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Perennial Farming as a Retirement Plan
Betty Anderson

I began my farming journey in my 50th year when I met and married my husband, Dane who had deep roots on his 3rd generation family farm. We quickly over diversified as I fell in love with all aspects of our homesteading lifestyle. While, this was completely unsustainable  it was all sorts of good learning!

Walking and working our 40 acres we have always been acutely aware of the generations of folk who walked it before us. My husband reminisces about hunting the 600 plus acres he had access to as a boy and finding arrowheads, and wondering about who had left them. We are just 3 miles down the road from the giant burr oak that marked the halfway point on the Native American trade route that ran northeast to southwest from the lake (Michigan) to the big river (Mississippi).When looking at the abstract to our farm we discovered that Daniel and Polly Smith were the very first to deed our place from the U.S. government. Thus we became The Old Smith Place in their honor, though we know many generations were here before them. Our only real goal for our time of stewardship has always been to leave the place  a little better off than we found it.

We did not set out to do perennial crop farming rather we fell into it naturally, as our goals and needs shifted. As a girl, I learned to can and preserve food alongside my folks and have always loved it. Having all these acres to finally grow as much food as I wanted I quickly started my own business making gourmet jams and jellies under Wisconsin’s very limiting Pickle Bill. I quickly bumped up against the 5K earnings cap and realized that after expenses I barely broke even. Still, I loved it and learned many things about direct and wholesale marketing and it did help  cash flow the place during leaner times of the year. Of course hauling all this product around was expensive, time consuming and took a toll on my aging body leaving me prone to injury.

Without really planning to and in a somewhat haphazard fashion, each year we’ve added more and more perennial plantings of a food nature. Now, we live in a virtual food forest and are very intentionally adding to it every year. Organic vegetable farming is hard work! It suited us well for years and married well with our diversified livestock operation as we always had plenty of beautiful manure with which to fertilize and enrich our soil. Most of our crop land is in hay for our livestock and as we downsize the mixed herd this gives us another cash crop to sell. Little by little our vegetable farming beds are becoming perennial food crops like fruit trees, nuts and berries, grapes and asparagus. 

We are disturbing our soil less and less as the years go by. We’ve planted aronia bushes on some areas of our farm with less desirable soil structures and are happy to see how the soil in these areas has improved drastically. We have no soil erosion happening on any part of our land. As we seem to be trending warmer and drier we are relieved with the increased water and nutrient retention this affords us. Going forward we are anticipating having enough perennial plantings to be able to offer U-pick as an option for harvesting fruits, nuts, berries and grapes on our land; and probably right about the time we no longer have the capacity for it ourselves. One of the things that was so beneficial to me as a Navy veteran with PTS(d) was the peace I experienced  just being here working with the land and the livestock. I look forward to sharing that opportunity with others.

While farming is not most folks typical “retirement plan”; with downsizing our work load and adding perennial cash crops it has turned out to be just right for us!

— Betty Anderson and her husband Dane are the current stewards at The Old Smith Place outside Brodhead. They are Farmers Union members since 2016 and Betty is an alumni of the National Farmers Unions Beginning Farmer Institute. Betty is a Navy veteran and a trauma survivor. She is passionate about growing and preserving her harvest both to market and to nourish her family. She is also her tiny town’s treasurer and holds down an off farm job in the housing industry whose focus is providing education in financial literacy & promoting home-ownership as a vehicle to stabilizing some of Beloit’s tougher neighborhoods. South Central Wisconsin Farmers Union is a member-driven committed to enhancing the quality of life for family farmers, rural communities, and all people through educational opportunities, cooperative endeavors, and civic engagement in Rock, Green, and Lafayette Counties.