What does a self-described ski bum in Colorado know about farming in Wisconsin? Next to nothing. But Michael Gutschenritter knew he couldn't let his family's Oconomowoc farm be sold. Five years ago, he made the move-together with his parents and brother - back to the place he had been raised.
Within a year, he and his brother Chris had sold shares to 25 families in a CSA (community-supported agriculture) program. Today, Michael and his girlfriend, Courtney Stevens, manage Three Brothers Farm, provide fresh produce to 75 CSA members, run a wholesale egg business and have big plans for the years ahead.
From the slopes to the soil
In a 101-year-old red dairy barn at Three Brothers Farm, a plaque on the wall from the Wisconsin State Genealogical Society commemorates the Gutschenritter family's pioneering roots, settling in Washington County in 1847. But the farm that Michael is so passionate about didn't become part of his heritage until 1954, when his grandfather invested in 100 acres.
Never intending to farm it all himself, Michael's grandfather rented the land to others to grow corn and soybeans. When he died, the family received several offers to purchase the real estate.
Michael, his brother Chris and their parents were living in Colorado at the time. The eldest brother/son still lived in Wisconsin. "At the last minute, we decided to give it a go and farm it," recalls Michael. He and Chris incorporated a business, sold shares in a CSA and got to work.
"I had no experience. I didn't know even how to plant a tomato before we started," Michael says. He credits his father's entrepreneurial genes and his mother's creativity for his willingness to try. As it turns out, Gutschenritter was primed for a change.
In Steamboat Springs, Colorado, "I was working on the mountain, tuning and fixing skis and snowboards. (It was) nothing very engaging, but I did get to ski 100-and-such days a year," he says, smiling. While Michael loved the laidback lifestyle and had a great group of friends, he knew he was just biding time.
"I was always looking for something more - like graduate school -but nothing really sparked an interest until I realized the farm could be out of our family name," he explains.
Crash course in gardening
"The core of the business originally was our market garden. We pretty much took the idea of gardening, put a magnifying glass on it and blew it up," Gutschenritter says. His mom had a large garden, and the boys coupled their developing knowledge with her hands-on experience.
"My brother and I just researched for a year and figured it out," he says, adding, "We weren't very good at it. It was literally my first garden, and I was gardening for 25 families."
The inaugural harvest featured lettuce, carrots, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, beans, melons and pumpkins-"pretty traditional Wisconsin crops," he says. Today, the CSA offers dozens of different vegetables from spring through fall. Member feedback about the produce, down to each varietal, helps Gutschenritter decide what to plant each year.
Of course, sometimes Mother Nature has her own plan. Last year, Three Brothers Farm didn't harvest a single eggplant from more than 150 plants; potato beetles annihilated them. "This year, we're having a very difficult time with our carrots. We planted several beds and have gotten minimal germination. It's pretty frustrating," Gutschenritter admits.
Stevens agrees that choosing which plants to grow is a steep learning curve. She's the more experienced farmer of the pair, and Gutschenritter is happy for her help. Stevens owned a flower farm and floral design business for several years in Fredonia, Wisconsin, before coming to Lake Country.
Now one corner of the farm is devoted to her business, Flower & Bee, which makes floral arrangements for events and weddings. "(My partner, Jamie Bertsch, and I) grow our own flowers, and we have a natural aesthetic, so those two factors have attracted people to what we do," she explains.
A weekly bouquet of fresh-cut flowers is offered as an add-on to the vegetable CSA. It's one part of the growing business; the largest part of the enterprise these days is served sunnyside up.
Building a nest egg
A year into the Three Brothers Farm, Peter Sandroni, owner and chef of La Merenda and Engine Co. 3 in Milwaukee, asked Gutschenritter if he could provide the restaurants with 180 dozen eggs a week. At the time, the farm was home to about 20 hens. "That totally transformed our business. We brought on 700 birds literally within two weeks of him calling," says Michael.
As word got out, more restaurants came calling, and Gutschenritter is happy to oblige. "Our chickens, for as long as they can throughout the year, are out on fresh pasture…and it really changes the egg dramatically," he explains: the yolks are deep orange and very flavorful.
The flock produces about 50 dozen eggs each day, and it takes hours daily to collect, wash, and store them all. In addition to Gutschenritter and Stevens, Three Brothers Farm has one employee and one intern. Gutschenritter's parents and volunteers also lend a hand.
The portable coops are moved every night, and fencing is moved every three days as the fowl graze. "My personal favorite thing to do on the farm is to move the chickens onto the fresh pasture. There's something really rewarding about seeing chickens come out of the coop in the morning," Gutschenritter says.
The farm devotes 15 acres to its chickens and four newly acquired sheep and about two acres to its vegetables. A majority, 70 acres, is broadacre crops: peas grown for seeds, alfalfa, pinto beans for the Chipotle chain of Mexican fast-food restaurants, and organic corn, which fetches top dollar on the commodity market.
The eggs and vegetables are also pesticide-free but not certified organic. "Our customers know we do everything organically, so there's no reason for us to go through all the paperwork and monitoring," Gutschenritter explains.
Start of the growing season
Three Brothers Farm has a devoted following. The 2016 CSA sold out at 75 members, and Gutschenritter attributes his success in this area to the uniqueness of the endeavor.
"It's pretty standard in this area - Waukesha County - for people to grow corn, soy, wheat and hay. So when people are driving by and they see a 2-acre garden and big, mobile chicken coops, it drew a lot of attention right away," he says.
Interested people can still follow the farm on Facebook, where they post what surplus is available in their farm store.
"We try to give everything to the members. If you buy your share, you're buying a fraction of anything and everything we produce, so it would only be if we had more than the members could possibly take," Stevens explains. The store also carries other local products - meat, honey, syrup, cheese, soap and jams made by neighbors and friends.
In the future, Three Brothers Farm may offer its own meat and wool in the store. Plans include converting the broadacre into grazing pasture for livestock - more sheep and adding cattle. "The great thing about this industry is there's room for creativity, and, whatever we do, we know the community will support us," says Gutschenritter.
Such freedom is a double-edged sword. "You can start with an idea of what you want a farm to be, but then the reality of time, resources and what you actually enjoy doing means a lot of decision making and saying no. You want to do everything, but you can't," Stevens says.
The hardest part for Gutschenritter is staying mentally organized as the farm sees ever greater success. "When you think about a market garden, it's not just learning to grow vegetables; you learn how to grow 50 different types of vegetables, so that's like 50 different enterprises you really have to nail," he says.
The last-minute decision to become a farmer has turned out extremely well for Gutschenritter - and not just because he found something intellectually stimulating. "We're on our way to making a decent living doing something really humane and good for the community," he says. Best of all, Gutschenritter adds, he works alongside the people he loves. Now that's a real family farm.