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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Small-Scale Farmer In Southeast Wisconsin Hopes His Self-Made Documentary Inspires Others To Homestead

Farmer Charlie Tennsessen
Susan Bence
Farmer and filmmaker Charlie Tennessen worked as a software engineer before moving to a 4.6 acre homestead in Racine County to take up farming.

Since its inception, farming has been central to Wisconsin’s culture and economy. But farming comes with challenges. One small-scale farmer in southeast Wisconsin hopes he can inspire people to consider his approach through a film he created.

Charlie Tennessen's documentary, 25 Weeks: A Wisconsin Pizza Harvest, will be featured in the Milwaukee Film Festival, which kicks off later this week.

An extended conversation with Charlie Tennessen.

His life did not start on a farm, the Milwaukee native worked as a software designer. Tennessen's desire to farm led him to a 4.6 acre parcel in Racine County.

READ: A Vision of Sustainable Farming — One Mini Step At A Time In Racine County

Tennessen is all about experimentation — this includes the 10-foot-tall hay stacking poles he fashioned from buckthorn and pine.

“Hay will store best if you can keep it off the ground a little bit. So there’s a pile of sticks on the ground at the base of the pole and then I get the hay higher and higher and higher and keep the hay pretty fresh for the animals to eat,” he explains.

The animals mentioned are Sebastian, Cassie and Rosie — Tennessen’s three donkeys. They, along with Tennessen, power the homestead.

Susan Bence
Tennessen's donkeys work alongside him to manage the farm.

“Right now, we’re working the soil in the garden and I have a small cultivator that they pull,” he says.

But Tennessen says the donkeys fill an even important role on the farm: “They eat grass and then they have manure that comes out of their body. And that manure is full of nutrients and that’s more than enough nutrients for my half-acre garden out back, which feeds me and little bit of my family — potatoes, beans, corn, stuff like that.”

The other side of Tennessen’s quest is to cultivate hard-to-find wheat grown long ago in Wisconsin. “I’m looking for three or four of the best wheats from the 19th century. It’s testing and experimenting. So right how have I have ten different wheats,” he says.

It won’t surprise you by now that Tennessen puts the leftovers to good use, like crafting a thatched roof to cover his wood pile.

Tennessen used leftover wheat to make a cover for his firewood.
Susan Bence
Tennessen used leftover wheat to make a cover for his firewood.

This is threshed wheat, so it’s just the straw. All you have to do is start bundling and tie the bundles down as best you can. The water just kind of drips and drips and drips.” He continues, “ As long as it can dry out after it rains, it’ll last, they say, 40 or 50 years.”

For the growing side of his wheat venture, Tennessen allows himself to go “industrial," although just barely.

“Equipment that I buy on Craigslist. Two tractors, the newest one is from 1982 and the other one is from 1957 and a combine, which is a machine that harvests a large field of wheat and then something to bale the straw,” he says.

Tennessen considers his experiment in sustainability equal parts beautiful and romantic, but also critical.

“We’re not going to have enough farmland for a world that’s going to have 10 billion people on it at some point. And the amount of energy that goes into food production is vast. Two-thirds of that goes into agricultural chemicals. So that is not sustainable," he says.

“The soil is running out, we have about 10% of the topsoil we had 100 years ago," Tennessen warns.

If you’re wondering what’s in store for a viewer of Tennessen’s documentary, it is rant- and preaching-free. Instead, 56 bucolic minutes of music wash over the viewer watching his wheat grow and him at work.

“I got a professional video camera and the first thing I did was bury a tripod into a corner of the field and every week on Tuesday, I put my camera down there and saw what was going on for 25 weeks, which is about what it takes to work up the soil, plant the seed and eventually harvest it,” he explains.

Susan Bence
Tennessen hopes his film will help show people the appeal of working on a small scale farm.

You observe Tennessen takes farm life in stride, including when he loses chickens to a hungry fox and prized experimental wheat to a visiting deer.

“I want to be the advocate for homesteading — try to run a responsible, sustainable healthy-food-producing small farm and make a living at it. Get yourself a homestead, and I want to be the person that shows you why it’s an amazing, magical thing to do,” he says.

By the way, Tennessen says baby steps are just fine, maybe grow a tomato plant in a flower pot.

His movie is called 25 Weeks: A Wisconsin Pizza Harvest. You’re probably wondering where the pizza comes in. We’ll leave that to your imagination, but it probably has something to do with his wheat and vegetables from his garden.

Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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