“We haven’t seen a sunset for 35 years. A valley is like an enclosure … it’s like you constantly have these walls around you. The vegetation and so forth creates a kind of little ecoculture that you become intimately familiar with. It imposes these unique conditions. It’s like you’re living inside a house, inside a sort of more open house that acts like a kind of filter on the larger world.”
Indeed, the larger world seems at a safe distance when you are driving through the hills and valleys that define the Driftless. Elbow room abounds, and on the winding country roads, the local custom is to wave a greeting at passing vehicles.
Fifty minutes northwest of Richland Center, in a valley near Soldier’s Grove, Wis., Driftless Organics is into a new growing season. Onions, parsley and celeriac have begun germinating in the greenhouse and, at the same time, the business is still selling the previous year’s crop of carrots and potatoes. The farm sells its produce to restaurants and farmers markets in Madison and to the Whole Foods Market chain.
Two of the company’s three owners, Josh and Noah Engel, are second-generation organic farmers. Their parents were among the co-founders of the nearby farmer-owned Organic Valley Co-op, which was established in 1988 and is now, according to its website, “the number one source of organic milk in the nation.”
In the company’s makeshift office in an old wood-frame house across the road from the farm’s fields, I meet with the other co-owner, Mike Lind. A fire crackles in the wood-burning stove. A guitar rests against an upright piano. Jackets hang near the door. And on the dining-room table rests an apple, a jar of honey, a tape measure and a Carhartt cap with ear flaps. It is not a house where you have to worry about wiping your shoes before entering.
Lind tells me that he grew up in McFarland, a town not far from the farm. He was drawn to this area because of the organic agriculture. Lind says they grow every kind of vegetable the area can tolerate, and the farm participates in a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program where, for a fee, each week they will deliver a box of their fresh produce to your door. I lay out my theory that the Driftless is more defined as a state of mind.
“I think it really is,” Lind agrees. “Strictly from an agricultural standpoint, it’s not conducive to big [agriculture]. Small fields have a huge role in the sense that land’s a lot cheaper, because back in the 1970s, when big ag was buying land … this area was overlooked. Land prices dropped, and that attracted the back-to-landers. It was a ripple effect. I think what it came down to was that local farmers were actually able to survive because land was cheap and there was a market there. Pretty darn good soil in the bottoms too.”