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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Small Farm In Waukesha County Works To Show Why Organic Food Matters

Linda Halley is general manager of Gwenyn Hill Farmin the Town of Delafield. "Gwenyn" means honeybee in Welsh. Halley says the name is a nod to generations of people who farmed this lush valley, starting back in 1842.

“A Williams married the original farmer’s daughter, another Williams bought the land next door, and so this was just a valley of Williams farmers. [They] dairy farmed and one of them had sheep, [which is] a Welsh thing,” says Hawley.

By the 2010s, most of the Williams family had moved on. It looked as though a subdivision would take the farm’s place. Instead, the farm's new owner hired Halley to revive the farm with a retro twist.

“We’ve brought back the diversity of a 1950s or 1940s farm in Wisconsin with many different species of animals and some chickens for eggs. We’ve maintained small fields and, well, we even use horses once in a while,” Halley explains.

Gwenyn's cows spend their days hanging out near the barn and munching on food. 

Credit Susan Bence
Gwenyn Hill Farm's cows on a frigid February morning.

“They’re crossbred so that they are really good grazers on grass and make high butter fat and protein content in their milk on grass,” Halley says. That’s part of the organic process, livestock forage on the land over as many months of the year as possible.

And that’s where Gwenyn’s massive draft horses and livestock manager Ryan Heinen comes in.

“I like to feed as much as I can on the pasture because then all of the waste hay and the manure and the urine goes back into the soil and helps our pastures grow,” says Heinen. “And it’s less work; I don’t have to haul manure out.”

Credit Susan Bence
Ryan Heinen heads out on a snowy cold February morning to feed the cattle wintering in a nearby pasture.

Heinen’s path to organic farming started with a keen interest in conservation.

“I got to thinking if there’s a way to farm that would restore or maintain grasslands, it would be a benefit to the land, the soil, the water as well as producing good food for people," he says. 

But Heinen bumped up against an obstacle many want-to-be farmers face. “I didn’t grow up on a farm, unless you’re born into a farm, it’s really tough to get going on your own" he says.

Linda Halley has farmed organic for close to 30 years in Wisconsin and California, among other places. She hopes Gwenyn can be a model — helping younger growers like Ryan Heinen gain experience and serving as, what she calls, a hyperlocal resource.

Halley says the 240 families who buy fresh vegetables and greens during the growing season live within 10 miles of the farm. “We’re really feeding our community,” she says. “And we’re stewarding a resource within the community – land, soil and water."

But Halley acknowledges the nearly 19,000 small organic farms around the country face challenges. In recent years, some very large operations have been certified organic by the USDA, despite concerns their animals are confined indoors, rather than spending time outdoors and, in the case of cattle, grazing — practices central to organic farming.

Credit Susan Bence
A couple of Gwenyn's chickens enjoy a morning snack.

“And so yes, it does impact us because when you have 20,000 hens in the barn and they really never do go outside,” explains Halley. “We charge $6.50 a dozen for our free-range, organic eggs that are fed only the feed we grow on our farm." 

Halley believes what she calls "an overriding cloud of cheap food" must change. She suggests organic food that is hyperlocal is key to a sustainable future.

“People have to be willing to pay the true price of food — otherwise eventually our water resources, our air resources, our land resources will be degraded,” Halley says.

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Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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