Gwenyn Hill Farm Weaves Ecology into Operation
Just west of Milwaukee, Wis. among the drumlins of suburban Waukesha, lies a unique organic farm that is part of the Westby Cooperative Creamery. Gwenyn Hill Farm grows certified organic produce, practices sustainable agriculture and maintains a herd of 80 cross-bred cows. The farm also raises beef cattle, lamb, chickens and even has a you-pick flower garden. The entire operation is driven by a desire to maintain the land’s interconnected, ecological web.
Thousands of years ago the glaciers left their mark on Gwenyn Hill Farm when they sculpted the land and deposited silt and clay in the valley bottoms. These basins are where heritage grains, fruits and vegetables are grown today. A layer of thin, fragile soil clings to hillsides where the earth must be meticulously maintained by deep-rooted, perennial plants. These hillsides are grazed by the chickens, cattle and sheep.
The 430-acre property is part of the Kettle Moraine belt of Wisconsin. It is a 120-mile-long stretch of irregular ridge and upland areas. The description is a mouthful, but the geographic beauty speaks for itself. And that “speaking” is what General Manager Linda Halley says guides the decision-making process at Gwenyn. “To farm here, we must listen to the land and do what is called for,” she said.
The dairy herd includes a cross between Holsteins, Norwegian Reds and Jerseys. Land and Livestock Manager Ryan Heinen said he recently started using some Normande and a few Brown Swiss in the herd. Gwenyn Hill Farm was purchased from its founders in 2016 after five generations of the J.D. Williams family had worked the land. The dairy operation was reinstated in 2018.
“I come to dairy farming from a grassland conservation standpoint,” Heinen said. “Milking grazing cows allows me to produce the highest quality food while restoring the landscape back to grass. My perennial pastures protect the soil, filter and clean rainwater, improve soil health, provide pollinator and wildlife habitat and put carbon back into the soil.
“The cows stay very healthy on the pastures, and I enjoy watching them harvest their own feed. I love grazing, and my cows get 80 percent of their diet from pasture for 200 days each year.”
Though Heinen did not grow up on a dairy farm, his grandpa did, and he said he hopes to be the generation that returns his family to farming.
“I value how dairy farming has allowed me to farm full time while raising my family on the farm. I have three young boys and a fourth child due any day! I am amazed at all the things they are learning by growing up on a dairy farm, and I am thankful to be able to give them this type of childhood,” he said.
The days aren’t always as sweet as the flowers grown at the farm, and Heinen said trying to graze the pastures at the right time can be challenging. Plus, the weather is always changing things. “It can be really frustrating trying to keep the cows milking well when the heat, flies, mud and grass maturity is less than ideal,” he said. “It’s very rewarding when it works, but sometimes at the end of the day I just have to hope things improve tomorrow.”
Heinen isn’t alone in trying to optimize the efforts at Gwenyn Hill. He is part of a team that includes four full-time workers, two year-round apprentices and roughly nine seasonal workers.
The farm’s produce and meats are available to the public at the Brookfield Farmers Market on Saturdays, May through October. They also have an on-site farmstand. The stone building is a converted milkhouse and is open May through October, Tuesday through Sunday, 9 a.m. until 7 p.m.
Learn more about Gwenyn Hill Farm at www.gwenynhillfarm.com.