On the Job

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Doing What Comes Naturally

Jacob Marty propels his family farm forward by getting back to basics

Jeanne Nagle | On the Job | July 13, 2020

Having grown up on a dairy farm in Monticello, Wisconsin, Jacob Marty ’14 knew a thing or two about raising cows. Sheep, chickens and pigs, however, proved to be a different matter altogether.

“I’ve had a pretty steep learning curve when it comes to some of the animals,” admits Jacob, who, since 2015, has added or reintroduced certain livestock to farmland worked by his family for six generations.

Shifting the farm’s focus from dairy to livestock production is only part of Jacob’s vision for the farm, which he runs with his father, Jim. Rechristened Green Fire Farm, the family business now adheres to the principles of regenerative farming, which place an emphasis on natural, ecologically sound practices of land and livestock management. Put more simply, the Martys “manage the land and animals in a way that works with, not against, their natural history and behavior,” says Jacob.

In making the switch, Green Fire Farm has gotten back to its roots, quite literally. Grasses, plants and trees native to southern Wisconsin were seeded/planted to create silvopasture—where plants and animals coexist on the same land to the benefit of each—which is at the heart of regenerative farming. Dappled sunlight from scattered oak trees encourages the growth of partial-shade plants, fungi and flowers for livestock to munch. Fruit and nut trees do much the same, in addition to offering the animals seasonable, edible yield of their own.

And then there are the grasses. Former crop fields have been converted to multiple paddocks, which are separated by portable fencing into smaller grazing pastures. Livestock is rotated among grazing areas on a regular basis, thus ensuring proper quantity and nutritional quality of fodder for the animals. Rotational grazing also “mimics the natural behavior that herds of wild herbivores would exhibit in the presence of predators,” Jacob says. “In a way, we act as pseudo wolves or lions that keep the herd or flock ‘migrating’ and allow the forage to recover.”

Despite his family’s connection to the land, becoming a farmer was never really Jacob’s ambition. In fact, once he had graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point with a degree in wildlife ecology, he wasn’t even planning to stick around the state, much less stay “down on the farm.” He had hoped to land a research position “in Alaska or Canada, or even on another continent,” he says.

Eventually, though, his academic and family lives collided. Curious about how the ecology practices he was studying could (and he thought should) be instituted within the agricultural community, Jacob began reading about grazing habits and ways to practice sustainable farming. Soil regeneration, carbon sequestration and enhanced local water and air quality were the ecological pluses of the agricultural practices Jacob had come to embrace.

“My interests evolved toward land management,” he says, “specifically agriculture’s relationship with habitat.”

After graduation, when some “enticing” research and graduate school opportunities didn’t pan out as he’d hoped, Jacob decided to give working on the family farm a chance, but with the twist of incorporating regenerative farming practices. In addition to the reading he had done on the subject, he gathered information by touring farms within and outside the state that were practicing sustainable techniques. “I came into my first year pretty well prepared,” he says, “and determined.”

His conversion idea was met with questions and a few concerns from Jim, but not a ton of resistance.

“My father is a fifth-generation farmer, so legacy is very important to him, and he wanted to pass the torch eventually,” Jacob says. “At the time, none of his four sons were very interested in or considering farming. So when I expressed interest in coming back to the farm all of the sudden, he was pretty excited. He was very open to giving it a try and seeing how it went.”

All indications are that it’s been going pretty darned well. Green Fire Farm has grown from 50 acres of test farm to a thriving agricultural enterprise encompassing approximately 200 of the total 300 acres of productive farmland the Marty’s own. (The other 100 acres is dedicated to growing feed corn for a separate herd Jim Marty tends, and hay.) The remainder of the family’s 400-acre spread consists of undeveloped forest that Jacob would like to see converted to productive silvopasture in the future. Growth in the number and types of livestock raised on the farm has kept pace with the conversion to grazing land.

Although family, friends and Jacob’s partner, Carly Epping, pitch in as needed, Green Fire Farm is largely a two-farmer operation. Jacob manages the livestock, while his dad covers haymaking, carpentry and machinery repair. In addition to his animal husbandry duties, Jacob is in charge of packing and delivering local direct-to-customer meat orders, overseeing product inventory and coordinating sales at farmers markets they regularly attend in Chicago.

“The most challenging part of running a farm for me was, and still is, the business side of things,” he says.

Luckily he has a little help in that area. Carly does a lot of the marketing and manages Green Fire’s social media accounts, in addition to acting as a sales rep at farmers markets on the weekends.

Meat is not the only things sold by Green Fire Farm. Jacob says that eggs are the farm’s top sellers, and they have had a modicum of success selling shares of honey harvested on-site. There are also a few partner products on the roster. When LüSa Organics contacted him about buying rendered fat to make soap, Jacob elected to offer some of the company’s finished product for sale through Green Fire’s online store and at farmers markets. Yodelay yogurt, produced using milk from a friend’s farm in Monticello, and organic hemp oil from South Central Hemp Cooperative also are featured on the locally sourced sales sheet.

In addition to speaking at conferences and training seminars, Jacob has hosted field days, workshops and tours at the farm to promote the benefits of regenerative farming practices in the area. Reaction to his efforts has been mixed, particularly within the farming community. Regardless, he’s convinced that the changes he has initiated on the family farm are totally worthwhile. He even believes his methods and practices would be welcomed by his ancestors, “especially in a time when most family farms are losing their heirs to disinterest in farming, or being driven out of business by consolidation and harmful agriculture policy and markets,” he says.

 

But that’s not all.

“I also think about those who lived on this farm before my ancestors, including Native Americans, and what they would think of what I’m attempting to accomplish,” he adds. “I hope that I could make them proud as well, and help honor and restore the natural beauty and character of this land and community.”

 

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