Seventy-nine-year-old Marlene Goede, the matriarch of Goede Acres, was asked recently by her son Lorn and grandson Joel if she would like to move into town so she could relax a little. She thought about it for maybe two seconds and shook her head. “Absolutely not. That’s way too far to come do chores every morning.”
“I only hope I’m half the person she is when I’m that age,” says Joel. “She’s a very special lady. In the morning she helps with egg chores. In summer, if we’re out in the fields, she takes care of egg chores in the evening. She helps with all the gardening and makes the traditional noon meal most every day for whoever’s working that day. She has her own Grandma Gator she uses to zip around the farm and gives rides to the great-grandkids.”
There’s plenty of work for everyone at all hours and every day of the year. Along with the laying hens that produce those signature Organic Valley brown eggs, there are 35 sows and their piglets to care for and 450 organic acres and crops to be tended that are harvested to feed the animals. “We try to grow as much of the feed for our animals as possible,” Joel says.
Though Goede Acres is right across the road from Organic Valley CEO George Siemon’s farm, the Goedes didn’t transition to organic until 1996.
“My dad was really excited about what George and the other founders advocated back in 1988,” Joel says. “But my grandpa was a loyal milk supplier to another local creamery and didn’t want to switch. Ironically, Organic Valley now owns that creamery.”
In 1999, plans were made to remodel the barn to accommodate 70 organic cows. But right before the expansion, the dairy barn burned to the ground. Lorn sold the cows and bought beef cows and got a job welding in nearby La Crosse, Wisconsin. Joel was still in high school, but he milked cows for other farms and raised steers with his dad, which made him realize he wanted to farm for himself.
“We decided to start over again with laying hens in 2004,” Joel says. “It was a tough decision because we had to borrow a lot of money to build the barns and buy the birds, but we jumped in. The plan was to make enough money with the birds that Dad could quit his town job and farm full time with me, but it never worked out that way until 2011, when we expanded and went into raising hogs for Organic Prairie [Organic Valley’s sister brand]. Then Dad quit his town job to farm full time.”
The chicken barns are insulated, heated and ventilated. “We have a computerized monitoring system attached to the phone line that lets us know any time of day or night if the temperature changes or there’s any glitch in the food and watering systems,” Joel continues. “It only costs about 250 bucks per barn, but we think it’s priceless to have that peace of mind. When it comes to animal care, we like to think we’re second to none in terms of comfort and quality. When it’s really hot and humid in summer, the birds rush out in the morning when it’s nice and dewy and cool and then head inside when it gets hot. They won’t go back out until it cools down in the evening.”
The sow barn has an open central aisle lined with individual stalls to accommodate the sows that are farrowing (giving birth). When the sows farrow, each one stays in her own large, horse-sized stall for privacy and to make sure the piglets are able to suckle without competition from other litters. The hogs’ outdoor area is partially roofed for shading in summer, and Joel and Lorn created water holes so the animals can wallow and cool off. When the summer heat spikes, they run a sprinkler system for the hogs to hang out under and keep cool. The farrowing barn is heated in winter. When the piglets are a couple of weeks old, they can race around the heated barn or, if the weather’s not too cold, they can go outside.
Joel and Jenny are raising their three kids on the farm, and Jenny works full-time in the dairy program at Organic Valley. Lorn and Teresa raised four other children besides Joel and have seven grandchildren. Teresa has been in the banking business for more than 25 years. “I don’t know what Dad and I would do without our spouses,” Joel says. “If it wasn’t for them, we couldn’t do what we do.”
Joel thinks that if his grandpa had a crystal ball and could have seen that George Siemon’s dream of Organic Valley would become a reality, the Goedes would have got on the bandwagon much sooner. “Thank goodness those guys had the vision and the guts that gave us the opportunity to farm the way we do today,” says Joel. “I grew up knowing George and listening to him talk about the dream. I watched them start up with next to nothing. It was kind of a joke in the community how those eight guys were shipping ‘organic’ milk. Everyone thought they were kinda crazy. It was a great experience for me to see someone follow a dream and how that perseverance and determination is becoming a billion dollar company. I’m glad we’re a part of it.”
In 2014, the Goedes’ farm joined a distinctive list of historical agricultural operations known as Century Farms. These are properties that have remained in the same family continuously for 100 years or more and are currently being managed as agricultural land.