Meet the seven siblings of Promise Farms. Nine years ago, at ages 16, 15, 14, 12, 10, 8 and 6, Joel, Rachel, Rebecca, James, Jonathan, Mercy and Ben Winnes made a decision. "We didn't know a thing about farming," Joel, the eldest, says, "We just knew that we wanted to be on the land, working the land."
If you're wondering how that seed was sown, ask the parents, Jan and David Winnes. Living in Minneapolis, they were dedicated to feeding their family healthy, natural foods, but having a hard time finding it. When Jan read a newspaper article about a farmer who had transitioned from conventional to organic after discovering the chemicals he was using were causing birth defects in his calves, she spotted an educational opportunity for the kids.
"So my Mom called the farmer and we were invited to visit," says Joel, now 26. "It was the best place we kids could think of to go. The next day, we wanted to know when we could go back."
The seed grew. In 1998, the family took a leap of faith and moved from Minneapolis to an abandoned farm in the ridge-and-valley landscape of southeast Minnesota's Driftless region. The land was in bad shape. They bought two cows and began healing the pastures a little section at a time, by nourishing the soils and planting healthy grasses and clovers for the cows to graze, just as they had seen it done on the model farm they visited. "When we started out, two cows wouldn't last two hours on those pastures. Now we rotational graze 40 cows on small sections, and they get a whole day's worth of grass."
While Jan and David put up the money for the land, Jan emphasizes that the kids run the show. "They're the ones who decided what to do and figured out how to do it. They do the work, so they make the decisions." Joel confirms that they learned everything by discovery and with help from other farmers and grazing networks in Iowa and Wisconsin. Plus, Joel says, "Our neighbors in the Crooked Creek Valley have really taken us in and opened up to us in a way we didn't expect."
From two cows the kids milked by hand, the herd has grown to 40. "My sisters learned how to do artificial insemination, so they handle the breeding program," says Joel. "The cows are at least half to three quarters Jersey, because we favor their milk, and we've been crossing them with Dutch belted and Shorthorn. This year we bought a couple of Holsteins from another organic farmer to see how they do."
Typically, chaos rules the day when it comes to seven siblings living and working together, but Joel is quick to point out that they learned the fine art of conflict resolution at very early ages. "Our parents would not put up with fighting and bickering. They taught us how to sit down and work things out with each other." When there are decisions to be made on the farm, they are most often made over breakfast when the whole family is together. "We don't always agree on every little fine point," Joel says, "but we discuss it and go over all the details of an issue until everybody comes together on a decision. We don't do something unless we all agree on it, even if the final decision is kind of frustrating to some. We are all equally involved in this."
Being part of a family that's used to working cooperatively, it was only natural that Joel got excited when he heard about the Organic Valley cooperative from one of the grazing networks. "Though we farmed organically, we started out selling our milk to the conventional market because we didn't know what else to do with it. The prices were terrible. If it hadn't been for Organic Valley, we probably wouldn't have gotten off the ground." By 2004, the Winnes were selling milk to the cooperative, which suits the seven siblings just fine. "Though we can't all go at the same time, we love the annual meetings in La Farge because we actually get to meet and hang out with George (George Siemon, Organic Valley CEO) and the board members like you were sitting around the dinner table. They're all farmers and family, just like us."
The Winnes' wish there were more young farmers coming onto the land. "So many times we see kids driven off the farm because of the conventional model," Joel says. "Trying to get those young people interested in farming again if they've had a bad experience is almost impossible. Others who have had no previous experience see conventional farming and they're not interested," Joel says. "If they were exposed to grass based dairying and organic farming, I think they'd feel differently."
Joel and the siblings like to go on "pasture walks"—events sponsored by farmers who pasture their animals, to show people what they've done and how they've accomplished it. "It's a great time to ask questions, share ideas and work out problems. Often, there are just as many non-farmers there as there are farmers. People like to find out how it's done."
If there's any down time on the farm, you might find the Winnes hanging out on a hilltop they've dubbed Gnarly Hill, where an ancient oak tree bristles the crest and frames a panoramic view of their "neighborhood." Mostly, after chores and supper, music pours from the farmhouse compliments of the boys on banjo, dobro and guitar. "I can't think of any place I'd rather be," Joel says, "except maybe a pasture walk."