Katy Dickson | Browntown, WI
“His dad had been a nursery and landscape architect, and his grandfather had been a farmer near Racine who had come here from Denmark. That grandfather’s farm was sold and gone when my dad was still really little, but my dad loved animals and he found a small dairy farm down the road from his house to help out at, maybe five or six cows. He developed a love for dairy farming and kept it all while growing up.
Fortunately for my parents, soon after they started looking, they met this older couple who were getting out of farming and had no one to run their farm. It was great timing and a good match, and my parents took over the farmland in western Green County. The older couple was very appreciative of this young man who wanted to do what they loved to do. I think my dad felt a lot of responsibility toward them to keep up the farm, so it always looked so nice and well-kept. That couple ended up being like grandparents to me because they were always coming around and visiting the farm.
So I grew up on about 300 acres in the Driftless region of the state, with rolling green hills and valleys, and woods, streams, and a pond. A lot of varied, beautiful landscape that was good for farming—we had about 40 milking cows—and it was good for fun, for sledding and ice skating.
Since we had so much land, we grew just about everything for the cows: hay, corn, oats, sometimes winter wheat, and then later on, soybeans. As me and my three siblings grew up, we took on roles helping with the animals and the crops. The most dreaded job was unloading hay. You have to wear jeans so your legs don’t get all scratched and poked, but it’s always, always 90 degrees and 80 percent humidity. I would be the one to rake hay, and usually it went fine, but whenever you’re using big equipment or a tractor, something usually goes wrong.
Helping with farm work established a good work ethic in me, although we would joke that as soon as someone said ‘work,’ my sister Sharon would miraculously disappear. I was the daughter who was more rough-edged; I can dig in and get dirty and could drive a tractor by the time I was nine. My brothers learned even more about planting and tillage and haymaking equipment than I did.
Growing up in this area at that time period, there was still the idea that farming is a man’s job. There’s a farmer, and then there’s the farmer’s wife, who helps out. I don’t think I ever knew a female farmer when I was young, so I didn’t really consider it as a possible future for myself.”
Become part of the Love Wisconsin
“I graduated high school in Monroe with about 180 people. I don’t know where it came from, but I had a strong wanderlust as a young person; I just wanted to get out and see the world.
In high school I had written a research paper on the Peace Corps, and it always stuck in the back of my head as something I might do someday. After I graduated college I taught for three years at seasonal outdoor education and science camps. It was a lot of fun, but I was feeling done with the seasonality of the work and felt ready for something bigger. I decided it was time for the Peace Corps, and I hoped it would give me the direction I needed for the rest of my life.
I got an assignment in Nepal. I was posted at a national park, where I conducted a research survey to help the park improve services for tourists, but that research left me with a lot of free time. So I started wracking my brain, thinking, ‘Who needs my help? Where can I be of assistance here?’
In Nepal, lots of parents don’t have the money to pay for their daughters’ secondary school, and teenage girls are a lot of times taken out of school and married off. I met some of these girls and they wanted to learn English, so in my free time I started a girls’ club that met weekly. One week I asked, ‘If we could make some money, would your families be more likely to let you stay in school?’ They loved the idea.
We decided to do beekeeping. Honey is quite expensive there so we knew it could bring in money, and we were in a climate that provided bees food all year round, so the girls could keep producing honey and it would be sustainable. I got straight to organizing it all. I met a Nepalese man who kept bees and he was willing to do the training. I wrote a grant and got some money to pay for everything. We got the program going and it was really rewarding to help these girls learn a skill and find a way to stay in school.
I asked them if they needed any help, and they said they had just finished their Peace Corps service in Papua, New Guinea, and were traveling. I helped them find the bus and get something to eat, and over the next few hours, I got to know them a bit. Crazy as it sounds, I discovered that one of them, Mark, was from Minnesota and had gone to the same college I had, at the same time. He had long, curly below-the shoulder hair and looked like kind of a wild man.
I told my Peace Corps friends, ‘I just met the guy I’m going to marry.’”
“When I finished my service in the Peace Corps, I went back to Monroe and my parents’ farm. Mark and I had kept in touch. I made some excuse to get his email before we parted ways in Nepal. I don’t think he realized I was so into him, which I found funny. I thought I was pretty obvious. Once we were back in the states, I kept coming up with reasons to go to the Twin Cities where he was. We would take walks, reminisce about Peace Corps, talk about life. I think the pieces were kinda falling into place for him, like, ‘Well she’s been writing me, we’ve been calling each other…maybe this is more than just travel tips and old Peace Corps stories.’
Things were really going in a good direction. After a while we found a Peace Corps Fellows Program that we both wanted to do in New Mexico. We’re both adventurous people, so it fit the bill and allowed us a kind of test balloon, you know, living together.
The first week we were in New Mexico, Mark tried to drag me out stargazing. I was always into astronomy and it’s great star-watching there. But it was Friday night after a long week of teaching with Peace Corps and so I was dragging my feet. But he was very persistent, and so we go out there and stumble through the dark. It sounds so cheesy, but what truly happened was I looked up and said, ‘Oh Mark, look at that shooting star!’ Then I look back down at him and there he is with this box and this ring.
We got married back on my parents’ farm. A couple years later we were pregnant with our first child.
After that, life changed pretty quickly. I don’t know if it was the pregnancy hormones or what, but something told me that I had to get into the soil and grow vegetables. I needed to feed this small human being that was going to be in my life. I needed to produce food and I wanted to do it in the most healthy way possible. Could we farm in New Mexico? Sure, but the soil was awful—super dry and hard. Nothing like I remembered from growing up on a farm in Wisconsin.
The family-sustaining garden I initially wanted evolved into a larger farm—it’s like an addiction. First you buy five tomato plants, but then we had all of this extra space, so you buy 50. With more tomatoes than we could eat, we looked at places to sell them. Even though when I was young I didn’t imagine ever becoming a farmer, suddenly here we were…I was becoming one on the land I grew up on.”
“Farming next to—and sometimes with—my parents was strange at first. There was a definite learning curve for figuring out who was doing what, and what we were each responsible for…you know, whether we’re using their tractor or other people’s equipment. The first three years we worked on our communication skills a lot. Emotions are involved, too, way more so when it’s family. But through it all, I loved having my parents so near, and best of all they’ve always been ready to help. It’s awesome that we’re able to spend so much time together.
Meanwhile our family grew—we have three kids now. They are true farm kids. They have so much space to roam and run, and animals to play with. They go to the local public school in town, and we’re kind of far away from where most of their peers live, so we try to organize playdates on the farm.
I love that feeling of helping and providing people with healthy, fresh food that they’re feeding their families with. Now we’ve grown to feeding 80-100 families each year through our CSA program. I’m so lucky to have a job that I love, and I never would have imagined it before. The kind of farming I do—vegetable farming—wasn’t really a viable option when I was young. This area was mainly dairy and maybe a little beef, but CSAs and smaller scale, direct-to-farmer’s-market opportunities really started coming to prominence in the mid ’90s and have made this life possible for us.
My kids now know so many women who own farms, who make money and their living off of agriculture. I think their perspective is so different than mine was growing up. If they want to go into agriculture, they can see that as a clear and viable option for them. It’s a beautiful life, and I think we’re lucky for it.”
-Katy Dickson | Browntown, WI