By Theresa Kuhlmann
The falling economy coupled with the daily grind of big city living gave Claire Leeds '03 and Bill Bevis '03 an almost desperate need for country living. What made them look from the city to the country? The scenery, the serenity, and the food.
After graduating from Knox in 2003 -- Claire with a degree in creative writing, Bill with a degree in computer science and philosophy -- they both moved to Chicago, the third largest city in the U.S. (population more than 2.8 million). They plowed along with respectable careers, Claire as a freelance writer, Bill as a computer programmer. Their jobs allowed flexibility, but, with the beginning of the economic downturn, "our jobs just dried up. It was shocking," says Claire.
With little optimism about a quick recovery, or the security of a paycheck, Bill says they didn't want to remain in the city. In 2008, they moved to the Baker/Leeds/Vernon family farm, a 74 acre farm in Monroe, Wisconsin (population 10,000), where Claire grew up.
So what propels two college graduates to move back to the family farm? Plenty. Moving to the farm provided them with opportunities bigger and broader than one might think.
Leeds originally lived on their farm with her parents, who ran an organic garden market in the 1990s. Understanding the difficulty involved in cultivating a small-scale garden, the couple found ways to diversify. The previous organic garden has evolved into an apple orchard.
"I knew what I was getting into," Claire says. "Our orchard is our main agricultural interest." In addition to the orchard, these farmers have a garden, ducks (who earn their keep by controlling pests), and bees for pollination.
Their time clocks have shifted from a daily 8-5 mentality to one that moves from season to season.
"Orchard work is seasonal. Right now we just need to keep the trees healthy," says Claire.
In February they prune. In July and August, they focus on pest control. Then there is the fall harvest. In between, they plant. "Right now, we are planting new varieties and are concentrating on a cider orchard," says Claire. "We also are hoping to go all organic."
So, what is the most exhausting part of their day? "Anytime we are doing orchard work," they chorus. "But when we plant, we face a time crunch, and it's been physically exhausting."
People are always looking for a unique experience they can share with their family and friends, and family and friends are very much a part of Claire's and Bill's business. During their original planting, they recruited no fewer than nine Knox alumni who flew, drove, and otherwise made their way to the farm with a smile and helpful spirit. The group of alumni helped plant a dwarf tree orchard on an area no bigger than 1 ½ acres. The group had to backhoe the holes, add soil, and plant 220 trees. Then they had to cage protect each tree and shovel the remaining dirt back into place. "And, we had to have them all planted in one day!" Leeds says with a sigh.
In addition to the offering a variety of apples, the pair's business plan includes producing alcoholic cider, which can receive a lot of support through local cheese festivals, beer festivals and brewing competitions. "We hope we can ultimately break into the beer market with our cider," they say.
Claire and Bill have found that it's more and more important for farmers to think out of the box. The standard old farm stand is making way for distribution to local markets, making deliveries and fulfilling online orders. "That's also a part of our plan," Claire says. "At first there were so many things to do, because we want this to go on for many years."
As their business gets off the ground, Claire is attending nursing school, and Bill works as a part-time computer programmer. "We don't have any crop or product now. The trees will not produce for another three to five years, and we still need to make money," they say.
Claire and Bill both credit their Knox experience with honing their spirit to strike out on their own. "I was unhappy with the first couple of jobs I had, and I knew something better was out there, even if I didn't know what it was. I already knew how to take chances and to experiment." Bill says, adding, "We work well together. We think differently, and, although that can slow us down, once we approach a problem with our two different perspectives, we create a better solution."
They agree that they went out on a limb with this endeavor. "But we moved to greater security and a lower cost of living. We own our business, so we have more control, and we don't pay rent -- an advantage to moving to the family farm," says Claire.
With no production for at least three years, what is the pay off? "When the trees bloom. Although it also means more work because we have to pick off the blooms, the buds are still gorgeous. There's a wealth of possibilities here, and I'm quite excited about it," Claire says. "I feel satisfied that I am living the dream."
They have sacrificed much to start their farm and have been ardent crusaders for their new enterprise. As a youngster, Bill remembers his grandfather was a farmer. He says he had exposure but no illusions to being good at being a natural at farming. "I felt I could try this, and that I had the courage to jump at the chance to make this dream become a reality."
Their collective creative thinking should continue to fuel their orchard business, offering creative ways to pique the interest of a growing number of consumers and, at the same time, sustaining an old and precious lifestyle-the family farmer.