A group of about 40 young farmers trekked to Wisconsin June 29-30 for the 2018 Iowa Farm Bureau Young Farmer Gate to Plate Tour. They enjoyed two days of farm tours and comradery as the group explored value-added agriculture and got to know fellow farmers, all facing similar challenges as they build their farming operations.

The group first toured Perlick Distillery in Sarona, Wisconsin. The Perlick family farms around 2,000 acres of a variety of crops, including corn, beans, wheat, barley, rye, sunflowers and flax. The family’s two goals for their operation are to add value to the grains they grow and provide the finest possible product. They’ve achieved this with their American Yeoman Vodka. Distilled on-site using their own hard red spring wheat, they’re able to produce 13,000 bottles a year — one-third of which is distributed throughout northwest Wisconsin, with the other two-thirds sold in bottles or cocktails right at the distillery. Tom Perlick, who does the majority of the farming while his son, Scott, handles the distilling, says, “People want a story.”

And a story is what they get, as the Perlick family works to be as straightforward as possible about their agricultural practices. Located a few miles out of a town heavily trafficked by vacationers and right off a major highway, consumers are exposed directly to the entire process. As customers enjoy their beverages, they’re able to look out over the fields, seeing plants in the ground that will eventually end up in their glasses.

Standing out from the crowd

The next stop took the farmers to Northstar Bison in Rice Lake. Owned and operated by the Graese family, it is the largest distributor of grass-fed bison meat in the United States. The family currently grazes about 1,600 head of bison, which is finished and harvested at their own processing facility. The animals stress very easily, so to avoid affecting meat quality, the farm is one of the few operations utilizing the “field-kill” method, making its product even more unique.

The family also told the Iowa farmers about the ways they’ve learned to handle these strong animals, who thrive on the landscape and possess incredible instincts. Saying that “contentment is everything” for a bison, the Graese family works very hard to ensure that the animals’ needs are met at all times. Not only do they work to ensure that the bison are well cared for, the ranch also focuses heavily on responsible stewardship of the land.

In Rice Lake, the group was joined by several of Wisconsin Farm Bureau’s young farmers. They had the chance to visit both throughout the tour and at supper over bison burgers.

The final tour took the young farmers to Marieke Gouda. Marieke and Rolf Penterman emigrated from the Netherlands to Thorp, Wisconsin, in the early 2000s and established a dairy. When Marieke decided to pursue her interest in making cheese, she returned to Holland to learn the craft. Today, they milk a herd of over 350 head, comprised of Brown Swiss and both Black and Red Holsteins. Their milk is used to make Marieke’s award-winning Gouda cheese. Their operation is located within the city limits and offers tours regularly to share their cheese-making process with the public, from the cow’s udder to their plates.

With plenty of cheese curds in tow, the Iowa farmers returned home with newfound perspectives on the potential each of their operations possess. By exchanging ideas with fellow young farmers throughout the trip, folks were reassured that there are others across the country facing similar obstacles. This chance to network, as well as gain knowledge on the farm visits, made it a valuable and enjoyable experience for all involved.

Schmitt is an intern for the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation leadership training program.