Bontrager Family Farm Produce

Vernon County, Wisconsin

The Bontrager's at the local packaging facility getting produce ready for the consumer

The Bontrager's at the local packaging facility getting produce ready for the consumer

The Bontragers busy in the field on their 80 acre farm in Vernon County

The Bontragers busy in the field on their 80 acre farm in Vernon County

Fresh organic produce ready to be sold in stores near and far from the hills and valleys of the farm's region

Fresh organic produce ready to be sold in stores near and far from the hills and valleys of the farm's region

Two Bontrager children take a break from chores

Two Bontrager children take a break from chores

Busy in the fields

Busy in the fields

A few Bontrager children run in between the organic crop rows

A few Bontrager children run in between the organic crop rows

A wagon full of fresh picked organic green peppers

A wagon full of fresh picked organic green peppers

Though Family Farm Produce's on-farm store is open to the public by early June, locals don't begin swarming down the lane 'til mid-June or so, drawn by the exquisite strawberries that are carefully hand-picked and displayed by family members. The sweet, juicy berries are enjoyed first as prized summer desserts and then year-round in jams and canned confections.

While there are a few things grown exclusively for the farm store and its local clientele—rhubarb, sweet corn and melons—the lion's share of the produce on this eighty acre Amish farm in Vernon County, Wisconsin, is sold by Organic Valley in stores near and far from the hills and valleys of this region.

The Bontragers moved from northern Indiana to Wisconsin in 1989. When they came to look for land the previous July, southwest Wisconsin was in the throes of one of the driest growing seasons on record. Onions that had been planted by some farmers had not even topped through the soil and crops failed. Still, the Bontragers were drawn to this creased and ancient landscape where what was then a fledgling Amish community was established and, in conjunction with Mr. Bontrager's brother, bought their land. The young family, only three children strong at the time, came north with two small herds of Jerseys and Holsteins and a few horses. Their very first crop was sold to Organic Valley in 1991, back when the Cooperative was in its infancy.

Today the family is 12 children strong and settled onto their land as indelibly as the food they grow. The farm is a classic diversified operation, with approximately 17 milking cows, plenty of laying hens and fields full of produce. In season, the livestock grazes the fields. Mr. Bontrager remembers being surprised by articles in the Agriview in the '80's advocating grazing for livestock, which was controversial advice at a time when the standard agricultural practice was to keep animals indoors and feed them grain. He was surprised because to him grazing was the natural, sensible thing to do, especially when you don't use fuel powered machines to manage your farm. In fact, all the work at Family Farm Produce is accomplished by human and horse power.

The day's work is divvied up over the family breakfast, which is eaten at a long wooden table at the center of the kitchen made toasty warm by the big cook stove. No matter the season, daily chores always include animal care and feeding, milking cows, and collecting eggs. There is always water to be drawn, fires to be tended, and other general chores to see to, along with whatever seasonal work awaits.

Heavier chores are turfed to the toffee-colored Belgian draft horses that plough and harvest crops, and haul wood, produce, hay and lumber. Off farm travel is accomplished via buggy drawn by horses whose long legs and distinctive gait are compliments of their Standardbred roots. The Standardbreds are often crossed with Morgans for strength, durability and temperament.

Selling their larger crop to Organic Valley for a fair pay price has been a great source of stability on this farm, but providing healthy, delicious food to folks close to home is important, too. Building up their farm stand business was a long row to hoe. They started out with a hand-lettered cardboard sign out by the road and displayed their goods on a picnic table in the shade. They realized they needed a way to store and display their produce more effectively. Eventually they were able to build a small outbuilding apart from the main house and barns where folks could park and go in out of the rain or heat of the summer day and browse the shallow bins that have been built on a slant for easier viewing. Over the years they have tried to build more variety into their offerings and will even run out to the garden to cut delicate, hard to store greens for customers.

For the crops Family Farm Produce grows for Organic Valley—squash, potatoes, onions, eggplant, cabbage and much more—the family recently built a new facility that will make preparing their crops for shipping a little more efficient. The huge bins full of produce picked from the fields are brought by wagon to the building's loading dock where the wagons are backed up and off-loaded. Inside, they are washed and re-packed and sent back to the dock which is also accessible by fuel powered vehicles that come to take the produce to Organic Valley's distribution center in Cashton, Wisconsin.

Eighty percent of the farmer-members in Organic Valley's Produce Pool are Amish, and 20% of the farmer-members in our Dairy Pool are either Amish or Mennonite. The Bontragers are long-standing and valued members of our cooperative. We are grateful for such good neighbors and always happy to see their buggy parked at headquarters for membership meetings.

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