WASHBURN COUNTY -- June 25, 2019, was a day Chickadee Hills Homestead farmer, Sherry Sutton, eagerly anticipated. As a part of the Macalester College 27th Colloquium of the IGU (International Geographical Union) Commission on the Sustainability of Rural Systems, 50 college geography professors, representing six continents, traveled to Chickadee Hills Homestead, a farm located just east of Spooner. Their goal was to learn about and experience a successful farm operation that reflects Sutton’s philosophy of sustainable agriculture. Sutton explains her farming philosophy that underpins every decision she and Matt, her husband, make: “sustainable agriculture views biodiversity as a benefit instead of a detriment and should feed people without damaging water quality, air quality and have the least possible negative impact on other species.”
The Geography Departments at Macalester College and University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire co-sponsored the six-day conference. The goal of this conference was to foster international collaboration and information exchange specifically focusing on the concepts of economic, social, and environmental sustainability of rural systems. The event also afforded the attendees an opportunity to develop international perspectives on rural sustainability and to bolster the relationship between higher education institutions and local communities. To help meet those goals, the conference organizers scheduled a tour of Chickadee Hills Homestead, during which the educators had an opportunity to observe the farm in action and to learn Sutton’s philosophy and strategy. Touring the farm enabled the visitors to increase their body of knowledge of a functioning, successful rural enterprise and how Sutton fosters a connection to local communities.
The visitors, on this warm, breezy day, were greeted first by the Guinea Hens, which patrol the land, looking for edibles, especially ticks. The Guineas also play an important role as “early-alert animals” that warn the farm fowl and Sutton of predators. They also announce the arrival of human visitors and Sutton’s retail-store shoppers. After greeting the visitors, Sutton then provided an orientation to the farm, explaining how she and Matt bought their 80 acres five years ago and how they built, developed, and managed the farm to reflect their farm’s slogan: “Healthy Soil. Healthy Life.” She explained how they have created a successful farming operation free from herbicides, pesticides, hormones, and chemicals. Sutton also described how they have implemented a rotational system that fosters sustainable farming in which they periodically move their animals and plant their produce seeds in different locations.
Aligned with the key organizing theme of “Sustaining Rural Systems: Rural Vitality in an Era of Globalization and Economic Nationalism,” Sutton organized the farm tour into seven stations: Small Fruits; The Garden; The Chicken Coop, Apple Trees and Things We Bring to Feed the Pigs; Summer Paddock; Winter Paddock; and the Hayfield. Each of the seven stations was staffed by a volunteer who read a script Sutton wrote. For example, the Small Fruit area, composed of items such as “Viking” Chokeberry, Elderberry, Juneberry, Pygmy Pea Shrub, offers tasty treats to the chickens and serves as a means for them to seek shade, rest, and to feel protected from aerial predators like the eagle and red-tailed hawk. Sutton added that the small fruit area serves as an important source of nectar for pollinating insects.
During their movement from station to station, the educators witnessed the free-range chickens roaming around, ducks and goats ambling about, alpacas and horses grazing, and over 100 pigs relaxing in the Summer Paddock. The farm’s mainstay product is the Mangalista pig, a type of pig that can readily survive harsh Wisconsin winters.
Once the seven-station tour was completed, the visitors reconvened for follow-up questions and answers. The professors were eager to learn more and asked many questions. While it might seem strange to us here in Wisconsin, one of the professors wanted to know more about ticks, as he never heard of them. Other questions ranged from At noon, they departed to enjoy lunch at Pine Brook Farm, just down the road from Chickadee Hills Homestead. The menu consisted of food from Sutton’s farm. Sutton is committed to her local community and maintains a strong farm-local-community relationship, supplying food for eateries such as Pine Brook Farm and Round Man Brewing Company. She also sells her produce and meat products at the Spooner and Hayward Farmers Markets. This year, Sutton launched a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) endeavor, with over 20 families taking part in it. Each week, participants drive to the farm to pick up a box of fresh, chemical-free produce, pesto, shrubs, and other items Sutton wants to include.
Holly Barcus, geography professor, Macalester College shared her impression after the tour: “I can't say enough about how really great our experience was and how much people raved about their individual experiences. The stations were a great idea and gave everyone an in-depth look at each part of the farm. Thank you so much.” Sutton can confidently say they left the visit better informed about the work of Chickadee Hills Homestead and how it is possible to achieve success at creating an economic, social and environmentally sustainable farming operation in a rural community.
Lori Schroeder, Ph.D.
Photos by Thom Gerst and Scott Schroeder