In 1990, just two years after the Organic Valley cooperative was founded, Larry Mikshowsky bought his first 14 acres a hop-skip-and-jump down the road from the dairy farm he grew up on. On a gorgeous ridge-top from which you can practically see the curve of the earth, it’s easy to understand why he didn’t want to be anywhere else.
At first, Larry thought he would be a hobby farmer and work off-farm for a living. But in 1993, he married Donna Trussoni. Donna’s father, AdolphTrussoni, was one of the primary drivers in establishing Organic Valley’s dairy pool in 1989. This connection changed the way Larry looked at farming in many ways.
On her home farm in Vernon County, Wisconsin, Donna’s family grew tobacco, which was a popular crop in those days. Donna thought she and Larry could do that on their land. They planted five acres, which amounted to 50,000 plants that had to be tended, harvested, hung to dry, stripped and baled, all by hand, not machines. With all the Trussoni experience, not to mention extra manpower from Donna’s extended family, the harvest didn't take long.
“Little did we know at that time, we were in the middle of our internship to become organic farmers,” Larry says. “When we first started farming organically in 1998, it was a challenge. Our sweet corn crop was full of weeds. Conversations with neighbors were never really negative, although you could tell from their smiles they wondered why we didn’t use chemicals to control the weeds in our corn. Organic farming is all about the soil—crop rotation, cultivation and sometimes pulling weeds by hand. You learn to have a lot of respect for the land and how to care for it. Over the years we learned how to control weeds in our organic crops. Now people look at organic farming differently because they see it can be successful.”
Over the years, Larry and Donna have added quite a few acres to their original 14, so they now grow roughly three acres of acorn squash and pie pumpkins for Organic Valley’s produce pool. Because they have enough land, they rotate the vegetable fields around the farm, which is a classic integrated pest management (IPM) technique to keep pests at bay when you don’t use chemicals to do the job for you. Every year the squash will grow in a field that first grew wheat and alfalfa in rotation. The alfalfa roots leave vital nitrogen in the soil, which in turn naturally fertilizes the squash plants.
In 1999, Donna retrofitted a barn that came with the original property to house laying hens that provide eggs for Organic Valley’s egg pool. The building was heavily insulated and they installed a ventilation system, roosting platforms and nest boxes that run the length of the barn. The hens go out during the day into a fenced, three-acre pasture where they scratch and search for tidbits in the grass. In winter they stay inside where it’s warm and dry. Donna walks through the barn several times a day to collect eggs, make sure the feed and water systems are all working correctly and to make sure all the hens are happy and doing well.
The additional acreage has enabled them to grow the lion’s share of the feed for the birds. Using the “contour farming” technique developed decades ago to counteract devastating erosion caused by farming southwest Wisconsin’s ridgelands, the Mikshowskys grow wheat, alfalfa, corn and barley. Only the alfalfa is harvested, baled and sold off-farm to Organic Valley’s grower pool.
Some of that alfalfa might end up staying on the farm if Larry gets his way and adds cows to the mix. As the primary animal care provider on the farm, Donna shakes her head and smiles. “I keep reminding him that the kids are almost all grown, and pretty soon I won’t have any help!”
But Larry points out, “there’s a nice little 16-by-16-foot barn down the road that’s going to be torn down. I could move it here and it would be perfect for two cows. What’s a farm without cows?” No doubt they will end up with a couple of cows. Donna grew up with Guernseys, and Larry grew up with Holsteins, so it’s anyone’s guess what kind of cows will end up on the Mikshowskys’ farm.
Thirty one miles away in Genoa, Wisconsin, the farm that Donna grew up on is still operated by her brother, Arnie. There are 14 kids in her family, and the whole family, including her parents, is alive and well, which means family gatherings for all kinds of occasions are plentiful. The Mikshowskys’ three children are still at home. Austin graduated from college, Nicole is in nursing school and Breanna is in high school.
While their family ties in the area are many, their ties to Organic Valley are equally deep. Besides being members of three producer pools within the co-op, Donna’s brother, Arnie, is the president of the cooperative’s board. Larry says, “Whenever things get tough, I think of Donna and Arnie’s dad, Adolph Trussoni, a dairy farmer with 14 kids and the tenacity to help start our co-op that, 25 years later, benefits more than 1,800 farm families like ours, not to mention the countless consumers who are able to choose organic.”