There’s farm planning. And then there’s long-term farm planning. Figuring out what kind of rotation to use the following growing season is one thing; picturing what the entire farm will look like in a decade or so is quite another. Abbie Baldwin and Mitch Hawes are well aware that when the enterprise you are undertaking involves trees and other elements of permaculture, getting immediate gratification isn’t part of the package. In fact, on a summer day they were doing some long-term math while walking their patch of ridgetop land just outside of La Crosse in southwestern Wisconsin.
For one thing, they had just planted 30 chestnut trees that won’t be hitting their production stride for another 10 to 15 years. The fruit orchard they are planning could start generating income a little sooner — standard apples can be marketable as soon as seven years after planting. But hold on to that rootstock: first they need to build back the soil on land that’s been “corn-on-corn-on-corn” for the past 40 or 50 years, and the possible arrival of a devastating pest in 2024 has prompted the couple to delay planting fruit trees until 2025. Baldwin and Hawes are both in their early 30s, which means their farming dream may not come to fruition until they are in their 40s. But, they say, working with a stretched timeline has its advantages — it’s giving them the opportunity to build the kind of agronomic, economic, and lifestyle foundation needed to make their farming enterprise a success decades down the road. In a way, they feel they’ve been given the rare gift of time, and all the advantages that come with having a calendar cushion.
“That’s the beauty of trees — it’s really a long game,” says Hawes while looking at a newly planted windbreak of evergreens. “It’s refreshing just to plan for the future in a world that’s constantly going and doesn’t want you to do that. Let’s do it right the first time.”
Long-term planning is a little easier for the couple since they took the Land Stewardship Project’s Farm Beginnings course. Among other things, the class exposed them to Holistic Management, a planning system that focuses on “big picture” decision-making and goalsetting processes.
Hawes and Baldwin were already hooked on permaculture before they took the course. But as a result of the exposure Farm Beginnings gave them to holistic business planning and goalsetting, as well as their interactions with other farmers who were involved with fruit and nut production, the couple also got a clearer picture of how to play the long game financially — even if it means developing a spreadsheet that crunches numbers for the next 15 years, or maybe being the oddballs in the neighborhood who aren’t growing corn and soybeans.
“Being new to farming, we’re just very self-conscious, like, ‘Are we being idiots? Are we doing this right? Here we go, let’s learn how to drive a tractor,’ ” says Baldwin.
“We are the people planting trees in a cornfield, so…,” adds Hawes with laugh.
Hawes and Baldwin didn’t grow up on farms, and never really considered it as a career path until a few years ago. Baldwin has an art degree from the University of Puget Sound, grew up in the Twin Cities, and has extensive experience working in landscaping and gardening. Hawes hails from southwestern Wisconsin and grew up in a place he calls, “a subdivision in the middle of nowhere.” While in business school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he learned mostly about how to pursue a career in the corporate realm, rather than how to be a rural entrepreneur. However, both of them grew up in the shadow of climate change, and are eager to figure out how they can play a role in creating a healthier planet. After they had been dating about a year, they took a course offered by Bill and Becky Wilson of Midwest Permaculture in Illinois. Permaculture is a way of producing food and other products that relies on “permanent” establishment of plants, rather than annual cultivation of row crops and small grains, for example. Trees are the anchors of such systems; fruit orchards, nut plantings, berry bushes, and silvopasturing techniques that integrate livestock and grazing are often associated with such enterprises. Permaculture has attracted the interest of the environmental community — it’s seen as a way to build soil health and reduce reliance on chemical and energy inputs, all while protecting water quality, sequestering carbon, and providing wildlife habitat. Before Hawes and Baldwin enrolled in the Illinois course, they saw permaculture as a pathway toward stewarding a piece of land, but weren’t convinced it could be a fruitful way to make a living. The course changed that mindset.
“Bill and Becky really laid it out that you can make a living off trees — it doesn’t just have to be a hobby,” recalls Hawes.
But it was clear knowing what varieties of trees to plant was not enough. The couple was going to need to figure out how to do long-term entrepreneurial business planning if they wanted permaculture to be a fulltime career. In 2020, they enrolled in the Farm Beginnings class being offered in Menomonie, Wis. Through the class, LSP organizers introduced students to holistic planning and goalsetting, and established farmers, as well as experts on farm financing and other topics, gave in-depth presentations.
Farm Beginnings forced Baldwin and Hawes to do the “homework” of considering various enterprise options and then putting on paper what the breakeven needed to be to make them viable. The timing of the course was critical for them as a couple, given that they had been together a relatively short amount of time and needed the skills to talk through what they valued in their personal and work lives.
Baldwin says such relationship building is particularly important given that they both need to buy into doing trees as a long-term enterprise.
“It’s not like we can grow veggies for a couple summers and if it doesn’t work out we can part ways,” she says. “No, we’re going to be intertwined for quite some time.”
Of particular interest to Baldwin and Hawes was the information shared during a class presentation by Rachel Henderson, who, with her husband Anton Ptak, took Farm Beginnings several years ago. Since graduating, Henderson and Ptak have built up, from scratch, a western Wisconsin permaculture operation that involves extensive plantings of fruit trees and berry bushes. They’ve recently integrated livestock into the operation, which, before they arrived, was basically an open hayfield.
“It was interesting to think about all the possible enterprises we could pair with fruit trees,” says Baldwin. “Farm Beginnings was helpful in throwing out all the ideas we possibly had and then narrowing it down to what fits together logistically.”
Despite the hands-on nature of Farm Beginnings, much of what was discussed in the class was hypothetical to the young couple. That changed a year after graduation when, after a seven-month search, they found a 25-acre farm outside of La Crosse. The parcel meets many of the criteria they set for themselves when they started searching for land: 10 to 20 tillable acres (14 acres of this land is tillable; the rest is in timber), a house on-site, and relatively close to a good metro market. Because it had been rented out for row crops for several decades, the tillable acres have plenty of open space for planting trees. But room to roam comes at a price — they once dug a foot down and still found remains of corn plants that weren’t broken down from previous growing seasons.
“It was like doing an archeological dig,” says Hawes as he and Baldwin take a look at the rows of tree-tubed chestnuts growing in one seven-acre field. “It was clear there was not much biological activity in the topsoil.”
Soon after they moved to the farm, the couple planted a cocktail mix of cover crops to start building up the organic matter. They also inoculated the soil with mycorrhizal fungi in an attempt to kickstart biological activity. On this summer day, they were excited to see a few toadstools emerging from the soil — a good fungal start, anyway.
“This is the first year in probably 50 years that our land hasn’t been sprayed and planted with corn,” says Baldwin. “With trees, it’s not like we’re going to be tilling our land every year and planting annuals. This is kind of our one shot to get the soil health up and ready so by the time we plant the fruit trees they have the best shot of growing and surviving and having the nutrients that they need.”
An added twist has stretched Mitch and Abbie’s timeline further. It turns out that in 2024, an insect called the periodical cicada is expected to arrive in the area. That’s bad news for a tree that’s just getting started. After spending 17 years underground as nymphs, adult cicadas emerge en-masse, and can cover small trees and lay eggs in the wood, decimating, or at least stunting, the plants. To be safe, the couple won’t be planting fruit trees until at least 2025. They eventually want to raise heritage varieties of apples, as well as pears, plums, and chestnuts.
Making good use of delayed gratification means crunching numbers along the way. Otherwise, all the organic matter or avoided pests in the world mean little in the realm of developing a working farm enterprise that generates a viable income. That’s why Hawes put his business school background to work by developing a long-term breakeven spreadsheet.
The spreadsheet consists of 15 columns, and each column represents a year. On the rows that run down the left-hand side of the spreadsheet is a section that represents expenses and a section that represents income. The couple has used the spreadsheet to forecast their expenses for those crucial “setting up” years. They’ve already bought a used tractor and a broadcast seeder, and will eventually need to invest in such things as deer fencing. The long-term view the spreadsheet has developed gives them confidence that these investments will begin to pay off — somewhere around year 10 or 12 when they have marketable products. And the couple feels permaculture is the kind of enterprise that can be prepped for over the years while they hold down off-farm jobs and maintain good cash flow; Baldwin is employed at Ethos Green Power in nearby Viroqua, Wis., and Hawes works remotely for an insurance company.
“It’s way more fun to look at apple varieties than it is to put together a breakeven spreadsheet, but the breakeven spreadsheet is arguably more important than understanding the varieties,” says Hawes
They are also spending their planning years figuring out such strategies as whether to sell apples wholesale or if they should bring customers to their farm via a u-pick enterprise — or a combination of both. In a sense, that spreadsheet isn’t just predicting financial breakevens — it’s also trying to forecast what role Hawes and Baldwin can play in making the planet a better place. The more their farm provides a fulltime income, the more they can concentrate on building its ecological resiliency.
“It’s broader than just making money off of our crops,” says Baldwin. “Through permaculture classes and then Farm Beginnings, we began to see agriculture as a way to steward the land in a sustainable, regenerative way. It gave me hope that we can improve the soil and the quality of our food — they don’t have to be separate things.”
This profile was originally published in the No. 1, 2023, Land Stewardship Letter.