Farmer Profile: Becky Olson of Autumn Moon Farm, Inc.

Autumn Moon Farm, Inc., is a former dairy operation and current hop and grain producer, located just outside Belleville, Wisconsin. We asked Becky Olson, who owns and operates the farm with her husband Steve Haak, to tell us about the evolution of the farm, and plans for its future. Becky Olson of Autumn Moon Farm.

Tell us about your farm operation. How did you decide to go from a dairy operation to selling brewing supplies?

This farm is in transition; or shall I say, it is continuing a transition process that began before I arrived in 2004. At this moment we are a relatively small – 204 acres total with only 134 tillable – cash crop operation, that also currently produces one specialty crop; hops. In addition, we are working under a small USDA value-added producer grant that is helping us transition into specialty grains and on-farm processing. Wheat, oats, and barley have been grown in our rotation here for years, but now we have switched to certified seed for milling and malting varieties. We have rye in the ground for the first time, too. This time next year, we hope to be in full on-farm wholesale production of about 3-4 tons of malt per week, as well as a variety of packaged whole grains and flours for brewers, bakers, distillers, small groceries, and local food restaurants.

I can’t give you the history of the farm without the history of the people living here. My husband, Steve Haak, and his parents milked cows for 26 years. His parents’ health began to decline, and their personal goals – to help their other children go to college or otherwise get established - were nearly complete. The dairy industry was also in transition at that moment; so the choices for Steve and his parents were really about expanding the herd, selling out completely, or trying something different.

They chose to try a combination of things that were a bit “different” locally. They sold the dairy herd, and began cash cropping. They raised a few heifers for a brother who was farming elsewhere, and by 2005 had a few steers for auctions and other local markets. But three things really kept the farm going.

First, at that time, row crop prices were fantastic. Remember all the talk about $7.00/bushel corn? Well, that paid a lot of debt down! The next two things were both related to our neighboring, expanding dairies; hay sales and baling services. So, Steve financed a big square baler and began custom baling.

The dairy farm balance sheets might not look good, but they always have great cash flow statements – until the equity gets eaten up. While it was good in the long-term, transitioning to cash crops, with payment only at harvest time, from the good monthly cash flow of dairy, is difficult. Both Steve and his mother found part-time work off the farm. But it was not their intention nor their hope to become hobby farmers. Luckily, the custom baling went very well (25% of the farm’s net income). In fact, it kept the farm afloat when the crop prices crashed (and continue to stay) at price levels from 1970’s and 1980’s.

When I became more involved on the farm, I suggested that we begin looking into ways to diversify and perhaps increase the monthly cash flow. At the time, I was the executive director of the Upper Sugar River Watershed Association, and I had somehow managed to get myself appointed to the Dane County Economic Development Committee. At one committee meeting, UW-Extension gave a presentation on the growing craft brewing industry and the potential for local agri-business to meet their needs. At that time, hop production was emphasized. After discussing it with Steve and his mother, we decided to give it a try. We put in 1,250 hop plants in 3 varieties; Nugget, Sterling, and Cascade.

How did you come to farming as a career?

The short answer is that I was born into it, then married back into it.  So, I didn’t choose farming, it chose me.

The longer version? My home farm, in Peshtigo, was sold decades ago. My parents’ marriage did not survive one of the many economic crises of the dairy industry; thus, neither did Maple Hill Farm. My father moved away, then my mother and I moved to town when I was 12 years old. It was a bit of a culture shock from the homesteader lifestyle my parents had been living, but in a few good ways. On the farm, I lived in an unfinished cement-block house with only wood heat. If you were cold, check the fire and carry in some wood. In town, I moved into a cozy home and had my own bedroom! If I was cold, I turned up the thermostat – unbelievable!

Needless to say, I fit right in at University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. I majored in Spanish/cultural studies and minored in international resource management. I didn’t realize until then that chainsaw and small tractor operation were skills most people didn’t have. I actually think I missed a few job opportunities early on, because I didn’t bother mentioning I could do these things.

After I graduated, I found work at a variety of places in Milwaukee. It was the 1990s, so of course, most of these public service jobs meant long hours, terrible pay (so I worked multiple jobs at once), and were grant-funded. In 1999, I became a mother; I wanted to spend more time with my son and provide a better life for him. Finally, in 2000, I was hired by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources central office in Madison. Full-time and benefits; it was an easy decision to move.

Meanwhile, back on the farm…Somewhere in the midst of selling the dairy herd, Steve met me and my son, Aiden. Steve had chosen to stay on the farm, and had been earning shares in Haak Family Farm, Inc. in lieu of salary for years; something that many “Norwegian bachelor farmers” are wise to do. However, he was nearing 50% ownership in the farm, and to be candid – he began to think about his personal future, and that of his own family, for the first time. His mother, was not only struggling with her own health issues, but she was also managing the care of Steve’s father, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. She began to talk to us privately about selling everything – and with controlling interest in the farm could have done so at any time.

Steve and I had to make a choice; did we want to continue farming? If yes, did we want to do so here? If he and his mother sold the entire operation, 49% of the proceeds belonged to Steve. I still owned the house where I lived before joining the farm – so we had a “place to go.” In Steve’s mind though, he kept going back to “a place to go and do – what?” We began to discuss buying out Steve’s parents’ interest in the farm. This meant becoming more than tractor drivers, herd managers, conservation specialists, and field managers; we needed to take a bigger role in the financial management of the operation. Steve’s mother recommended we start by coming with her to visit the CPA at tax time. That is when the proverbial manure hit the spreader.

I will never forget that first meeting with the CPA; Steve’s mother had brought in stacks and stacks of paper. Steve, his mother, and I sat silently while the CPA looked through page after page after page. Finally, he looked up and said, “I will do the taxes again this year, but I won’t touch this again until you hire someone to enter this into some electronic format, and keep everything organized.”

I had just accepted a new position as the executive director of a non-profit conservation organization at the time (Upper Sugar River Watershed Association); my proud and perhaps a bit naïve husband announced, “Becky can do it. She is really good with QuickBooks,” and POOF -- I was a farmer.

In that instant, I went from occasional farm operational support to the corporation’s fiscal manager. That is when we found out the farm was organized as a statutory “C” corporation. It had been done in the 1970s by Steve’s father. As the current tax laws stood, any buy-out was subject to 65% capital gains tax; thus nearly eliminating any proceeds for Steve’s mother to live on, should we proceed with a buy-out under the C-corp statutes. To complicate matters, Steve’s mother had been understandably quite distracted over the last few decades, and had not kept up on the required corporate records. This made any transition nearly impossible at that moment anyway. Also, the bylaws, which we believe Steve’s father had held, were missing, and he could not tell us where or if they had ever been filed with an attorney. We needed help, and fast.

We found an attorney willing to look at our situation. She understood that a farm usually means family involvement – regardless of their actual involvement in farming. She insisted that Steve’s mother get her own attorney and together they chose the CPA for a farm transition, so that in every step, every decision, there was someone looking out for Steve’s mother’s interests only. It was hoped that would make the extended family comfortable; Steve and I agreed to pay for everything.

Ultimately the option that worked best was to transition the C-corp to an S-corp -- a three-year process. Next, we began what is called a corporate “split-up” of the S-corp; which created two new entities --another three-year process. Finally, we divided the farmland; we were fortunate that there were already two established households. We wrote a check to Steve’s mother for the difference in both acreage, equipment, and shares owned. She suddenly had a small retirement fund, her own home to live in, and enough acreage (and development rights) that she could fulfill her goal of leaving building sites to her other children. That is how Autumn Moon Farm, Inc., was born. Painful, eh?!?

What do you love most about the farm operation and what are your biggest challenges?

I am glad you asked these questions together; they are all two-sided coins.

I like being my own boss and working on the office tasks for the farm from home. It’s good to be accessible for the family. However, the lack of good rural internet until very recently made market research and development as well as general office and financial management nearly impossible. When I wrote the USDA Value-Added Agriculture grant we are currently implementing, I actually set up my office elsewhere. I was preparing to sell my “rental property” (my previous house), so when the tenants moved out, I moved the farm office to that location for six months, just to have decent connectivity. I couldn’t have updated our business plan and written that grant without a decent connection.

I like surprising people by driving up in one of the big tractors or the combine; but then I do get a bit irritated that they over-express their shock that a woman operator is behind the wheel.

I really enjoy working with my husband. He is a smart man and works hard. Some of my favorite times are racing the weather to do things like bring in baled hay or straw… or following behind him with the roller as he spreads oats, trying to get done before the sleet starts. I guess it is a bit of an adrenaline rush. On the flip side, I am constantly running into subtle (and not so subtle) gender discrimination. For example, even when Steve and I purchased additional farmland jointly – as opposed to adding me to this existing farm – we ran into a lot of issues in another county. The land conservation and adjoining NRCS office systemically wrote down Steve’s name only on important documents. In most cases, the paperwork should have been under our entity, Autumn Moon Farm, Inc. When I called with corrections, I was consistently told they would need to talk to my husband; or my favorite was when one office assistant told me with Steve’s permission, he would put a post-it note in our conservation file that said I had permission to ask questions. It became so difficult to work with this particular office, we sold the additional land and focused again on just the home farm. It’s sad; we had put in contour strips and had planned on installing other erosion control features. Now the strips are gone because the current operator is too big to manage the crop rotation on that small of a scale. It’s all one field now, all because they couldn’t accept that my name was on the deed.

I also love sharing my farm with others. People enjoy learning about where their food and beverages come from.  It’s fun to let them see the equipment and take them on a tour of the what we feel is special here. The slightly annoying part (chuckle) is almost everyone says some version of, “You’re so lucky to live here.” I laugh, because I would NEVER walk into someone’s home, or better yet their workplace, and tell them they were lucky to be there. In every other profession, the lifestyle and “fringes” are considered part of well-earned compensation. I’ve learned to laugh and respond with, “I earn it every day.”

Supermoon over Autumn Moon Farm.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I think it is time farmers became more demanding -- perhaps women farmers in particular. We need to demand to be heard and have our collective contributions counted; demand access to modern business infrastructure (such as up-to-date electrical service and internet); demand to be treated fairly in lending and other business development; and demand to be paid a living wage, which includes the ability to set dollars aside for our children’s education and our own retirement.

Not only do we control most all the food, we manage 40% of the nation’s land (based on 912 million acres of farm land: USDA, February 2016 Report on “Farms and Land in Farms”) within a public-private business model open to constant scrutiny. Let’s remind people of that.

There is a lot of “hand-wringing” by the general public, when the public lands’ budgets get cut - and perhaps justifiably so. But, the federally managed public lands only equal about 28% of the total land in the United States. Where is the outrage when the crop or milk prices collapse? How many of these public land managers – or anyone, for that matter – would be willing to support their full-time job by getting a second full-time job elsewhere for the duration of their career? Would they regularly put their personal money into their office building? Would they drive from their office to the library every time they needed to check their e-mail or research a new soil testing service?

Lenders and other financial and economic professionals are beginning to expect off-farm income -- even demand it. Our current bank asks for our off-farm W-2’s, each time we renew our operating loan. Recently, I was told by a staff member of the Dane County Economic Development Department to “get a real job” if we were serious about beginning to malt on-farm. They work with the brewing community all the time…but if a farmer can do, it the attitude is it must be “easy; grunt work.” We work in a profession that everyone thinks they can do; it’s time to set that record straight. This economic development “wizard” didn’t worry about being rude when she sat in my home and told me to get a job; I no longer worry about telling her she would die if she had to feed herself.

Furthermore, farm “reality” or life-style TV programming perpetuates a romance with unpainted, “rustic” farmsteads as the “right” or “real” way of farming. People are quick to tell you not to update your buildings, or how “sad” it is if you want to change or modernize. Many are attached to an unrealistic aesthetic. If we took all the nation’s falling-down ag buildings and put them into an urban center, such as inner-city Milwaukee or Detroit, there would be a flurry of programs, grants, tax incentives, and local government economic support to repair and replace the housing for this economic engine. When I see an old barn in disrepair, I see dental and medical bills that needed to be paid; hundreds of hours worked each year without pay; and unsafe, outdated working conditions. The job is dangerous enough without factoring in the regular “rural decay” of the infrastructure. Is this where we want our food to come from? It’s not OK.

We manage soil, water, wildlife, people, equipment, corporate finances, food security, and more, for decades at a time, across generations, in a time when the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the median length of employment with one employer is only 4.2 years (as reported by “In Business: Greater Madison” magazine). Within the farming community, what we each do may not seem special to each other… but in the broader, wider world, farmers demonstrate an increasingly rare dedication that deserves to be supported on all levels -- sustainably.