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Olden Organics shares story of growth during COVID-19 pandemic

The only constant is change — and fresh produce

Richard and Tracy Vinz didn’t imagine their family farm would ever be this big.

The couple own and operate over a hundred acres of organic farmland which include a processing and production plant for organic produce at Olden Organics in Ripon. Seventeen years ago, the couple began farming on Richard’s family land and are now the fourth generation to cultivate the soil.

Tracy said when they first started, they had a small handful of CSA (community-supported agriculture) members. CSA members pay a monthly or recurring fee for fresh, in-season produce provided throughout the year or a set season, benefiting consumers with fresh produce and local growers with financial support. The couple was also only selling produce at a single farmers market.

Now, Olden Organics has a footprint stretching across the state. They sell products at Milwaukee farmers markets, the Dane County farmers market, Appleton markets and other vendors across Northeast Wisconsin. Olden Organics can also be found in co-ops across the state, such as Willy Street Co-op in Madison, Outpost Natural Foods in the greater Milwaukee area and the Oshkosh Food Co-op.

What started as a husband-wife effort exploded into an operation that currently has two full time year-round workers, eight to ten part-time seasonal employees and currently six H2A visa workers. (H2A visas, or migrant workers, are prolific throughout the state of Wisconsin in the agriculture, dairy and tourism industry. The program is administered through the United States Department of Agriculture and in 2020, there were 213,394 H-2A visas issued in the country, with the overwhelming majority relegated to the agriculture industry.)

“We started really small,” Tracy said.

A pivotal moment for Olden Organics was the creation of their processing facility in the fall of 2016.

“That’s when everything took off,” Tracy said.

The processing facility allows the businesses to cut, spiral and dice vegetables in bulk and sell their products to local school districts, vendors and grocery stores. The facility is fortified with year-round heating and cooling, large walk-in coolers and sterilization protocols. The processing occurs all year long, making Wisconsin winters less of a foe for the farm. In the winter, Olden Organics grows greens—like lettuce mix, kale mix, arugula and Asian greens—during the winter months with the help of the indoor facility.

Family Roots

Tracy traces her organic-growing roots beyond the almost two decades of Olden Organics. She has been going to farmers markets since she was five years old. Her father helped manage the Green Bay farmers markets for 25 years and she has vivid memories of helping stock produce and help vendors from a young age.

“I grew up at farmers markets. That’s what you do on a Saturday,” Tracy said.

The family influence gave Tracy a passion for fresh vegetables. When she met her now-husband Richard she was working at a friend’s organic farm. Eventually the couple inherited Richard’s family farmland and the stars aligned. Growing produce gave Richard fond memories of working with his hands alongside his late grandparents, growing vegetables and produce and selling them in Ripon. Tracy wanted to revisit her childhood love of farmers markets to brush up on her growing skills.

“We had a huge family garden growing up, and being young, I thought I had quite the green thumb,” Tracy said.

Centering organic and fresh produce has always been important to the couple. When the operation started, they began as chemical-free producers and eventually worked their way into being certified naturally grown—a peer-reviewed process where growers approve each other’s operations to ensure synthetic chemicals are not being used. Olden Organics is also a Certified Organic farm, which means they are accredited through the USDA and their produce is grown on soil that contains no prohibited substances—synthetic fertilizers and pesticides—for three years prior to harvest.

Along the way, Olden Organics has gained notoriety through regional and national awards. In 2009, and again in 2017, Olden Organics received a USDA Natural Resources Conservation Services grant to fund their High Tunnel System, or hoop house. The HTS is a greenhouse management tool that helps producers improve plant quality, reduce pesticides and improve air quality.

Olden Organics won the 2012 John Kinsman Beginning Farmer Food Sovereignty Award from Family Farm Defenders, a nonprofit agriculture advocacy and outreach group focused on consumer rights and local producers. This award is granted to newly-formed, small-scale producers who practice sustainability management of natural resources, promote healthy soil, conserve biodiversity and implement food sovereignty principles—a practice defined by growers who work with healthy, culturally appropriate foods, ecological conservation and define their own food and agriculture systems.

Olden Organics has also received Frontera Farmer Foundation grants in 2016 and 2018. These capital-development grants fund supplies and equipment to help farmers expand and improve the Midwest food systems.

All of these accolades have helped grow Olden Organics over the years, but nothing could prepare the couple for what was in store this past year.

In-person markets turn to digital boom

Tracy remembers exactly what she was doing on her birthday in March 2020. She wasn’t at a market because all of the markets had been cancelled due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. She wasn’t tending to produce because production was halted and their greenhouses — twelve of them to be precise — were full and the farm was “up to their gills” in winter storage crops, with nowhere to sell them.

She was building a website.

“We needed to figure out how we were going to sell our product,” Tracy said. “And we decided, okay, if people can’t come to us, we’re going to go to them.”

Tracy spent her entire birthday fine tuning Local Food to Your Doorstep, an online platform where buyers are able to purchase goods such as vegetables, honeys, oils, eggs, meats, bakery products, teas, seasoning and more from the convenience of their home.

It’s all in the name — the website brings locally sourced products from growers that would have been at regional farmer markets to the doorstep of consumers who were quarantined at home.

Tracy said the response was overwhelming. Local Food to Your Doorstep received customers from Appleton, Milwaukee and everywhere in-between wanting delivery orders.

“It was crazy, amazing and phenomenal,” Tracy said.

While Olden Organics was behind the creation of the online platform, Tracy said it was always their intention to bring other vendors on board, to simulate an online farmers market as much as possible.

“If somebody is going to buy vegetables from us, they’re going to need the other stuff too, so we might as well sell everything,” Tracy said. “And that way we can help many other local producers at the same time.”

As the COVID-19 pandemic raged on throughout the state and country, consumers continued to turn online for their produce. The creation of the online platform helped hundreds of weekly customers get fresh produce without leaving their homes. Tracy said eventually more and more businesses came to her and the platform grew to 30 strong Wisconsin local growers, producers, makers and vendors of all varieties.

Over a year later, with increased access to COVID-19 vaccines and other public health safety measures in place, more and more markets are opening up. But Local Food to Your Doorstep is still going strong. Tracy and Richard are now looking further into the future and have sold the company to FarmFreshXpress.com.

The owners of FarmFreshXpress have their roots in local newspapers, so they know a thing or two about local delivery. Customer favorites like fresh produce from Olden Organics, cheeses from Red Barn Family Farm and canned goods from Hippie Wayne’s are still available on the platform. New products, such as sourdough and baked goods from Voyageur Bakehouse and freshly roasted coffees from Nicolet Coffee, are also now available on the platform. FarmFreshXpress will operate out of Wrightstown in order to be centrally located and will soon expand its distribution throughout the Fox Valley and Green Bay.

Tracy said she saw the growth of the online platform beyond her capacity as a good thing.

“If you start something and it grows to more than what you’re able to handle, that’s a success,” Tracy said.

Looking back on the explosive growth of the online platform, Tracy said the best part of Olden Organics’ COVID-19 pivot was the simple transaction of putting fresh produce into the hands of local consumers.

“I was able to keep the lights on and the heat on through COVID. I was able to put money in the pockets of other local producers,” Tracy said. “And I think the most important thing is we were able to get fresh products and fresh food that was made, grown, baked and created here in Wisconsin, into the hands of people who needed it.”

Now, Tracy and her husband Richard are focusing more on in-person markets and getting back to the swing of managing and operating Olden Organics. For Tracy, 2021 was supposed to be the year she got back into horseback riding. Now, she said she is on the lookout for horses and happy to focus back on the reason behind her family’s passion for organic farming—the community.

“Helping my business stay afloat was great. Helping other producers was amazing, but helping local people get their hands on local food was even better.

W11699 Olden Road, Ripon, WI

920-379-9004• oldenproduce@yahoo.com

www.oldenorganics.com

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