When it came time to choose a name for their new farm in Wisconsin’s St. Croix Valley, Darryle and Renee Powers didn’t need to look far for inspiration. Between the marshy pastures and upland fields, they found Bottle Blue Gentians, a rare wildflower whose natural wetland habitats are increasingly threatened by land development. Only a few insects, such as bumblebees, are strong enough to pry apart its closed petals, but it is an effort that yields a sweet reward. In this small yet tenacious flora, the Powers’ found a perfect symbol for their land and a fitting inspiration for their endeavors.
Where Blue Gentian Grows
When the couple purchased 395 acres of farmland near New Richmond, Wisconsin, in 2000, the property had no buildings and its prime crop area had been overworked for decades. “It had been farmed by renting farmers,” explained Darryle. “They took a lot out of the land but didn’t necessarily put a lot back in.” They enrolled a large portion of acreage in the USDA’s Conservation Reserve Program, under which land is removed from agricultural production to help reduce soil erosion, regenerate topsoil, improve water quality, and preserve wildlife habitats. As part of the 10-year program, Darryle converted 110 acres to tallgrass prairie and wildflowers. “It changes all season long and right now it’s a golden hue,” he said. “In the fall, when the Indian Grass starts forming its bronze seedheads, it’s waving in the breeze and it’s just beautiful.”
Until that portion of land is ready for use again, the Powers rely on what they call "marginal" pastures to raise the livestock that are at the heart of Blue Gentian Farm. The original plan was to raise a few head of cattle, so Darryle carefully researched different breeds looking for those best suited to the farm’s environment: marshy pastures, wooded areas, and long dormant grazing fields overgrown with brush. He found a perfect candidate in the Scottish Highland, a shaggy, hardy and easy-going bovine known for its self-sufficiency and imperviousness to harsh weather. From their first few cows, the Powers now have about 100 head of cattle and as they’ve added new animals to their livestock, they find themselves at the vanguard of a growing movement in heritage breed farming.
What’s Old is New
Heritage breed generally refers to animals whose genetic traits are largely unchanged from stock raised by farmers generations ago, and which are currently being raised with sustainable and/or organic practices; otherwise, there is no formal definition. However, official definitions for heritage chickens and turkeys were developed by The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC), a national non-profit clearinghouse dedicated to preserving rare breeds and promoting genetic diversity by providing farmers with educational resources, technical support, animal rescue, and even gene banks.
The animals championed by ALBC are rare and unique, but they are not simply novelty breeds; their continued existence has critical implications for the future of America’s livestock. The industrialization of meat and dairy production has emphasized the qualities of efficiency and large output – in other words, produce as much as possible as quickly as possible. As a result, the biodiversity of America’s commercial livestock, from cows and pigs to turkeys, has narrowed to an astonishing degree:
- 75 percent of U.S. pigs come from just three breeds (compared to a list of 100 domestic pigs)
- Over 90 percent of all dairy cows are Holstein, while 60 percent of beef cattle come from just three breeds (from an estimated 800 breeds worldwide)
- 99 percent of all turkeys come from a single breed, the aptly named and self-explanatory Broad-Breasted White.
(Main source: Sustainable Table)
The possibility that a single virus or illness could readily wipe out entire breeds is a growing concern as the genetic diversity of livestock continues to shrink. A 2006 U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report counted 190 farm animal breeds that became extinct in the past 20 years and estimated that one domestic breed is lost each month. To combat this alarming trend, the ALBC and other proponents such as Slow Food USA are striving to educate consumers about heritage and heirloom food production. With the help of farmers like the Powers, the demand for these products is slowly increasing from its still-small niche of the food market.
First Cows, Then Sheep
Unlike giant commercial enterprises, Darryle and Renee chose all of their animals based on traits that made them suitable for their farm, not on how many eggs or how much meat they could yield. Although they didn’t begin with the specific intent of raising heritage breeds, Darryle’s research naturally led them to certain animals and the interest of their customers encouraged them to continue. For instance, Blue Gentian’s sheep flock started out as a half-dozen head purchased for the purpose of training the family’s new border collie. But people coming to buy beef began to inquire about lamb and soon, St. Croix sheep joined the St. Croix Valley farm.
Named for their original home on one of the U.S. Virgin Islands, these tropical sheep have thrived surprisingly well in the Midwest’s climate. “They are a ‘hair’ sheep, not wool, and they shed in the spring. But they are really adaptable to our winters,” said Darryle, explaining that they grow a heavier coat for cold weather. Furthermore, the lack of wool means no lanolin, a waxy fat that gives most lamb meat a distinctive gamey flavor, so the mild taste of St. Croix appeals to diners with sensitive tastebuds.
Despite its many excellent qualities, St. Croix sheep are relatively rare and they appear on ALBC’s Conservation Priority List as "threatened," meaning less than 1,000 are registered in the U.S. and have a global population under 5,000. To maintain an active gene pool, Blue Gentian Farm often trades rams and ewes with other farms in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and North Dakota, but it may not be enough in the long run. “We’ll eventually have to bite the bullet and go out to Oregon or down to Texas for new breeding stock to get some new bloodlines going in this area,” Darryle acknowledged.
Eat Them to Save Them
In a welcome twist of conventional wisdom, proponents of heritage breeds and heirloom produce want greater consumer demand for these foods in an "eat them to save them" strategy that has worked well for Blue Gentian Farm. Since the Powers opened their farm store three years ago, they’ve increased their livestock to include poultry for eggs, pigs and goats. “It was by request of the market which is looking for those kind of products,” he explained. “We added breeds that we thought would do well in our environment but also have good quality meat and eggs.” Heritage breeds fulfilled their customers’ needs within the limitations of their small operation.
Blue Gentian Farm is minimally automated yet runs smoothly with the hands-on efforts of Darryle and Renee, who have retired from their off-farm professions, and their sons Aaron and Nathan (another son, Ryan, lives in Atlanta and helps out during visits). Their careful consideration in choosing livestock has paid off in farm animals that fend quite well for themselves. Because their henhouses are not heated, brown-egg layers like Black Australorp and Rhode Island Red were chosen for their cold-weather vigor, while the lack of barn facilities led Darryle to pick the Berkshire breed of pig (also known as Kurobuta, which is highly prized in Japan) for its outdoor hardiness. In the summer, the cattle and sheep graze in the pastures and drink from a small river running through the farm. During the winter, they are kept in large paddocks where they eat hay and drink fresh water from tanks trucked out to the site.
It is a lot of hard work but Darryle wouldn’t have it any other way. “In the springtime, when we’re having a lot of farm babies, I want to see them frequently to be ready in case something doesn’t go as it should,” he said. “Being close to the animals and watching for disease or injury is an advantage. It’s almost like you get to know them really well because you see them every day.”
The Powers closely adhere to the principles of sustainable and organic farming: they do not use rationed antibiotics, steroids, or hormones, and their animals spend as much time as possible outdoors, season permitting, engaged in natural behaviors, whether it’s chickens scratching at the ground, Berkshires wallowing in the mud, or Highland cattle docilely grazing in the pasture. But as Darryle explained, it is simply too expensive to have Blue Gentian certified organic at their current scale of operation. Understanding that some people find such labels helpful, he says, “It’s a matter of trust and that’s why we like to have people come out to the farm and see it firsthand. That way they can make their own assessment of whether or not we’re doing the right things for the food that goes on their table.”
Although they didn’t set out intending to be a heritage breed farm, the Powers appreciate their good fortune. “There’s a tinge of nostalgia in there, in being able to raise these breeds and tell a story about them,” said Darryle. “They're pretty, they're functional, and it’s nice to be unique.” With that, he extended an open invitation to anyone interested in visiting Blue Gentian Farm to see for themselves a promising future in these unique animals of the past.
For a tour of Blue Gentian Farm, please contact Darryle or Renee Powers to schedule a visit.
Blue Gentian Farm
1900 Highway 46
New Richmond, WI 54017
Tracey Paska, a student at the University of Minnesota, is pursuing a self-designed degree in food studies, which combines coursework in anthropology, history and sociology as they pertain to the foods we eat. She was born in the Philippines, but now lives in the western suburbs of Minneapolis. When she's not composing research papers, she writes about the complex, confusing and fascinating connections between food, culture, and society on her blog Tangled Noodle. Her last post for Simple, Good and Tasty was You Don't Have to Be a Chicken to Make Great Eggs.