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Exploring the transition from conventional to organic farming

AJ Weis’ farm story begins at an early age. He grew up on his family’s farm, a conventional row crop farm in Burlington, WI, before attending University of Wisconsin - Madison and  graduating with degrees in animal science and agriculture. Although he briefly lived in Seattle, WA and back home in Burlington, AJ spent the majority of his time after college working on the Virgin Islands for a university-run agriculture experiment station focused on indigenous livestock breeds. While in the Caribbean, AJ says he not only gained a grasp of organic food production, but was also exposed to the farm-to-table movement. Living on the Virgin Islands, the majority of food is imported from the continental United States and, although it often arrives spoiling and in poor shape, is sold at exorbitant prices to cover shipping costs. Islanders began the farm-to-table movement in an effort to improve the state of the food system on the Virgin Islands, and AJ became interested in the concepts of food dollars and miles, as well as the growing techniques of the islanders which differed from the conventional agriculture practices he grew up with.

AJ eventually returned to Burlington, WI with his now-wife, Shawn, to succeed his family farm and renew his passion for livestock by starting a beef cattle herd, but he also wanted to apply what he learned in the Virgin Islands to his work back home. He decided to section off a plot of his father’s land and experiment with organic vegetable production. Today, this vegetable plot is home to a number of local potato varieties and hardy brassicas, as well as a USDA NRCS-funded hoop house that houses spinach during the winter and tomatoes in the summer, but it was in its infancy when AJ and Shawn decided to apply for Stateline Farm Beginnings in the fall of 2015. With their new focus on transitioning from conventional to organic vegetable production, AJ and Shawn realized they needed to expand their farmer network to include organic farmers and they saw Stateline Farm Beginnings as an opportunity to do just that. With a variety of efforts in the region that have cultivated a strong sense of community, Angelic Organics Learning Center and the Stateline Farm Beginnings program also encouraged AJ and Shawn to see the potential in farming beyond the basics of agriculture. “Through Stateline Farm Beginnings, I was able to see how to become viable as a business and build community,” says AJ.

After graduating from Stateline Farm Beginnings in the fall of 2016, AJ decided to split his time between his conventional beef cattle business and contract work with the Milwaukee Catholic Home, a continuing care retirement community located just 5 miles down the road. At the Milwaukee Catholic Home, AJ manages a project called Clare Gardens, a farm-to-table program and community garden that provides a number of retirement homes in the Milwaukee area, as well as area partners such as Riverwest Food Pantry, with fresh fruits, vegetables, and honey. Any organic vegetables grown on AJ’s own plot of land are transported to Clare Gardens and included in the vegetable shares offered to retirement communities and partners of the Home. The 5-acre garden is comprised of vegetable fields, apple trees, two beehives, flower beds, and even a DNR wetland and forest that AJ and his coworkers are working to restore through reestablishment of native tree species and the removal of invasives. Clare Gardens also provides a community space for retirement home residents that reconnects them with the land through hands-on activities such as fresh flower U-Picks.

It comes as no surprise that AJ chose to use his farming experience to aid the community. With his dedication to the farm-to-table movement and the Milwaukee Catholic Home’s new initiative, Clare Gardens not only feeds the elderly fresh produce and value-added products, but has also revitalized the Home and its monastery. Once a center of the community through masses, festivals, and other community events, the Milwaukee Catholic Home was almost demolished in the 2000’s after a lull in the number of priests and monks joining the monastery. Now, through Clare Gardens and other efforts, the Home is once again a pillar of the community. 

When asked if he has any advice for Stateline Farm Beginnings students or graduates, AJ chuckles. “Never stop learning,” he says. “Farming is such a physically demanding job that you tend to lose track of education, and there is so much to learn.” 

By Sarah Petri
Farmer Training Program Assistant

Want to learn more about Stateline Farm Beginnings? Click here!
Applications for the 2017-18 program are due September 29, 2017.

To be added to the interest list for Stateline Farm Beginnings, email our Program Assistant, Sarah Petri.