Circle M Market Farm is a small family homestead in rural Blanchardville, Wisconsin, 40 minutes southwest of Madison as reached by curvy country roads. Located in the beautiful Driftless Region of the state, the farm is nestled into a cozy valley, bordered by creeks on two sides, an old oak woods on another and a restored prairie on the last. Tucked into a hilly patchwork of neighboring small farms, we share this particular 20 acres with our sheep, goats, chickens, steers, hogs, dogs, cats, and ridiculous geese with whom we live in a circle of nurture. Everything here has a purpose and function that feeds the land and lives around it. We care for the animals, they feed the soil, the soil feeds us and we feed you from five acres of organic vegetable fields and a bank of well-stocked freezers.
Circle M Market Farm is run and owned by me, Kriss, and my husband, Shannon. I’m an East-coast native, former Chicago newspaper journalist, previous homeschool mom of four, current shepherd of mostly sheep, head weeder and general manager of the circus. Though I’m the full-time farmer at Circle M, there would be no farm without without Shannon’s incredible carpentry skills. And without the labor of a small but hard-working crew, there would be nothing but weeds growing here.
When we found this pretty farm, we simply had the goal of healing our our little piece of run-down land with its ramshackle buildings. (If you’d like to read how we came to be on a farm after living in urban Chicago for 20 years, click here. If you like reading Wendell Berry and James Herriot, you'll probably love our story.) We had no idea what that would mean, though I was quite sure it would involve "sheep therapy," as prescribed by one of our favorite writers, Gene Logsdon. So we went looking among the neighbors for sheep to poop and pee and fertilize our land. But we came home with 5 adorable milk goats that we had to bottle feed instead. A little while later came the lambs, the steers, the piglets, the ducklings and chicks. As we learned, we came to understand that our greatest joy would be seeing the land become productive again – a vision bolstered by the writings of Wendell Berry, and heartily encouraged by the elderly former farmers we were beginning to meet in our tiny town.
So Shannon and I adopted a four-year system of rotating pigs through large garden plots and started producing vegetables to share – starting with just 15 CSA shares in 2007 and growing to 165 by 2013. Our methods continue to evolve, and we continue to seek knowledge from other market farmers and neighboring farm families as we grow. In the meantime, we find ourselves increasingly asked to nurture rural dreams and train new organic farmers who want to experiment with a homestead model. We teach classes both here and off-site. But our basic drive remains the same as the day we moved to the farm – to gently steward these 20 acres in a way that can keep them healthy, beautiful and productive for years to come.
As I've come to know my land and my community more over time, I've come to believe that soil and water stewardship are not just niche farmer priorities, but top priorities for our rural places as well as our world today. As a result, my love of farming has called me off the land more and more in recent years to participate in environmental advocacy and agricultural leadership at local, state and national levels. Shannon, while continuing to excel at his own more-than-full-time off-farm job, has patiently watched, waited, listened and built our infrastructure while I've experiemented with various farm enterprise portfolios.
For some years we have been shrinking the amount of land planted to row crops, and adding year-long rotations of cover crops to the point where we now keep 1/3 of the farm under green manure covers at all times. This fall we are planting 1/2 acre of our crop land into permanent pollinator habitat with native prairie plants, in cooperation with NRCS and Pecatonica Pride Watershed Association. Correspondingly, we have been shrinking our CSA membership and in 2015 made the decision to stop delivering. We co-founded a Farmers Market in Blanchardville so that we could help attract traffic to our lovely, tiny downtown. Read about why I think farmers markets can be a major rural re-development strategy here.
This year, we're taking a break from CSA and focusing on our Farmers Market, and on boosting opportunities for Farmers Markets in all tiny towns by working with the legislature on a Wisconsin Cookie Bill that would allow small entrepreneurs to sell home-baked goods without having a certified kitchen. In this effort, we just won a lawsuit in which the current Wisconsin ban on selling home-baked goods was declared unconstitutional.
Finally, our rural dreams and philosphical commitments have come together in a thriving bed-and-breakfast enterprise that combines small-scale, careful farming with conservation stewardship in a delightful balance that capitalizes on both and gives us the opportunity to share the agricultural perspective of rural people and food producers with a wider audience. Our foundational motto, "Make Our Farm Yours," holds true at Circle M now more than ever before.
The Circle M Mission is to care well for this beautiful little piece of earth and share that beauty with others – in the form of both food and farm life, feeding body and soul.