Aug 25, 2016Skelly’s Farm Market adapts to retail agriculture
A traditional Midwestern farm that raised 350 acres of field crops and milked 50 cows a day has successfully converted to a small vegetable growing and farm market business over the past 26 years.
Skelly’s Farm Market in Janesville, Wisconsin, emerged from the Skelly family’s farming involvement in the area since the mid-1800s.
“In 1988, a big drought hit the Midwest,” said Scott Skelly, who runs the farm with his wife, Laura; older brother Joe and his wife, Jen; and their parents, Tom and Cheryl. “In 1989, they planted four rows of sweet corn around our house so we could water it and have fresh sweet corn to eat. Those four rows produced more corn than was needed, so a sign was put out in front of our house on Hayner Road (a rural road southwest of Janesville), and corn was sold to neighbors driving by for one dollar for a dozen ears.”
There has not been a cow on the Skelly farm since 2000, and efforts have shifted to production of more than 100 acres of fresh produce, retailed at the Hayner Road farm market and at several stands throughout the area.
The farm’s produce effort accelerated in the mid-1990s, when other vegetables were added and pumpkins soon followed. The first corn maze was cut in 1998, and a new building was added in 1999, moving the business out of the garage.
Strawberry beds were added in 2002, to get an earlier start on the season. In 2006, the farm and first store had outgrown their location next to the family home. Renovations were complete by 2006, when the former dairy barn built in the 1930s became Skelly’s Farm Market. It now hosts a large sales and gift area, a big commercial kitchen, indoor bathrooms, offices and a large porch, while still preserving the original barn.
“In 2006, when my brother was out of college, we were growing strawberries and made a full commitment from being conventional farmers to fruit and vegetable farmers,” Scott said. “It’s been a good change, despite having some challenges.”
Sweet corn takes up most of the farm’s 100 production acres, with 20 acres of pumpkins and some strawberries, melons and small acreages of tomatoes, zucchini, cucumbers, green beans and peppers.
Scott said there are five greenhouses down the road from the main property, tomatoes under hoop houses and in the field.
“We started using grafted tomatoes a couple of years ago. After having grown on the same soil in greenhouses for many years, we were starting to get diseases and other challenges. Grafted tomatoes revitalized the yield.”
The hoop houses also are used to start melon and cucumber plants from seed before they are transplanted into the field.
“This year, we started grafting our own (tomato) plants,” he said. “We’ve had a 75 or 80 percent success rate and have some things to improve. We’ve had pretty good success. Joe is the farmer, so if Joe wasn’t around we might not be farming.”
Grafting is aided by the use of a former produce cooler as a resting chamber for the plants to ensure a temperature-controlled environment.
“It’s a way to continue to get good quality tomatoes, particularly with the length of time folks are growing in the ground on the same spot.”
Finding a passion
Laura and Scott married in 2012. Laura had been around the farm, but attended college to become a meteorologist. Instead of a life of moving around the country chasing a career tracking the weather, she and Scott remained on the farm.
“In between finishing grad school and working here during the summer off, I thought this would be kind of fun to do,” she said.
Laura still monitors weather conditions to help the business, “but the toughest crowd to work for is a bunch of farmers. If I tell them it’s going to rain, and it doesn’t rain at the right time, they aren’t very happy.”
Laura oversees the bakery, a busy endeavor that takes advantage of the farm’s crops with homemade products. Donuts and turnovers are popular selections.
An attractive feature for visitors is the interactive wagon tours.
“The audio tracks the story of Farmer Jack, which is a scarecrow,” Scott said. “The route splits off at different parts, and times up with the story. People on the ride have to decide what Jack does next, and vote with hand motions. It’s interactive, so you have all the kids and parents doing silly things on the wagon. We’ve created our own app, and it does all the audio so the driver isn’t distracted. It’s tied into GPS.
“It’s very interactive, fully automated with sound, music – it’s like a mini Disney World ride. We wrote a whole new story for it this year. It’s pretty cool – something different. People get a wristband and can go as many times as they want on different rides. If anybody can figure it out and replicate it, more power to them.”
Much of Skelly’s summer products are sold at eight farm stands in the area, including two in Illinois. Two stands are offered during strawberry season. Sweet corn, melon and pumpkin sales are supplemented with other produce items – those produced on the Skelly farm and those brought in from other areas.
“Our summer income comes from the stands,” Scott said. “It gives you more outlets and sales opportunities.”
Eight trucks are loaded daily for trips to the farm stands. Sweet corn picking crews complete their task in the field early in the morning. They then are used to help load the trucks from products stored in a cooling shed.
Scott said all of the labor is local, many coming in for morning work after a third shift at other businesses. Several workers have been working part-time during the season for many years.
When fall hits, the operation loses 75 percent of its employees, many of whom are in high school.
“We’re really unique here because it’s not a fruit and vegetable area like Michigan, as far as labor is concerned,” Scott said. “Everything is by word of mouth, because there is not a lot of fruit and vegetable farms in the area.”
The Skellys are not immune from labor challenges, particularly in a retail environment.
“We’re really fortunate we don’t have the labor issues some farms have. It’s still a continual challenge.”
“There are a lot of opportunities for us in the retail business,” Scott said. “I give a lot of credit to people who do wholesale. We enjoy building a business around a brand. It’s harder to have direct contact with people in wholesaling. We get to see the smiles on faces when they’re here and enjoying it.”
— Gary Pullano, associate editor