Apparently I'm not the only farmer 'wanna-be' who left the Krusenbaum's dairy farm thinking, I'm gonna sell everything, start over, live the good life…or, better yet, I'll just move right in…
Sue Krusenbaum tells me lots of folks are converted after spending a day on her family's farm. "It's so romantic," they tell her.
I think it was Espresso Hour that clinched it for me. At 4 o clock sharp, Sue brews up a pot of java, and serves it up along with organic cream and homemade bread and cheese. Everyone on the farm gathers around the picnic table near the garden and takes a break: they laugh, relax, and discuss the strategy for the rest of the day.
Sue and Altfrid Krusenbaum have devoted their lives to making their farm "a happy place to be." They have adopted new farming methods, adjusted their priorities, and achieved a balance for themselves and their three children: Tony, Julia, and Justin. Sue explains it this way, "Too many farm kids and urbanites think of farming as a dead end, too much work for not enough pay; drudgery. We see our farm as a model to inspire future generations of people considering farming as a way of life. Our family's mission is to help young people get started in a way that's enjoyable and profitable. It's our way of giving back what we were gifted with."
The couple has taken the best elements from their diverse backgrounds and combined worldly experiences, to create their own self-styled agri-culture.
Sue's grandparents and parents, now also Organic Valley dairy farmer/owners, created America's first biodynamic farm, in East Troy, Wisconsin. (Biodynamic is a chemical-free method of farming introduced by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner in 1924.) Sue recalls her childhood farm as being a perpetual magnet to travelers from all parts of the world. "I had a wonderful childhood. My parents welcomed apprentices, visitors, educators, everyone speaking different languages…most of our food came directly from the farm…my mother was a talented gardener, and also taught us the art of making jams and sauces, cheeses, butter, bread. We led a very simple and natural life."
Having attended some high school in Germany, Sue decided to return there to apprentice on a farm after graduation. As destiny would have it, just before she left, she met Altfrid, who was apprenticing down the road from her home farm.
Though raised as a city kid in Frankfurt, Germany, the son of a Salesman and a Homemaker/Librarian, Altfrid set his sights on exploring alternative agriculture early on. With a degree in Animal Science from Giessen University, he headed to an experimental farm in Wisconsin to apprentice in 1983, where his path crossed with Sue's briefly, before she headed to Germany.
Suffice it to say that after many trans-Atlantic flights and long distance calls, Altfrid and Sue found their way back to each other, and decided to work together on a German farm. They shared stories of the days they spent working in the castle dairy for 'Herr Red Baron' of Kulmbach—who, naturally, flew a red plane—before they returned to America to marry and start their own farm.
By the time they found their own farm in 1990, not far from Sue's childhood home, both were seasoned farmers with strong ideas. They had their work cut out for them: their new land had been farmed conventionally for 40+ years. The soils were depleted after having been chemically treated for weeds and insects, and pastures were non-existent. Aided by their participation in a case study with the University of Wisconsin Agronomy Department, the couple set about the task of converting the farm to organic. Slowly, they shifted the farm from a traditional soybean and corn rotation to the most important crop for an organic dairy farm: grass.
Where there is grass, there is romance.
Altfrid traveled to New Zealand to learn the intensive rotational grazing methods that he would later be recognized for. "Not only is life happy for the cows that graze leisurely on well-managed grass, it's a much easier life for a dairy farmer, as well as a blessing for the environment," Altfrid explains. "Instead of planting, cultivating, harvesting, and operating a tractor all day long, the cows do it for you. (Of course, Altfrid doesn't allow them to drive the tractor.) And the cows are healthier for it. They walk out to their pastures each day, harvest their own food, and do us a great favor by spreading manure on the fields to keep the soil nourished. Grass is the perfect food for bovines, and it is an excellent perennial crop that guards against soil erosion."
Accompanied by the children and an abundance of songbirds, Altfrid tends a contented herd. Under a canopy of huge oaks, he adjusts the pasture area twice a day, on their 320 acre farm, using lightweight portable wands and fencing wire.
All this said, Altfrid is careful not to make it all sound too romantic. The fact is, farming is hard work. He describes it this way: "Some days it'll rain when it's not supposed to just when you're trying to get your hay in…then the tractor won't start…the calves are bellering because they're hungry…and it's Thanksgiving and you just wish you had the night off." In the same breath, he smiles and adds, "but on nights when you've walked the cows out to pasture, and we take the time to watch the sun set peacefully with our children, it all feels worth it."
Altfrid has become a leading advocate for grazing in America. He teaches at the local University, and speaks and consults with farmers across the country.
Love is in the air here!
Sue introduces me to a newlywed couple, Maria and Harold, as they emerge from the New Zealand-style swing parlor after finishing the milking chores. "It's hard for young people to get started these days because of the cost of land and animals," says Sue. "We gift every 5th heifer calf born here to them, so at the end of their internship, they will leave with their own organic herd. It's a good start for a young couple. That's our goal here."
Each week, curious folk from all over the world visit the farm. The Krusenbaum's success has attracted serious notice. And that success reaches far beyond the boundaries of this special dairy farm.
You can visit the Krusenbaums online at www.krusengrassfarms.com