The Athens, Wisconsin organic farm finds ways to grow while remaining a local, family business.
by Mitchell A. Skurzewski
Source: Stoney Acres Farm
ATHENS — Tony Schultz returned to Athens to find it much different than when he was in school. He was coaching the Athens junior varsity basketball team when something struck him.
“When I grew up and went to grade school, half the kids in my class were 50-cow, dairy-farm kids,” Schultz said. “When I came back from college (in 2004), one player from a team of 30 was from a farm like mine. I find that sad.”
Schultz, along with his wife, Kat Becker, decided to take back at least part of the countryside with Stoney Acres Farm. In 2006 they bought the 120-acre farm, which is located about eight miles northwest of Athens, and sold community-supported agriculture or CSA shares. In the farm’s second year of doing CSAs in 2008, they doubled shares from 72 customers to 145. Business has grown steadily from there.
Schultz and Becker grow more than 170 varieties of fruits and vegetables, raise 100 percent grass-fed cattle, meat and egg chickens and pastured pigs. They grow mushrooms, tap maple syrup and most recently, in 2012, added a weekly pizza night. With the growth of their farm’s business and other ventures such as Wausau’s winter farmers market, cooking classes, a pumpkin pick and barn dance, Schultz and Becker have become faces of the organic movement in central Wisconsin and one of the most well-known organic farms in Wisconsin.
Some of Stoney Acres’ customers are large wholesale accounts, like the Wausau restaurant Red Eye and the organic grocery store Downtown Grocery. Recently Schultz and Becker added County Market of Medford, the main grocery store near Athens and Medford, to their growing list.
“(County Market) said ‘We will buy as many vegetables from you as you want,’ which is kind of intimidating to us, but at the same time I feel really honored by them saying ‘Oh you have a good reputation, sell us vegetables,’” Schultz said. “We will work on that next year. They got to us in April and May when we had a lot of our planning done.”
As the business grows, though, Schultz said he does not want to lose sight of the vision he and his wife brought to farming when they started.
“We don’t want to be too big. We want to be a family farm, and by that I mean (a farm) where we provide the majority of the labor,” Schultz said.
Schultz and Becker, who have three two sons, Riley, 7, and Ted, 5, and a 1-year-old daughter, Maple, are hopeful not just for their farm’s success, but also for the organic movement as a whole to have success.
“Ideologically we want to be organic farmers, because we feel like the organic movement has provided a space for family farms,” Becker said. “We don’t feel competitive with other
The consolidation of family farms also has turned people to organic, Becker said, and Stoney Acres has capitalized on the opportunity. Becker said that Perdue Farms, a major chicken-processing company, owns a large portion of the market and three beef packers control a huge portion of the market.young organic farmers.”
Schultz and Becker have made it their mission to create and maintain “a healthy, diversified organic family farm, where we sell everything locally.”
“That consolidation violates a lot of basic American values,” Becker said. “If that was true in any other industry, people would be up in arms. I think what’s happened in agriculture is that the government hasn’t regulated it, so people have taken it into their own hands to find out where there food is from and where it’s being produced.”
A connection to customers
One reason behind the success of Stoney Acres is the close relationship between Schultz and Becker and their customers. At various times during the year, customers can pick strawberries, tomatoes, raspberries and pumpkins. They encourage people to visit their farm and they hold three family-centered farm events, including a pancake breakfast, barn dance and fall pumpkin pick and pie event for CSA members.
The biggest event at Stoney Acres, however, takes place weekly and is open to the public: Friday pizza nights with pizzas made by wood-fired pizza oven and during which visitors can explore the 120-acre farm.
The pizza includes veggies, sausage (Schultz and Becker raise Berkshire pigs) and crust made from the farm’s wheat and ground into flour.
Schultz and Becker started the Wausau winter farmers market in 2013, which increased in size in its second year and is expected to grow again this year. In 2013 there were 12 vendors, last year 18 and this year 20 or more is expected and the winters market brings in over 350 people each weekend and starts the first weekend of November. Schultz is also treasurer of the Wausau farmers market, which he called the best farmers market in the area.
The United States Department of Agriculture and a Sept. 23 article in the Des Moines Register reports there are 14,093 organic farms in the United States that sold a total of $5.5 billion in products in 2014. Sales increased 72 percent from the 2008 estimate. Organic crops were responsible for 60 percent of organic sales with the remainder coming from livestock and poultry products including milk, eggs and meats.
“There are more people every day that kind of acquire heightened level of awareness that food has an integral impact on their health and well-being. Every time someone buys healthier food, it creates a market opportunity for farmers like Kat and Tony,” said Mark Kastel, co-founder of the Cornucopia Institute, a nonprofit organization headquartered in Cornucopia, Wis., with the mission of being “watchdogs” for the family-scale farming community.
In 2008 organic sales totaled $3.16 billion, including $1.94 billion in crops and $1.22 billion in livestock, poultry and their products.
“I always say to people, ‘What’s better for a place like Athens: 50 families with 60 cows or one guy with 3,000 cows?’” Schultz said. “I’m doing this because farmers have historically had a problem of markets, profits and middlemen. By selling things directly to consumers with a good story like an organic farm with a thing like pizza night, it helps create excitement about it.”
Selling farm-raised pizzas
Stoney Acres’ pizza night has become a craze. Not even Schultz or Becker could have imagined Friday night pizza night growing as large as it has. Cars flock to the countryside northwest of Athens to Stoney Acres Farm to snag an organic pizza bursting with flavor. Pizza night takes place from 4:30 p.m. until 8 p.m.each Friday in the summer until the end of October.
At a recent pizza night, Schultz and Becker showed the farm-to-table process as folks sat in their backyard and saw the fresh vegetables being put on their pizza and brought their own refreshments to enjoy.
Visitors can choose from many options and from organic toppings that are in season at the time and the pizza is baked in an outdoor brick-oven in front of the guests.
Becker said they received nearly 300 pizza orders on a Friday this summer and each week they have visitors from Stevens Point or farther away, which is about a three-hour round trip.
“They have really big hearts and care about what they are doing,” Kastel said in regards to what makes Stoney Acres such a success. “There is a lot of direct marketing for organic farmers who really just want to create community around food. They aren’t just growing and selling food, they have a relationship with their customers and their customers respect them and glean more when they realize they’re supporting families and community with their patronage.”
Schultz graduated from University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2004 and only taught for a couple of years at Newman Catholic and Athens before sticking to purely on-farm work. Becker, originally from New York City, received her Master’s Degree from UW-Madison style in rural sociology in 2006 and taught sociology at UW Marathon County; the farm’s success allowed her to leave her job two years ago and work solely on the farm.
“I talk about the American dream and I feel I have the American dream,” Schultz said. “I have been saying that a lot in the last few years, but I think as we’ve set goals we’ve accomplished them in the time frame or before the time frame we set to achieve them.”
Schultz says there is a lot of opportunity for growth in the organic business. People can look to the Stoney Acres family farm as a model to follow.
“I love and romanticize my family farm,” Schultz said. “We’ve been trying to help people pursue a dream of having a farm. Marathon County spent $250 million in groceries last year alone. If just 10 percent of that was spent locally, that’s $25 million, that’s about 150 farms like mine that Marathon County could support.”
Mitchell A. Skurzewski can be reached at 715-898-7006, email@example.com or on Twitter as @MSkurzewski.