Farmer Perspectives | Alissa talks with Michael from Three Brothers Farm (the wonderful producers of your eggs)
A long time ago Michael's brother contacted us on facebook...and was like..."Three Sisters...we are Three Brothers, and our mission statements are so similar." So we were having a farmer potluck and we invited him out. He was the first person to show up and we were like "really there are more people coming...we promise." That was the first we heard about Three Brothers. Over the years we have gone to concerts at their beautiful farm and Michael ended up marrying our good friend Courtney. So it is a small world after all. We are super thankful that they supply eggs for you and incredibly thankful for the work they do. I think very few people realize how much strength it takes to steward farm animals well and also have it be economically viable. Please be sure to thank them and their chickens.Alissa Tell us a bit about your farm…
Michael Three Brothers Farm is Michael and Courntey Gutschenritter. We raise 1800 laying hens a year, and depending on the year, several thousand roasting chickens. We have about 30 sheep and a garden of flowers for weddings. And some pigs. And all the animals are pasture raised so right now every animal moves every single day onto fresh pasture. That is what we’re proud of.
Farmland has been in your family for a long time, correct?
My grandpa bought the farmland in 1954 with borrowed money from his best friend. Grandpa was never a true farmer - did some hobby stuff, made hay, had a couple dairy cows for family, some chickens for eggs. He did sharecropping with our neighbor so the neighbor was renting the land and for the most part it was either in corn, soy, wheat rotation, or it was in CRP when CRP was thriving.
You grew up next door, correct?
Yes. Now Courtney, Ylva and I are living in the house Grandpa lived in. I grew up in the original farmhouse that my grandfather bought. In 2007 when my grandpa died the land went into a trust, and later my dad bought out his siblings. And after four years of farming the land, Courntey and I are now buying the land from my parents.
How did you get into farming?
I was living as a ski bum in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, and the land was in the trust at that point and all my aunts and uncles wanted to sell, so they put it on the market. They were three days away from closing on the farm. When my brother and I found out it was being sold we said, “why don’t we give it a shot? We’re mildly interesting in farming.” Somehow we convinced my folks not to sell the land and let us try to farm the land. I moved back, my brother moved back, and we started a CSA. I dIdn’t even know what it stood for, and had never actually had a garden.
We sold 25 shares the first year and we ended up doing a pretty good job, but we quickly realized that was not going to pay for the land. We have 100 acres we’re trying to pay for now - it’s a big mortgage. The following year my brother left the farm - he has a law degree. He said he was going to Portland to get a good job and send us money to float the farm. That never happened. After another season I realized that the eggs were starting to make some money so I kept the chickens and continued to produce eggs.
Then Peter Sandroni asked if I would raise eggs for him for Engine Company No. 3 when it was new, so we did. I was on a pretty steep learning curve, but I figured it out by stumbling through it. I supplied him and only him the first year and was also growing the CSA. At a certain point, we realized we would have to do like 500 shares to pay for the farm so we dropped the CSA entirely. Instead we ramped up egg production. We went from 600 birds to 900 to 1200, and now 1800, and we are supplying way more than just Peter. We supply 10 restaurants and two grocery stores and a couple small retailers and Jeff and Kelly.
Tell us about the laying hens on the farm - what are their lives like?
We have two batches of 900 laying hens, and we buy one batch in the spring and one in the fall. Each batch has on 100’ by 80’ paddock, and within that paddock there is one 20’ X 40’ mobile greenhouse on skids. The mobile greenhouse is just a shady spot for them to hang out when it gets hot and it’s where they lay their eggs. Within the large paddock we move the coop three times. Then we move the whole paddock again. So every day we go into their paddock and hook the GH onto the tractor and slide it forward about 50 feet.
The reason that we do that is so that they spread their manure out evenly throughout the whole pasture, and they don’t scratch any one area too much. We’ve noticed this year that the space where they were about 10 moves ago greens up really dark and lush - it’s beautiful to walk 400 feet back and see the effect of 900 birds on the pasture.
So it’s really, really good for the pasture. It’s really, really healthy for the hens - they get fresh air, they get sunshine, they get to act like themselves. They get to eat clover and alfalfa and bugs and establish pecking order - that is all really healthy stuff for a flock.
It’s also healthy for the farmer and the consumer. We, the farmers get to be outside in the fresh air and sunshine, collecting, feeding, moving.
How does the pasture improve the quality of the egg?
We feed a non-gmo grain to the birds, but when they move onto a fresh paddock they ignore the feed and go straight for their natural diet of grasses, legumes and bugs. So when they’re eating those things and laying an egg every day, all the nutrients from their natural diet are being transferred directly to the egg, which makes for a super nutritious white and yolk. This year our chickens have been specifically dining on toads - just about every day I see our chickens chasing each other with toads.
How did you meet Jeff and Kelly?
I don’t know...probably through Courtney. At a get-together with area farmers. There was a potluck and I was just starting to date Courtney and Jeff and Kelly were there.
How did you get to the point of supplying the eggs for Three Sisters Community Farm?
I think that we are one of the only pastured egg producers doing anything on scale in SE WI. So I’m sure that was appealing to Jeff and Kelly because they didn’t want to have chickens anymore. They asked if we had enough eggs for them and we were looking to increase our birds at that point from 12 to 1,800 and we were changing our model, using these mobile greenhouses on pasture. We were looking for new accounts anyway when they asked to do between 50 and 70 dozen a week for them.
Also, we’re in the same group of friends and it’s just a compatible relationship.
How does the CSA model work with your system?
We have major seasonal fluctuation with our flock. Animals respond to the seasons differently. Chickens are extremely sensitive to temperature and natural light, so their ideal situation is 70 degrees outside, dry and 16 hours of daylight. We can’t always have that in Wisconsin, so therefore their production fluctuates. We try our best to even out production through adding light, adding heat, cooling them down, but of course it’s an uphill battle. We shoot for 85% production, but in the winter we get 70-75% production. We know that, and it’s OK. We know that right after the summer solstice our production goes down a bit - we aren’t sure why that happens but it must be something to do with the decreased sunlight.
That’s why it’s so nice to work with summer CSAs because it allows for fluctuation. It’s also so nice to work with chefs like Peter Sandroni and Karen Bell, because we can explain our reality and they understand.
Without technology, eggs are a seasonal food. But we need to pay the bills. If we just used natural light and no supplemental heat or shade we’d be bankrupt for sure.
What are the most well known restaurants you sell products to?
La Merenda is probably the most popular. Engine Co #3, Bavette, Bowls restaurant (Walkers Point by Purple Door - also in Mequon.) Birch and Butcher buys a lot of chicken. Camino (in Walker’s Point.) 2894 on Main in East Troy is killer.
How do Jeff and Kelly get your eggs? What happens?
Kelly emails me each week with the order. This week she ordered 54 dozen, so Monday is a big egg washing day. We have helpers who help wash and pack the eggs. The eggs will be ready by tonight and Renee, Kelly’s mom will come, she’ll go into the barn and pick up the eggs and leave a check on our washing table.
Why do you farm?
Well, I have found myself thinking about that a lot lately. The most fundamental reason is to keep the land in our family in a productive way. It is a very emotional decision. I don’t think that it’s the most economically viable way to keep the land in the family.
I feel so many emotions about this question, it’s really amazing what this question does for me. It’s so simple though, I really do just farm here because I feel an obligation to farm this land. If I stopped farming here, nobody else is going to do it. And maybe my parents would forgive the fact that I took on buying the land and take on the mortgage payments, maybe, but I don't think so. I don’t think anyone in my family feels the way I do about this land. I think my grandpa did, but that’s it. So I’m farming to farm this land.
Are you thinking about it more because of the birth of your daughter?
I think so. The fact I’ve been thinking about it for the past 7 weeks tells me yes. I can’t say specifically why. I don’t even want to encourage Ylva to be a farmer. If she wants to be a farmer she should be and I’ll be happy about it but I don't think I’ll be pushing it on her. I’m going to push her to find her true calling.
I think it’s more about me than it is about her. I think that having a kid just made me reevaluate my life. I’m definitely reevaluating my schedule because of her and reevaluating what I’m doing on the farm because of her.
What’s the best part of life on the farm?
For me it’s two parts - one is, I am a very physical person so I really like to work. I like physical labor, I like the manual, hands on stuff. Hooking the chains up to the tractor to pull the coop, tinkering with an engine, that stuff is fun.
But the number one thing I like most is that I have found in the past couple years that farming has become an expression of my creativity. I am able to think more deeply about what I'm doing. I’m more mindful of the overall picture and effect. That allows me to be more creative in my problem solving.
Our farm is just a giant problem that needs solving. It’s just constant figuring stuff out. When I see the ability to improve something, that’s the thing I really want to get my hands dirty on. Like right now I have four big projects I’m trying to figure out and for me that’s really cool. I love learning entirely new skills to solve a problem.
What’s the most challenging aspect?
For me the most challenging aspect would have to be finding time to take off. Creating a full day off for myself has been a major challenge. I don’t have employees here at 6 am, and there is a task that needs to be done at 6 am every day. So even if that’s the one tak I do for the day, it’s not a full day off - I can’t leave overnight.
That and figuring out finances is also difficult.
What has farming taught you?
Running the enterprise has taught me quite a bit - first how important it is to stay organized, and maintain a clean operation. Generally when things aren’t organized and cleaned up - even in the storage barn - things start falling apart in the pasture operation too. When everything is always in its place the whole operation runs more smoothly.
Also, something I’ve noticed is that all we really have to do is give the animals the environment to thrive, and then they just thrive. If we see it’s going to be super hot we accommodate them and put in a misting system in each coop to cool the air so they are much less stressed. That results in a healthier hen, more production and more profitability.
What’s the most delicious meal you have had recently?
Chicken Caesar salad - a giant salad we made out of Jeff and Kelly’s vegetables with our chicken on it.
What’s the strangest thing you have ever eaten?
I ate a chicken carcass once, like all the bones. I chewed and mashed it so much that I was able to fit the entire carcass in my mouth. I wouldn’t recommend it.
What is your favorite place to have a meal?
In the upper barn on our property. We have these big rolling doors, so we can open it up and look over the entire pasture. That’s always been my favorite place, period.
What is one thing that is bringing joy into your life these days?
My baby girl, Ylva Joy and my wife Courntey Joy. (These are their real names folks!) They are both bringing me joy.
Something outside of my family would be working with our employee, Trey. I haven’t worked with a guy my age on the farm until Trey, so that’s pretty nice for me.