Long Arm Farm in Westby, Wisconsin is a long way from Riverwest, but Micaela O’Herlihy has found a way to farm, and to make her relationships in the city pay off.
O’Herlihy grew up in Los Angeles, California. She came to Milwaukee in 1999 and became an adjunct professor in the film department at UW-Milwaukee.
“I got very involved in Riverwest gallery life,” O’Herlihy recalled. “I did art shows in Riverwest and Bay View, and got involved with Pumpkin World – Riverwest Film & Video. I was also involved in community gardens here, and in women’s groups like Feminists for Fornication.”
She moved with her family to Long Arm in 2009 and focused on raising goats and making artisanal cheeses. She is still working on getting her cheese maker’s license and building a facility for aging cheeses.
More recently she established a Community Supported Agriculture business to sell the vegetables from the farm. She also began selling and delivering to chefs in restaurants. For several reasons, she decided to make the switch from a CSA to an RSA (restaurant supported agriculture) this year.
“I needed to streamline the operation,” O’Herlihy explained, “so I decided to focus on working with chefs. I like to grow weird stuff and they know what to do with it.
“With a CSA there was a lot of educating that needed to be done to teach people to use the crops I grew. It took me out of the field a day every week looking up recipes and preparing educational materials.
“Chefs know what to do with the foods I deliver, especially wildcrafts. I don’t have to teach them what to do.”
Long Arm Farm currently delivers to six restaurants in the Milwaukee area.
“I work with Ardent, Balzac, C.1880, Goodkind, Juniper 61 and Odd Duck. They get a share every week, and I dictate what goes into it.
“We focus on rare, seasonal, high-value heirloom products that are hard for them to get their hands on through normal venues. We have lots of wildcrafts and local value added products, and hard-to-find herbs like Monarda and hyssup. This week we had black caps, josta berries, currants, and wild and cultivated gooseberries and elder flowers.”
Long Arm Farm has 14 acres, and it’s all in perennials. O’Herlihy leases two acres for annual row crops. She chooses unusual varieties, like purple velour French filet beans and mrihani, an extremely rare African basil. “I grow lots of mustard greens and lots of kale to feed my goats. Actually, I’m looking for a wholesale contract for kale,” she laughed.
“I grow lots of purple stuff. I like Purple Majesty potatoes, and Magic Mollies – purple fingerling potatoes, and Purple Graffiti cauliflower. I grow lots of heirloom tomatoes, many of which are black and purple.”
Restaurants are also ready markets for the value-added products that O’Herlihy produces. She and the interns who work on her farm make a variety of fermented products, plus elder flower socata (a fizzy elder flower drink), and milkweed cordial. She also delivers maple syrup and sorghum syrup.
“I deliver some product that I buy from my Amish neighbors,” O’Herlihy explained, especially larger quantities of annual vegetables that need more space and mechanization. “I’m not a big fan of row cropping,” she admitted, although she does do some row crops, like mustard greens, radicchio, new potatoes and green beans.
She drives to Milwaukee once a week to deliver to restaurants, a 200-mile trek each way. She is also selling at the Newaulkee Night Market once a month – the next market will be August 13.
Long Arm Farm currently has three interns, all women, plus one toddler, along with O’Herlihy’s three children, ages 15, six, and four. “Our youngest intern is 14 months old,” she laughed.
“I think it’s important to note that the farm is ‘woman-powered,’” she said. “There is a huge contingency of organic farmers out here, and many are women. Agriculture used to be male dominated, but if you look at the numbers, women are now a dramatically rising proportion of organic farmers.
“I think it has to do with scale and sustainability. Women are looking at healthy ways to raise their children and are very conscientious and humane in their practices. People want to support that. There’s a market for things like ethically raised meat.”
Long Arm Farm is also home to lots of animals. Currently, O’Herlihy sells breeding stock. They keep pigs, geese, goats, and chickens. “We also have a draft horse,” O’Herlihy grinned. I’m learning to work with horse power for field work.
The kids are all involved with the work at Long Arm Farm. “My daughter, Oota (age six) was probably most helpful when I built my greenhouse,” O’Herlihy said.
At 15, son Thurman keeps all the small engines running and helps with computer work and marketing. “Although he’d probably rather be in Facebook,” O’Herlihy admits, grinning.
“Lugh (age four) kills pest bugs. Oota loves seeding flats and transplanting – she’s almost as fast as I am.”
The 14-month-old, Ursai, “eats dirt and entertains us. We’ve found a rhythm where there’s a lot of play involved in our work.”
O’Herlihy chose the CSA or RSA model to market her vegetables for economic reasons. In that model the clients pay at the beginning of the season, then receive their food in “shares” throughout the year. This relieves the farmer from having to take out a loan to get the crops in the ground.
“That’s important for me because I’m a mom and I have a mortgage and I’m not particularly credit-worthy,” O’Herlihy explained. “I can’t go the bank every spring for a loan. As a woman farmer, a mom farmer, I couldn’t do it otherwise. I need to know I can feed my kids and pay the mortgage for the year.”
The model also appeals to her because of the level of trust between farmer and client. “Some weeks the shares are a little skimpy, but then mid-July hits, and it makes up for the skimpy weeks.
“The chefs know I’m going to bring them high quality, unusual produce. And frankly, there are a lot of culinary awards out there, and I’m giving them things to work with that are really experimental. It makes their menus more adventuresome and interesting.”
Relationships are what make Long Arm Farm run. For Micaela O’Herlihy and her family, agriculture is more than a living – it’s a life.