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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Wisconsin Project Supports Young Farmers & Butterflies

Robert Karp
Kelly Kiefer and Jeff Schreiber stand on the land they will use for organic farming and that will support Monarch butterflies.

For decades, farming and Wisconsin were practically synonymous. But its landscape is changing. Farmers older than 65 far outnumber those younger than 35, and it can be difficult for younger people who want to go into farming to find suitable land.

Monarch Farms Project aims to shift those trends. It pairs farmers in search of land with investors who rent the parcels at an affordable rate. As part of the deal, some land must be set aside for pollinators, particularly Monarch butterflies.

The First Recruits

Kelly Kiefer was born to farm.

“I love being able to with the rhythms of the year and just grow really wonderful food and be able to share that with other people,” she says.

The rural Fond du Lac County-native is one of the younger farmers hoping to make a living in the industry.

She and her husband Jeff Schreiber don't lack for experience. They managed an organic farm for four years before striking out on their own.

Credit Susan Bence
Kelly Kiefer (left) and Jeff Schreiber's garden system is next to their 1890s farmhouse.

But Kiefer says they learned it’s harder to make a go of it running your own business. Their main problem was land – or lack of it.

They do some intensive vegetable growing adjacent to their 1890s farmhouse, which is next to Kiefer's childhood home in Campbellsport.

Most of what they grow is sold through their CSA — or community supported agriculture — business. People pay a fee and in return receive fresh produce throughout the season.

“We were definitely looking at what our next steps … at that point Jeff was looking for a lot more acreage,” Kiefer says.

They found a 5-acre parcel but it’s an hour round trip from home. “We’ve been back and forth since 2013,” she says.

The Connector

Enter Robert Karp. The Milwaukee-based organic farming advocate has a knack for putting investors together with farmers in search of affordable land.

Over the years he’s helped forge partnerships to jumpstart farmers in the Midwest and North Carolina.

“We’re trying to bring biodiversity back on the landscape and organic farmers are already doing a lot of that work by growing a much more diverse range of fruits and vegetables and livestock,” he says.

Credit Susan Bence
Robert Karp (right) checks out Kelly Kiefer & Jeff Schreiber's new 30-acre parcel.

Recently, Karp met an investor with an even more specialized interest — to increase habitat for pollinators, especially Monarch butterflies. Their numbers have steeply declined in recent years.

"One of the things we’re learning about Monarch butterflies is that they lay the vast majority of their eggs on milkweed that’s growing in agricultural fields,” Karp says.

So, the investor who wants to help the Monarch butterfly population made a deal — to lease affordable farmland to people who'll help create and maintain Monarch habitat.

That’s fine by farmers Jeff Schreiber and Kelly Kiefer, who were first to sign up for the plan.

The New Farm

Their new parcel is just a few minutes’ drive from their farmhouse. The 30 acres slope gently toward a stream.

Kiefer and Schreiber are full of ideas of what they could do with the land.

“Maybe there would be rows of fruit trees and then habitat under the trees so it would wind its way up the hill there and have fields interspersed in between these rows of trees, winding it’s way up – all connected,” Schreiber says.

Credit Susan Bence
This 30-acre parcel will soon support organic farming and Monarch butterflies. It will be a three-year process to transition the farmland to meet organic standards.

Kiefer adds, “One of our longer range goals is to do a farm stand here for our local community. There used to be a farm stand just up the road, this is the first year that they’re not selling produce. They made room for us!”

But first, the couple needs to invest in a well and, with so much more land to cultivate, in some heavy equipment.

“I’ll be able to weed it with a cultivator. We bought a cultivating tractor this year and I’m getting used to it, sort of. I took out a lot of our onion crop,” Schreiber says.

Kiefer has high hopes, but they don’t necessarily include owning the farmland. “[We are] helping it transition so that it continues to be managed sustainably,” she says.

And when it comes to the next crop of young farmers: “This property could also serve as a transition for some other farmers looking into it, so ... they don’t have to move into their mom’s basement to get started,” she says.

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