Jim Wedeberg's sons, John and Jake, are the 5th generation of Wedebergs farming the land Jim's great grandparents immigrated to in the mid- and late 1800's. "This area of southwest Wisconsin looked a lot like Norway to them," Jim says. Jim, his sons, and his wife Julie live on one of their home farms, and his brother lives across the road on the other. Together, they are a family who is passionate about organic agriculture, but it wasn't always that way.
In 1976, the State of Wisconsin passed a law that required farmers to get licensed to apply the pesticides and herbicides they used on the farm. "We didn't need pesticides because we rotated our crops, and we only used herbicides occasionally," Jim says, but he attended a certification workshop anyway, just to be safe. The slide show was a real eye-opener. A farmer near Madison lost half of his cows when they got onto a field that had been sprayed earlier that day. Another farmer's hands and arms were covered with blisters and sores when the chemicals leaked into his gloves and wicked up his sleeves. Jim thought, "This is crazy. I've got to find another way." And he made a u-turn. By 1980, he and Julie were using more organic methods on their farm. "It was a matter of keeping our family safe," he says. The 490 acres farmed by the Wedebergs have benefitted from that decision ever since, as has their herd of 50 Holstein and Swiss cows, and the milk they produce for Organic Valley Family of Farms.
Jim wasn't finished making big changes. In January of 1988, Jim saw an announcement in the local paper about a meeting for organic farmers who were interested in forming a cooperative that would enable them to market their products. Jim and Julie attended the meeting and what they talked about that night made sense to them. If small family farms would pool their products, they could get the transportation and marketing advantage they needed to sell what they produced without falling prey to the industry standard at the time: "Get big or get out." They were intrigued, but nobody there was talking about dairy. Jim proposed that they consider adding dairy to the cooperative, and seven months later, they became one of the founding members of the CROPP Cooperative, which markets its products under the Organic Valley and Organic Prairie brands today.
These days, most of the daily business of the farm is managed by Jim's oldest son, John (and, increasingly, Jake) because in 1997, Jim Wedeberg took over the position of Dairy Pool Director for Organic Valley. But running a farm is a full time job, and so is being the co-op Dairy Pool Director. "By 1998, it was clear that something had to give," Jim says. "So when John said that he could do a better job, I said hop to it. He's got a real talent and love for working with animals."
Jake's desire to stay with the farm grew as he did. Bucking the stereotype of kids who can't wait to leave the family farm, he and John loved growing up there. "There's always something to do," Jake says, "and there's never a dull moment." He gets a kick out of leading the cows out to pasture after milking and watching them cavort playfully in anticipation of fresh grass.
Jake recently graduated from college with a degree in Agricultural Engineering, and he has returned to the farm where he will share more of the work load with John, which includes managing the dairy, the pastures and the acreage they use to grow 90% percent of the feed for their cows. Jake also grows produce for Organic Valley in the summer, and presides over test plots of what are known as "oil crops," seed plants that can be pressed for their oil which is then used in biodiesel. He maintains test plots of camelina and sunflowers at the home farm and at test plots located on the grounds of Organic Valley's distribution center in Cashton.
As an agricultural engineer, Jake's creativity has been piqued by the growing need for alternative fuels, and he has helped design and build a mobile press unit for Organic Valley. A key part of the co-op's own Farmer Renewable Energy Program—an effort to enable co-op members to be both green and competitive—the oil press unit can be moved from farm to farm for use by farmers who want to grow and process their own fuel. Jake and John are both gung-ho about renewable energy, and have begun a wind study on their farm to determine the feasibility of adding a wind turbine to their energy sources.
Julie is thrilled to have both of her boys back on the farm and Jim says, "She is really the glue that keeps it all together around here." Julie spends a piece of each day caring for the calves on the farm. She also contributes her time and talent to the community, teaching and inspiring others with music, especially the area youth. With the farm safe in the hands of his family, you might think Jim could relax a little bit, but that idea is nowhere on his horizon. "I have a passion for this, and I'll do it as long as I can. I hope more farmers learn to produce food to satisfy the consumer, not the industry."