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.