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Cooperatives


Farm, Art and the Cooperative Spirit

by Andy Radtke

April 24, 2019

by Andy Radtke


We invited some talented artists to paint murals about the cooperative spirit on an old barn on one of our Organic Valley farms. It turned out amazing, but it didn’t go quite as planned…


One of the greatest things about being a farmer-owned cooperative* is that we get to make decisions rooted in common sense and community—what’s good for the economy and what works for families and the places we live, work, and dream together. We can focus on the things the world needs more of, like organic family-scale farms, better food, a cleaner environment, a stronger community, and sometimes, you know, art.

That’s why we invited three hard-working artists to paint murals on an old barn deep in a gorgeous Wisconsin valley on an Organic Valley family farm. We figured it would be constructive juxtapositioning to bring a genre of art that’s blossoming in cities out to the farm—to remind ourselves that we’re all one big community on a little blue ball.  We asked artists Malena Handeen, Aaron Horkey, and Pete Hodapp to create art about the cooperative spirit that thrives everywhere from Main Street to the amber waves. They were free to create from their heart on three barn-side canvasses. We’d film them making the art and post the video online, so people everywhere could see the color and connection created within this green valley.

In the fall of 2017, these murals provided a lot of enjoyment to folks who visited the farm’s annual family fun days and pumpkin patch. Everyone loved to watch the artists at work, from Pete’s macro depiction of the circle of life (its main actors: tobacco worms painted larger-than-life on this retired tobacco barn), to Malena’s harmonies that sound when we work with nature instead of against it, to Aaron’s astonishingly frightful creatures that will thrive when we don’t. A swirling red thread of paint brought the three together in common purpose, to steward the gifts we share today into our families’ shared future.

The project itself went well. Better than well, in fact. The murals came out crazy good, as you can see from the photos. But things didn’t go exactly as planned.

On the night of August 27, 2018, Mother Nature dropped more than 14 inches of rain on this Wisconsin hill country just east of the Mississippi River. The deluge overwhelmed a 40-foot-deep, 20-acre erosion-control reservoir at the head of the painted barn’s valley. By 2:30 a.m. on the 28th, the dam burst and water screamed out with the force of a fire hose the size of ten subway trains. Amazingly, no one was seriously hurt, but scores of outbuildings, countless trees, tractors, vehicles, even much of a small town—all things in the path of this tsunami—were soaked or destroyed for many miles down the valley. Our Farm Art barn was the very first structure in the path of the massive wave.

Becky and Tucker Gretebeck, the Organic Valley dairy farmers whose beautiful barn this was, lost six buildings, two tractors, several wagons and fences, and most heart-wrenchingly, the side hustle they’d spent more than a decade creating: Tucker and Becky’s Pumpkin Patch. Thanks to their love and hard work, this valley is a classic example of a thing that’s much greater than the sum of its parts.


"Something unexpectedly old-school happens at this happy haunt, and it feels a lot like community."


Every October, thousands of families from counties all around bring their kids here. At first, they come to pick pumpkins, but they return year after year in droves for the magic. Tucker, a sometimes-schoolteacher, seems to know everyone by name. His made-up stories trick laughs from the shyest toddlers. Families line up and wait for his tractor hayrides through the bustling pumpkin patch, into the cooling air of the woods, past Tucker’s farmhand playing the part of an old miner panning the creek for gold, past gaggles of ghouls and skeletons.

Becky packs the old barn with goats, lambs, pigs, chickens, llamas—all the critters wide-eyed kids can’t resist. Crackling fires, wood-fired pizza and hot cider set a cozy autumnal tone. Workaday stress melts off the crowd. Neighbors catch up. Strangers become friends. Something unexpectedly old-school happens at this happy haunt, and it feels a lot like community.

The flood stole most of its working parts, but greater things remain in the valley—joy, togetherness, and the cooperative spirit. If you’re ever in Vernon County, Wisconsin, in October, swing on by. Tucker and Becky are still here, and they’re planning a do-over for the ages. Come for the pumpkins; stay for the love. 


Editor’s note: Friends of Tucker and Becky Gretebeck started a GoFundMe fundraiser so anyone with a little to spare can help get the Pumpkin Patch back on its feet.


*If you don’t really know what our farmer cooperative is, just think of it as a democracy of owners with their work boots on. We share the investment, the risks and the rewards. We get dirty and we call the shots. Nobody owns us. Our farms and cow-studded pastures really do look like the image in your head. As for the food, you tell us what you want, and we bring our heads and farms together to make it happen.
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