I grew up on a farm. How often do we hear our latest generation of 20 somethings say that? I’m willing to bet it is a lot less than previous generations.
I am the owner of Brown Barn Botanicals and I grew up on a Wisconsin farm. I also grew up as the only girl in my generation and lived on a nuclear family style farm where my parents and siblings, my grandparents and my great-aunt and uncle also lived. All of us on top of each other and mingled into each other’s daily life.
I still clearly remember sitting on the grass of my Great Aunt Emma’s sunny front yard while she worked in her garden and told me all about the flowers she was growing there. I also remember the yearly tradition of the women in our family (and one small girl – me) congregating in the large communal vegetable garden to plant, weed and harvest.
I especially remember peas. Oh how I loved planting peas each year. There was something about their perfect roundness nestled in the palm of my small hand as I dropped them into sun warmed soil, tenderly covering them and watering. Then later in the summer their sweet burst of flavor as I popped open delicate pods I picked myself from the pea plants grown from the very peas I planted! What better way is there to teach a child about gardening, the food chain, and to instill a sense of family and tradition than the yearly gathering of the generations to garden together?
While this was the norm in the 1950’s and 1960’s it has to be a rare scene in today’s modern American society. The Wisconsin family farm is slowly dissolving into our state’s history. 2015 saw the lowest number of recorded dairy farms in the last 100 years. The National Agricultural Statistics Service reported in 2015 that the state of Wisconsin dropped below 10,000 dairy farms. The state’s smallest dairy farms with less than 49 cows are spiraling down toward the 3,000 mark as large “mega” farms grow. There were 44 farms with 1,000-plus cows in the state in 2002, 78 in 2007 and 129 in 2012, according to NASS data.
We live in a small township in Northern Wisconsin. Our oldest generation of farmers are retiring and their farms are not being passed on to the next generation as their children opt to move on to more lucrative industry based jobs or have left the farm to build a life in town or to take jobs working for larger local mega-farms. We are watching historical change in agriculture. My husband and I live in the heart of a farming transition, watching over the last twenty years as small local family farms are slowly disappearing from our rural tapestry. Retired farmers with no “next generation” to pass their land to are selling or leasing family farms to mega-farms who are purchasing more and more acreage to till in order to support their massive dairy herds and to support the manure management of these herds.
While the look of small family farms is changing, not all is bleak. In fact what has emerged in the last few years is promising to result in a more vibrant landscape. In the last ten years CSA’s, Vineyards with beautiful custom wines, “farm pizza” events at small specialty farms, and cheesemakers taking a holistic “cow-to-customer” approach have popped up in our area. Its an exciting time to witness the re-thinking of the family farm concept and we love seeing all of the creative specialties emerging as a result.
I am the fourth generation of a Wisconsin farm family and my daughter, Alyssa, is the fifth generation. Over the years our family situation changed and my family was forced to sell our beloved family farm. It is now a subdivision on the outskirts of Waukesha, Wisconsin, housing beautiful large homes on its rich black soil.
I am living proof that while you can take the girl off the farm you can’t take the farm out of the girl. When we married, my husband (Steve) and I bought a small 40 acre “farmette” in Marathon County, Wisconsin which was previously a small dairy farm and then run as a greenhouse business for the 30 years before we bought it. We ran the location as a greenhouse for several years and my husband continues to operate his waste-water irrigation business from the farm. We’ve lived here almost 20 years now and have watched our community change with the hands of time as our neighbors retired from farming.
My husband, Steve, also grew up on a farm similar to the one I grew up on. His grandparents and uncle lived across the driveway. Over the years that farm was sold as well. When we married we were a bit of fish out of water. Two displaced farm “kids” looking to hang onto our heritage and find a way to instill that same rich history into our children while also needing to find a way to survive economically. We found our way thru my running the greenhouse (and eventually moving into botanicals to be used in Brown Barn’s hand-made bath, body, skincare, and culinary products) while Steve ran his custom operator business for area farmers.
One of the drawbacks and I feel what holds a lot of small family farmers back in today’s economy is that we know about plants – cows – bulls – chickens – soil – rain – minerals – commodities and market. We don’t know enough about e-commerce – advertising – branding – marketing – alternative living – and niche development. Our farming parents and grandparents had no need for a logo and website! Much less a Facebook page! I giggle at the idea of my Grandpa spending hours of his day writing blogs about his corn field. But here we are in 2017 and that is exactly what a I see CSA (Community Support Agriculture) farmers and local cheese makers doing.
As the generations grow outward and away from the family farm experience we must rethink the small family farm. Re”Vision” what that looks like. We need to find ways to make small farms relevant in the lives of today’s consumer.
For us, we found raising botanicals to be infused into the oils of our marvelous Brown Barn skincare and body products to be the answer. This is an especially sweet turn of events for my family history and myself. When I was growing up all I ever heard from my elders was that my brother would have the farm and run the farm and “be” the farmer of the next generation. Well…right now that same brother lives in Oklahoma where he helps run a music venue and owns his own concrete construction business. That’s pretty far away from the traditional vision my Grandparents had for the family’s future.
And I know they never in a million years would have imagined that their only Grand-daughter would be the one to carry the family farming torch into the 21st century. Or that our version of the small family farm would consist of a botanical farm, solar oil infusion greenhouse, a cosmetics lab, and a retail market as well as online “e-commerce” site. Nor would they ever have imagined that over 44,000 Facebook followers would view posts of our process, much less be interested in it! They would have laughed at the idea of the old oil infusions and salves of my Great-Aunt and Grandmother’s time or the hand-made soaps of my husband’s Grandmother’s day would find a home in the midst of all of this and represent a significant portion of our revenue.
I like to imagine my Grandmother and Great-Aunt high-fiving on their immortal cloud as they look down on Alyssa and I. Giggling as we power forth and smiling when we post pictures of them as young women on the farm.
When we first envisioned Brown Barn and what an “agri-beauty” business would look like we knew that we would have to make some sacrifices and do a lot of fancy footwork to build a large enough customer following to sustain our little farm. Back in 2007, when we first began this journey we had to go to the drawing board and design an agri-business that was different from anything we’d ever seen before. A business that was part farm/part manufacturing and that needed to find a place in e-commerce.
At that time handmade cosmetics were just starting to be heard of in our part of the country. We had to go to the drawing board many times over to get from there to here. The hardest part of this journey for myself and my husband was realizing that in order to build our customer base I would need to leave the farm and get out among our customers. I had to leave my little farm and go forth to open short-term pop-up stores, develop our lab system, and build the Brown Barn brand. This required me to be gone for months at a time from my husband while he stayed home to operate his Irrigation business.
We had to use trial and error style learning to grow our business as there were no models for what we were doing at that time, and we had to find a way to teach potential customers about the benefits of all natural handmade bath and body. Thankfully, many other small bath and body businesses were simultaneously popping up, causing a revolution of our industry toward all natural formulating. Large essential oil houses popped up, aiding in our mission of teaching the benefits of all natural products and use of essential oils. With the increase of online shopping and general consumer awareness of healthy choices in cosmetics I find I no longer have to leave the farm as much as in the past and this in turn allows us to now concentrate on the farming side of the business more than ever.
They say success in business is part timing, part luck, and part great idea. I think Brown Barn Botanicals is a great example of this. We also have fabulous and unique products. Even among the many other handmade bath stores popping up, Brown Barn’s formulations continue to stand out for technical excellence and superior quality. Alyssa and I did our homework – we took the time to get the correct education, certifications, and learned what to keep and what to toss as we moved forward toward fulfilling our new vision of what our family farm should look like. We didn’t take tempting short-cuts and I can honestly say we will never stop learning and reaching for better product development for our customers.
And now here we are in 2017! Looking forward to the next leg of our journey. After years on the road, I’m settling back down on the farm (admittedly where I most belong) working side-by-side with my husband and daughter to expand our fields and plantings to meet the demands for products made by our own hands in our own lab and sent out to Brown Barn Botanicals customers who order from all over the United States.
In March 2017, with more excitement than I can express, we have launched a new Skincare line founded by my daughter, Alyssa Van Doorn. It is so exciting to see her put her own spin on our family farm, adding even more wildcrafting and working on plans to take a unique, native species approach to growing in our farm fields. Her new Skincare line is nothing short of a celebration of the power of locally grown and native species plants. You can learn more about Brown Barn Skincare at www.brownbarnskincare.com.
I smile as I look at my office – which was once our living room. It has two giant computer screens and a large photography set-up; a far cry from the desk my grandparents and parents used in the kitchen of the farmhouse I grew up in. Instead of sitting next to the radio waiting to hear the farm commodities report in order to decide whether or not to drive a truck of corn to market today I post updates to an e-commerce website and calculate oil production needs for handmade lotions.
Is it still farming? You bet. We are still out there harvesting plant materials, planning our planting needs, and participating in the endless pursuit of invasive weed control.
Reaching this point is in large part thanks to the many Brown Barn Botanicals customers who have joined us on this journey and have supported us thru thick and thin. Without them, this company would not be where it is today. This has truly been a team effort of more levels than can be counted.
Was this journey easy? No! Was it worth it? Yes! I have never felt more complete. I also know that the future of my family farm history is secure for at least the rest of my life, which brings peace to my heart. I do hope that someday my daughter will be able to say that as well and maybe we’ll even be lucky enough to have a grandchild or great-grandchild who is interested in carrying the mantle toward a larger and different type of Wisconsin farm heritage.
Please join us at www.brownbarnskincare.com to learn more about Brown Barn’s beautiful line of solar infused bath, body, skincare and culinary products.