A medium-sized farm by today’s standards, 7th generation Isherwood Family Farms is nestled in the heart of Wisconsin’s Central Sands, bordering the Buena Vista marsh in Portage County. It began in 1855 when James Isherwood, an early settler, started a small farm in Plover Township and opened a stage house to market his potatoes and vegetables more effectively. Evolving slowly from humble beginnings with just a few acres through the 1930s when it took two months to hand-plant twenty acres and yield depended on the water that nature provided, the farm grew with the potato crop always at the core. Early farm mechanization introduced irrigation, which in the 1960s required back-breaking labor with hand-moved pipes.
Now in the present day, sophisticated center-pivot irrigation and modern machinery have reduced the intensity of labor, but new challenges have emerged related to balancing the use of natural resources with providing food security for a growing world population. Even with these modern challenges, the current generation—Justin, his wife Lynn, brother Gary and their son Isaac—have not forgotten the roots that built the farm. Justin, an accomplished author in addition to a down-to-earth farmer, says “I feel rather privileged to have come of age in that hand-wrought time. We worked hard, and we ate like wolverines. The crew sat down to supper and dinner at the farmhouse; it’s hard to shake the spell of those times.”
The farm is now around 1500 acres with a healthy crop diversity of potatoes, field corn, sweet corn, peas, oats, maple syrup, and hay intermixed with the wetlands of the Buena Vista marsh, woods, and streams. As an enthusiastic proponent of farming profitably and yet doing so in harmony with the environment and its natural resources, Justin was a founding member of Wisconsin’s Healthy Grown potato program—a program that helped lead the way in on-farm ecosystem restoration. His family now enjoys the restored wetlands and the re-invigorated trout stream where they hike, fish, and kayak. When asked if the effort they have put into Healthy Grown is justified, Justin has no doubts, “I think of this as training for the next generation marketplace. When it comes of age, when Wal-Mart and Sysco see the light, we’re ready. Wisconsin is ready.”
This type of economic foresight also helped shape the United Potato Growers of America’s philosophy, whereby acres planted and production across the US are linked closely with consumer demand to assure that production justifies the water use as well as nutrients; the objective is to gain an equitable return for growers, a fair price to consumers, and a worthwhile use of the land and its resources.
The Isherwoods continue their quest to ensure that the Isherwood Family Farms lives on for more generations by participating in cutting edge research on their farm with University of Wisconsin researchers with the goal to develop new, efficient irrigation tools that will continue to protect valuable natural resources while providing a nutritious, safe, and stable food supply.