November 30, 2020 at 8:03 p.m.
“It boiled down to economics,” Wells-Leis said. “When steers are retailing for over $9,000, why are we taking them to market? Or when cows are worth $300, but they are worth $2,500 in burger, that doesn’t make sense. I decided to cut out the middle-man and try to do it myself.”
Wells-Leis operates Heritage Hill Farm, which she owns with her husband, Gabe Leis, with help from their four children – Madaline, 20, Addison, 13, Haydn, 12, and Gage, 10 – while her husband works an off-farm construction job. Wells-Leis named the farm as such because from the hills above the farmstead; she can see several of the farms where her ancestors farmed before her.
Heritage Hill is home to 42 cows along with youngstock. In addition to the dairy herd, Wells-Leis also raises a herd of beef cows, a flock of sheep, hogs and chickens.
“Ever since I was little, I always wanted an Old McDonald farm,” Wells-Leis said. “But that diversification, a lot of elbow grease, and some out-of-the box thinking are helping me to be the most profitable on my farm that I can be.”
Wells-Leis said she began to consider actively pursuing the idea to market lamb at a local farmers’ market in 2019.
“I went to the annual meeting for the local farmers market, but things just didn’t pan out,” she said. “It seemed like every weekend we were busy showing sheep or some other activity.”
Then the spring of 2020 rolled around, drowning farmers in waves of uncertainty.
“Like every other farmer, my anxiety level was through the roof,” Wells-Leis said. “None of us knew what was going to happen. The markets were falling apart. We knew what the hog farmers were doing, and dairy farmers were dumping milk, but we didn’t know what the answer was. Then we watched prices skyrocket in grocery stores and saw shelves stand empty. I was incredibly happy to see people sit up and take notice of what they have taken for granted in terms of food supply.”
A trip to the grocery store lit a lightbulb in Wells-Leis’ head, and she made the decision to dive into her plan to increase the direct marketing of meat products raised on her farm.
“We already had a clientele out there from what we had done with direct marketing beef and lamb, so it was just a matter of building off of that,” Wells-Leis said.
Wells-Leis began working with local locker plants to line up harvesting dates. She located a hog farmer in Illinois who had no market for his hogs and purchased a group of 50 pigs from him to finish.
“My parents had a couple of Angus that were ready; I had a bunch of lambs that I typically would have sold for 4-H projects; and now I had the hogs,” Wells-Leis said. “We are lucky to have so many really good locker plants right here in our area. I like to keep diversified and work with each of them on different products.”
When Wells-Leis made her debut at the farmers market in Sparta, she was happy to learn her intuition that consumers want to make the connection to locally-produced food and farmers was correct.
“It turned out to be a very easy connection to make at the market,” Wells-Leis said. “Here I am, I am bringing my product to you, and they couldn’t have been happier, especially to support a local farmer, who was working with local locker plants to provide high-quality products.”
Using social media platforms, Wells-Leis worked to cultivate her farmers market customers into a loyal following, advertising specials for pre-orders that she could bring to the market, making planning her inventory for each market easier.
“We have really developed a clientele that loves our hot dogs, ring bologna and snack sticks,” Wells-Leis said. “It isn’t uncommon to sell out of those items.”
Being transparent with her customers is a must for Wells-Leis. She speaks candidly with customers about her livestock, how they are raised and how they are harvested.
“I am completely honest with people about what they are eating,” she said. “I know every single thing: where it came from, what the harvest date was. … People want to know that. They want to know where it came from, what it was fed and how it was fed.”
Educating consumers is a passion for her, and she believes that philosophy pays dividends with repeat customers who share their positive experiences with Heritage Hill Farm products with their friends and family.
As her marketing successes began to multiply, Wells-Leis pushed forward with her direct marketing plan, creating an on-farm store to help her streamline her time and increase the complete on-farm experience for customers. With her love of sharing her farm story, Wells-Leis said she would like to investigate ways to create ag-tourism opportunities on the farm. Her daughter, Haydn, is a natural in connecting with consumers at the farmers markets and is developing the same passion for sharing the family’s farm story.
“We usually do school tours on the farm each spring, and when everything shut down this year, we decided to host a drive-thru, pop-up shop here on the farm,” Wells-Leis said. “We set up a small display of animals and had meat and Westby cheese curds available. That was kind of like the test run to see if an on-farm store was feasible. We learned that people would come here to visit the farm. We had over 40 vehicles come through that day.”
In addition to her variety of lamb, beef and pork cuts, Wells-Leis carries Westby Cooperative Creamery products in her store, along with local honey, maple syrup and craft items.
“It is really about trying to keep yourself alive as a farmer and figure out how to make things make a profit for you,” Wells-Leis said.
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