PRENTICE — At Autumn Larch Farm, keeping customers happy is a top priority. Owner Jane Hansen prefers working face-to-face with the people who buy the farm’s products, whether it is wool, meat or garden produce.
“Having that feedback is very important to me,” she said. “It makes it more fulfilling.”
Though she moves around her farm with the confidence usually formed from decades of experience, Hansen wasn’t always a farmer. She grew up in the suburbs of southeastern Wisconsin and practiced as an architect, designing commercial buildings from schools to shopping centers.
In 1999, she and her husband, Chris, decided they were ready for a change and bought a house with a barn near Prentice in southern Price County.
“We didn’t know we would be farmers,” Hansen said.
Hansen planted a garden and its success led to selling at farmers’ markets.
Although not organic, Hansen uses non-chemical means to control weeds and pests, and uses antibiotics and wormers when necessary for animal health. She added laying hens to the farm for eggs, then began raising meat chickens.
In 2009, she began buying feeder lambs to raise grassfed meat on the farm’s six acres of pasture. In 2012, she expanded her flock to include breeding stock.
Hansen learned to knit as a child and rediscovered the art while living with a Norwegian roommate in college.
“It’s a big deal in Norway,” Hansen said. “She turned me into a fiber snob.”
Autumn Larch is home to a small flock of Coopworth sheep. Developed by a team of scientists in New Zealand from Romney and Border Leicester sheep, the Coopworth is a medium-sized, dual-purpose breed used for both meat and wool. Coopworth wool is in the coarser range, making it suitable for outerwear. The breed can be white or natural colored. Most of Hansen’s ewes are white, but her current ram is natural colored.
“I’m hoping to breed more colored sheep but they keep coming out white,” she said.
Last year, Hansen added a California Variegated Mutant wether to her flock. CVMs produce a fine wool that is easy to spin, durable and with a beautiful luster.
In addition to providing another type of wool, the wether will keep Hansen’s ram and ewe lambs company when they are separated from the rest of the mature ewes.
Once the sheep are sheared, the raw wool goes to Blue Hills Fiber Mill in Bruce for processing into spun yarn or roving. Roving is wool that is carded and drawn into long, narrow bundles. It is used by spinners and other fiber artists.
Wool from lambs is combined, but wool from individual ewes and rams is kept separate. Hansen labels each skein and attaches a photo of the sheep it came from, allowing artists to request wool from a specific sheep.
In addition to her own knitting projects, Hansen combines her handmade soaps she also sells with wool to make felted soap.
“It’s like having a washcloth built right in,” she said.
Lambs not kept for breeding are sold for meat. Hansen said she’s discovered there is a demand for grassfed lamb in the younger generations.
She believes mutton, consumed in the mid-century when better meat was shipped to feed soldiers, gave lamb a bad reputation among that generation, but people are rediscovering lamb. Hansen said she and her husband enjoy leg of lamb, which Chris prepares with slow, indirect heat and smoke.
“It’s delicious,” she said. “There are never any leftovers.”
Autumn Larch Farm also markets sheep skins. The skins are tanned in Milwaukee to preserve them and used in motorcycle seat covers, neonatal units and people who are bedridden and suffering from skin problems.
Along with its wool and lamb, Autumn Larch Farm is a producer of garlic for the wholesale market. Hansen plants about 1,500 cloves of garlic in the fall. Two are a hardneck variety, German Red and Russian Red, and a third is a softneck type, Inchelium Red.
Softneck garlic is milder and the kind you’ll find in most grocery stores. Hardneck garlic has more complex flavors and is closer to wild garlic, but may not store as well.
Hansen said her personal favorite is the German Red.
“It’s fabulous,” she said. “It grows really, really well in this cold, wet climate.”
The sheep enjoy the garlic as well. Hansen mixes it in with their feed to boost their immunity and as a natural pest control.
Garlic emerges about the same time as crocus in the spring, which Hansen says lets her know spring is finally here.
Garlic can be susceptible to poor weather. Two years ago, the cold wet spring caused much of her garlic cloves to rot in the ground before they sprouted.
Marketing products from her farm, especially in an area as lightly populated as north central Wisconsin, has been a challenge. She often drives great distances to reach her customers at farmers markets and craft shows.
“It is a struggle to build a farmers’ market and a customer base,” she said.
Hansen said with her wool, she has worked to connect with fiber artists who are looking for quality, Wisconsin-produced wool. She attends craft shows and the Wisconsin Sheep and Wool Festival to meet spinners and knitters.
She also plans to promote fiber arts this month by teaching a sock knitting class at the Yarn Barn in Phillips.
Hansen became involved in Price Direct, an effort to build markets for local foods in Price County in 2005. That led to her involvement in statewide efforts, including Buy Local Buy Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Local Food Network. She serves as the coordinator for the Wisconsin Local Food Summit, now in its ninth year. This year’s summit is Jan. 30-31 in Wisconsin Rapids.
Hansen said building a diverse farm has been rewarding.
Though in an area of Wisconsin with fewer farms, Hansen uses management-intensive grazing to make the most from the farm’s six acres of pasture. The majority of the farm’s acres are wet and wooded, not suitable for farming.
“I like making use of our land,” she said.
Hansen is also making use of her experience as an architect. Along with designing an addition to her home and building a chicken coop, Hansen said she uses her problem-solving skills every day.
“There’s always a project on a farm,” she said.
A diversified operation
Jane Hansen of Price County has built Autumn Larch Farm into a very diversified operation. Along with wool and lamb meat, Hansen grows vegetables and garlic, makes soap, and has raised chickens for eggs and meat.