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Paul Ehrhardt and Kay Jensen are passionate about farming. Much of the food raised on JenEhr Family Farm near Sun Prairie leaves their fields, and is on hundreds of tables just a few hours after being harvested.

Paul Ehrhardt and Kay Jensen are passionate about farming. Much of the food raised on JenEhr Family Farm near Sun Prairie leaves their fields, and is on hundreds of tables just a few hours after being harvested. Photo By John Oncken

JenEhr Family Farm creates partnership with its members

May 17, 2012 | 0 comments

"We create a partnership with our members," Kay Jensen says. "We as farmers have to worry about the weather, insects, weeds and other things that affect our crops and so do our members because they know what they eat that week will be effected."

Much of the food raised on JenEhr Family Farm near Sun Prairie leaves their fields, and is on hundreds of tables just a few hours after being harvested.

It doesn't travel hundreds of miles in a truck over a period of days, rather it more likely left the farm field just hours before being picked up at the farm or after a short trip of about 15 to 50 miles.

Kay Jensen and her husband Paul Ehrhardt run a multifaceted farm that includes some 35 to 40 different crops ranging from arugula to kohlrabi to winter squash and two kinds of livestock (chickens and turkeys).

Unlike most Wisconsin farmers they are growers, processors and marketers and they market their products in three rather distinct and different markets.

Paul Ehrhardt and Kay Jensen have been growing vegetables, fruit and poultry on their 110-acre farm since 1997.

According to Paul, crop and livestock diversity is one factor that sets JenEhr farm apart: "We are very diversified in what we do, and that is on purpose ... we feel you need an animal component to make a vegetable farm more sustainable."

The couple and their two children raise around 25 acres of fresh market vegetables, four acres of strawberries and an acre of blueberries on their farm.

Livestock pasture for their 5,000 chickens and 250 turkeys takes up another 20 acres and the rest of the farm is in wetlands, woodlands and streams.

While the whole farm is certified organic, the poultry receive some conventional feed and therefore are not organic.

Vegetables at JenEhr are grown under a variety of conditions and situations that the couple have developed over the years.

A series of four-season hoop houses that can be heated enable almost year round growing.

Fifteen three season hoop houses, each 24 feet by 270 feet covering 2.1 acres are used beginning in March to grow a wide variety of vegetables including peas, carrots, lettuce, spinach, onions fennel, chard and more.

And finally there are the 20 acres of farm fields.

Jensen and Ehrhardt were both raised on dairy farms: Kay at Hammond and Paul at Oakfield.

Both are University of Wisconsin-Madison graduates; she has a degree in ag journalism/rural sociology and he in Animal Science/Ag Education. And both have Masters degrees: Kay has an MBA from Edgewood College, Paul in Soil Science from UW-Madison.

Paul and Kay were well traveled after high school. Interestingly, both lived in Germany under FFA programs and later both spent time in Australia. After that, Kay spent time in Israel and Paul in Germany.

Strangely, although they followed similar oversees paths, they did not meet until 1985 when they were introduced by Darlene Maurer Arneson who currently heads the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation's Ag in the Classroom program.

Kay spent several years working before and after they became farmers. Paul taught vo-ag at Laconia High in Rosendale, Kay worked with Wisconsin Public Radio, the WFBF, Johnson Hills Press and sold ag equipment in Asia.

The couple were married in 1987 with no real plans to farm. Paul was working at the UW-Arlington Research Station and later headed Wisconsin Foundation Seeds and Kay continued working as well.

But, the urge to farm became ever stronger and they began looking at farming opportunities. "We almost bought a dairy grazing operation in Texas," Kay says. "But, we didn't go; we saw Dane County as a good place to raise a family.

They found a bare 110-acre farm, owned by Lloyd Krebs just north of Sun Prairie that was part of Wisconsin Farm Progress Days in 1971, and purchased it.

Their first moves included building a house (there were no buildings) renting the cropland to neighbor John Blaska and raising a quarter acre of vegetables.

("Really just a garden," Paul says.) Meanwhile, both continued working full-time.

Kay remembers that they aimed at being organic and wanted to market directly to consumers while raising their children on a farm.

Indeed the farm grew, doubling in size each of their first six years. And, the varied interests of the couple made for a great combination.

Paul, who has a passion for growing things handles production while Kay, who admits to having a love for managing and marketing handles the marketing and business management.

"This division of labor keeps things running smoothly," Paul says. "This partnership between my wife Kay and me, works really, really well."

Although Kay Jensen classifies their farm as "a mid-size operation," the work involved is almost unbelievable.

Vegetables, like corn and soybeans, require cultivation, fertilization and harvesting but unlike field crops the work is very labor intensive. You can't use big equipment in a hoop house and instead of a combine you hand pick.

Then there is the 4 a.m. trip to three farmers markets every Saturday from April to October hauling a trailer or truck of vegetables and the material to set up a display stand. And, of course the selling, bagging, meeting with customers and returning home pretty much takes care of the day.

The CSA members receive boxes of food weekly at eight different pickup locations in Milwaukee, Lake Mills, Madison and at the farm.

Memberships range from a full share (5/9th of a bushel) from June 11 to November 11 for $640, to a variety of smaller and special shares varying in length and cost.

"Our season runs from March 1 to early December," Paul says. "During the winter we attend some trade meetings and plan for the next year, which involves 35 - 40 crops and 350 planting events."

Kay says while they worked alone during the first few years on the farm they now have eight full- and part-time employees "growing organic vegetables and pastured, chemical-free poultry for our neighbors in and around southern Wisconsin."

JenEhr Family Farm (wisconsingrown.com) is one of well over a hundred CSA farms across the state (enter CSA in the internet) offering home-grown fruit, vegetables and meat. Some even offer the opportunity to work for food shares.

As the JenEhr family says: "We rejoice every year when the first tomato blushes red." And, we care deeply about the food we grow, and are fulfilled to nourish your bodies with the fruits of our labors."        

Well said by farmers who love their calling.

John F. Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications, a Madison-based agricultural information and consulting company. He can be reached at 608-222-0624 or e-mail him at jfodairy@chorus.net.

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