that meshes with our lifestyle, that we’re going to be happy doing.”
What they did figure out they’d be happy doing is creating a farm centered around such enterprises as fruit and mushroom production. It turns out those enterprises make sense from a marketing point of view as well. Although there are plenty of vegetables being raised in the neighborhood, farmers’ markets and other outlets lack access to locally produced fruit and mushrooms.
After buying a piece of the original dairy farm, the couple set to work planting an orchard. They put up a deer fence scrounged from a neighbor’s scrap pile, and planted in a former hayfield dwarf and standard apple trees representing 40 or 50 different varieties. They’ve also planted raspberries and currants, and have over 500 mushroom logs — harvested from the property — representing various varieties, including shiitakes.
The farm now has two hoop houses, one built with funding from the USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). The EQIP funding was key, given that the hoop house was erected when steel prices were exploding.
The sale of mushrooms through a local farmers’ market and a small Community Supported Agriculture share arrangement has been brisk, and is providing income for the farm at a time when other enterprises are still in the “potential” stage.
Home is Where the Farm is
While providing a tour of their orchard and hoop houses, Frank and Thomas talk about the support they have in the community. Despite some disappointment that cows won’t be milked here, family members are excited to see a new farm business of any type get launched in the neighborhood and have stepped up to help.
Frank’s father has provided tractor support and helped build mushroom tables, all while sharing insights on soil types and local weather. Her mother, Marilyn, owns a local restaurant and has promised to buy what they produce. Community and family are important — Frank points out her father’s parcel next door, as well as land her grandparents long farmed and still live on.
Now the couple represents a new generation rooted in the community’s past, but also bringing in new ideas. After all, the farm’s name — Rue de Bungaloo — combines local family lore with the couple’s love of the chef and foodie icon, Julia Child.
Both work off the farm on neighboring organic vegetable operations. Hannah is at Cattail Organics, and Justin works for Tony Schultz at Stoney Acres Farm, where, as “the most famous waiter in Marathon County,” he helps serve over 300 pizzas during pizza nights. Their eventual goal is to be able to live and work fulltime on their own operation.
One thing that gives them confidence is the network of people they’ve created through Farm Beginnings and right in their own neighborhood — people who see a future in farming. Such a network is of practical importance.
“We have enough people in the area to help stretch plastic on a hoop house,” jokes Thomas.
But there are also bigger, more quality-of-life issues at stake.
“We should make this a community where people want to stay,” says Frank while standing just a few hundred feet from where she grew up. “I hope that’s what we’re working toward doing.”
This profile was originally published in the No. 1, 2023, Land Stewardship Letter.