A little over two weeks ago, on March 14, we had our first wedding of the year at the farm. It was a sweet little celebration of two very lovely people. We were not only thrilled to celebrate with them, but excited for the start of a new year at the farm. In the weeks before that wedding, we were pretty busy: we hosted a lunch and meeting for Nutrient Ag Solutions, visited Fennimore for their tasting with our ice cream, and made some food for the fireman's banquet.
But then....things got pretty quiet.
Between Friday, March 13 and Monday, March 16, the world shut down and so did our barn. We are closed indefinitely, and we're not sure when things will get back to normal.
Right now, we imagine our state of mind is very similar to many of yours. It's a pretty stressful mixture of fear and uncertainty. We are worried - for the world, for the people who love, and for our own business.
As a small business, we're used to operating with a level of uncertainty - there's really no guarantee and every month can bring something new, good or bad. But barring a major snowstorm or other unexpected problems, there was always previous history to rely on; always a new idea to funnel our energy into; and always the knowledge that people are drawn to the outdoors, to spend time with their families, to live their lives. There was some certainty despite the unpredictability.
But now, things seem completely uncertain. Things have gone very quickly from okay to worse and then to worse still, and as the news continued to show this downward curve of activity and upward curve of disease, we became more and more stressed. Stressed not just for us, but for the countless other businesses that were going to be affected by this nation-wide shutdown.
At some point, we reached a level of acceptance. We took action to make sure that our farm guests who have planned events here are taken care of as best as possible, but we mostly - like the rest of the world - hunkered down. Like many others, we've begun working on that project list, cleaning the shop and reworking our bar/checkout area. Like many others, our daily stops have dwindled to just a few, Kwik Trip and our homes and our work. Like many others, we are concerned for the people in our lives, for their continued health and happiness and prosperity. Like many others, we are taking things day by day.
We're optimistic that things will get better. There are parts of our lives that will never be the same, and this will affect people deeply. It has and will continue to change family dynamics, friendships, and working relationships. It has affected our level of security in crowds and gatherings, not only with strangers but even with the people we love. It has affected the businesses at the hearts of small towns like ours, and we hope the people who run those businesses will come through this. We hope that everyone will come through this.
Today as we write this, we are looking at another month of social distancing, but we are heartened by the passing of a few government stimulus packages. We have been having good conversations with people in our corner and we'll tell you that these conversation are probably the first bit of optimism we've had in the last ten days. Because now, even though we don't like a bailout as much as the next person, we are going to be able to keep our employees paid, we're going to be able to keep current on our bills, and we're going to keep some revenue coming in. We're going to get through this.
We can't go back to early March, but we need to keep money moving through our businesses and we need to keep supporting our businesses and keep our country going. We are excited that these new programs will help keep us afloat, that they'll help keep our awesome employees coming through our doors, and that they'll allow us to keep moving on some of our ideas.
There are things to look forward to: warmer weather and planting, ice cream (we can't WAIT for you to see our new truck), outside projects, happy wedding days, strawberries, and soon, fall season. Our troubles - like so many of your troubles - have not gone away. We don't feel the same excitement we normally feel during this time. We'll have to wait for things to pick up and for that excitement to come back. But we're hopeful. And we're heartened. And we're going to be here when things are brought back to normal.
Take care, everyone. Be well, be safe, be happy.
Many of our early guests remember the old red barn that stood next to where the goat pasture currently is.
Built in the 1920s, the red post-and-beam barn with a stone foundation was the staple barn on the farm when it was a working farm. In the bottom, it had two box stalls for the mules or horses. Next to those were a few stanchions for the milking cows and a little more space for pigs, sheep, or beef cattle. Above the livestock level was an area for loose hay, and a pulley and track system that was used to move and gather hay before hay balers were built. Another little room stored wheat and grain. In that one building was the heart of the farm.
Kyle always wanted to save this barn. It was getting a bit run down - foundation crumbling and wood rotting - and it was low on the project list and kept getting lower as the pumpkin patch and corn maze needed more and more attention and time. But it was a barn full of farm history, and a cool barn to boot, and the restoration of this building never quite left Kyle's mind.
Then the year 2012 rolled around. If you're a farmer, you remember that year. That was the year of the region's last major drought. There was not much - if any - rain. The ground was dry. After we planted the maze, there was a tiny storm, but then not much else fell. The corn was pretty short. The pumpkins were thirsty.
At the end of June, Kyle bought 20,000 feet of drip tape to irrigate the pumpkins, planning for more hot and dry conditions. Then the first storm in about 2 months came through...and it was pretty darn violent.
Around 10 p.m., the winds whipped and the rain fell. There was no real proof of a tornado in the county, but there were incredibly powerful straight-line winds, hail, lightening, and RAIN. A lot of rain, coming in sideways and coming in hard.
The broadside of the old red barn faced the West. Kyle and Bruce, who were standing out on the porch stoop watching the lightening and commenting on the rain, could see the barn from their post. The light on the barn was one of the only bright spots on the farm, except for all the lightening.
While they were out on the porch, Judy yelled from inside the house. Kyle and Bruce raced into the living room to find a branch had broken off a tree in the backyard and tipped in one of their windows, bringing all that rain inside. The window wasn't broken, just displaced, so the three of them wrestled the window back into place, and then Kyle returned to the porch to continue to watch the storm. He saw that the light on the red barn had gone out.
Not very curious initially as the barn light was light-sensitive, Kyle didn't pay much attention during the next couple of lightening flashes. But after a few minutes, he felt there was something, not quite sure, but SOMETHING wrong about his view. The next couple flashes revealed a gaping hole where the massive barn once stood. In the struggle to fix the window and in the cacophony of the storm, the Vespermans hadn't heard a thing, but the barn had come down. All that was left - revealed in the lightening - were a couple of lonely broken beams and a pile of wood and stone.
The storm blew through quickly, and not long after the barn had collapsed, Kyle called his cousin Eric to bring out a spotlight. There were a few sheep, the horses, and some other animals that used the backside of the barn for shelter, and with the power lines down and the electricity out, they needed a hand-held torch to check on the animals.
In the dark, they could see that some of the sheep had been trapped in the collapse, but most of the animals were alive...but frightened. The Vespermans scrambled around in the dark, rearranging fences and creating temporary barriers to keep the surviving animals safe for the night.
In the morning light, the storm's power and destruction revealed itself. Not only was the barn down, but the catapult was flipped, the roof on the white barn had been filleted, and the maze bridge was toppled. On top of a bad summer, this was pretty devastating to an already frustrated Kyle.
But he really didn't have a lot of time to wallow. There was an incredible amount of work to be done.
Some time in the night, Kyle had called his neighbor, Darrell Crapp (he was awake...everyone was at that point), and at 6 a.m., Darrell and a group of guys brought out a bulldozer, some chainsaws, and a positive attitude and began freeing some of the trapped animals (removing them from the property as the heat returned in full force that morning) and moving some of the rubble.
Over the next few weeks, the Vespermans and a group of people slowly dismantled the barn and righted all the damage they could. In a brilliant stroke of foresight - or just because of the family's "save it all" attitude - Kyle salvaged as much as he could from the wreckage, sorting through to keep as many of the planks, beams, posts, and rock he could. Heavy equipment was brought in later to fill in the hole where the barn once stood, dig a new one to bury the concrete foundation, and get rid of all the remaining pieces that couldn't be saved.
Years later, as Kyle was building the new red barn, he was glad he had listened to his inner hoarder. Inside the new red barn, you'll see many pieces of the old: a good part of the siding and paneling, the beams and posts, and all the stonework is from that old building. The arbor we use for weddings came from that old barn's framework. And many of the signs you see around the farm in fall season is from the old barn wood that survived the wreckage.
Although it was a shame that the barn in its originality couldn't be saved, it's great that it can still live on in the new red barn, no longer bearing witness not to livestock and haywork, but to the memories that families and friends make when they visit our farm.
For our very first newsletter, we thought we'd answer the obvious question:
What connects a Ukrainian graphic designer to a small rural Wisconsin farm?
Kelsey has been around the farm for so long, even she's not exactly sure when she transitioned from being a guest to an employee. She thinks maybe it was seven or eight years ago that she started working strawberry season, picking berries for orders; driving people around in golf carts; and weighing buckets of berries, trying to operate the iPad cash register with dirt-covered fingers.
It's funny that she started working strawberry season, because strawberry season is when Kelsey first came to the farm as a guest to pick strawberries with her mom. She still lives three miles down the road in the home she grew up in, and since that inexact hiring date, she hasn't left the farm. But since then, she has done ALL the jobs, short of driving the tractors and supervising the zip line.
For Kelsey, this farm family has a special place in her heart.
"I LOVE THE VESPERMANS. Kyle, Bruce, and Judy are the BEST. They are the definition of hospitable – literally opening up their home to thousands of people throughout the year to make their own memories."
Kelsey has also been Kyle's partner in some of his more creative endeavors, including wrestling Christmas trees into some custom-built tree stands, selling kettle corn at Country on the River for a whole weekend of prime people watching, and helping to coordinate a surprise proposal at the farm!
Her newest title is the secret weapon behind Kyle's Instagram and Facebook posts. She not only "pesters" (in Kyle's words) him to remember to post things to keep our guests updated on farm goings-on, but she is also the secret editor behind the posts. If there's a typo, Kelsey is on it!
Kyle calls Kelsey his "Wikipedia" employee - if it needs fixing, she'll fix it.
For Kyle, it's been really fun to watch Kelsey go from a guest to an employee to a well-loved friend and co-worker. Kelsey, too, has transformed in those years, going from a college kid working summers to an adult with a child of her own.
After years wearing a Vesperman Farms bright yellow (now blue) shirt, green apron, and kitchen hat, Kelsey finally had the opportunity this fall to be a guest to the farm with her then 9-month-old daughter, Fiona. And it was a blast.
"It was so fun to watch my daughter pet the goats, play in the corn pit, and gobble down an apple cider donut. I am so excited that now it’s my turn to make my own family memories at this magical place – just like I’ve watched others do for years."
Kyle doesn't know it yet, but there will be another generation joining his farm family soon. "Fiona's first job will most definitely be scooping Vespermans’ ice cream or endlessly dunking apple cider donuts for six weekends every fall."
Because those cider donut roots run deep in these farm families.
Ah, these two. We really love them. There is still a truism in this world about good people, and this couple and their family and friends are the reason this truth still exists.
To see the beauty of this group of people, we needed to look no further than their dessert table. The absolutely scrumptious cap on a gorgeous and fun day was an absolute haul of homemade pies, baked and brought in by close family members.
After the dinner, the family descended to help us cut and serve all these delicious pies and even though there were enough pies to feed twice the guest list and the variety of flavors was endless (chocolate, lemon, apple...), we could not serve those pies fast enough! And we were so, so happy that we were offered a few slices as well. As Ashley, our venue coordinator, put it: "I'm still thinking about those pies."
Like a homemade pie, there is just something about good people, and we were so happy to be blessed with a slice of this couple's wonderful life. Thank you so much, Brooke and John, for your love, your laughter, and your happiness.
Photos: Kristin Adams Photography
Cake: Poppy Cakes
This has been a random winter month at the farm!
We started off making dozen and dozens of donuts for our Friends of Winskill friends, who then had their pick up at the barn. We then invited our 2020 couples and their families to the barn for our yearly tasting, where all booked couples try everything on our menu, from our appetizers to our ice cream!
We then hosted the annual Chamber banquet where our fearless leader Boss Kyle was awarded "Business Leader of the Year" along with a fantastic group of other business leaders (and educators)! Way to go, everyone!
And we continued to make progress on our ice cream truck, starting by drilling the first hole (and then cutting a big hole) in the side of the truck so we could put in the service window! Pretty soon we're going to be serving up ice cream from that window!
Not as cool but just as important is Kyle scoped out the right spot to put in the big tanks so we can have water in the truck and be completely compliant with food and beverage service rules. We'll take you on a tour of the inside of the truck very soon - it's shaping up very well!
AND on the subject of ice cream, Kyle visited the Lancaster High School technology education shop, where the students are currently making us a bunch of FREE CONE chips that we're excited to hand out to our ice cream enthusiasts. The high school students are pretty excited, too, as once they are finished with this project, they get their very own ice cream party!
We unveiled our ice cream desserts, tested out at both the Chamber event and our tasting, which includes a delicious cider donut sundae, which of course is something I'm going to be eating all the time. We'll talk more on that later - I'll be doing a full tour of our ice cream in the next couple of months!
Lastly, we hired an intern, Bridget from UW-Platteville (you'll hear more about her later), made some improvements to the barn by having Judy sew some drapery to cover the barn doors, and - oh, yeah - Kyle got a hair cut.
There are a lot of iconic images at the farm: the big corncobs on the side of the corn box, the welcome sign above the ticket window, the "Picking Pumpkins" face-in-the-hole sign, the rocking horse. And the cows - those big Holsteins are a fall season staple. If you've been to the farm, you probably recognize these signs and animals, but you might not know the face behind them.
That face is Shea, sign painter and caramel apple artist.
Shea's painting began with an off-hand comment to Kyle from - of all people - her mom. While at the farm, Shea's mom mentioned that Shea was a great face painter. Shea said, well...I don't like face painting much, but I DO like to just paint. And few weeks and conversations later, Shea's painting career at Vesperman Farms began with a friendly little strawberry guy for berry season...and hasn't stopped since.
For the next couple of years, Shea added a lot of personality to the farm. She laughed, "I spent a couple winters with no furniture in my dining room and a dozen huge signs that I was working on during the offseason."
Like so many of our workers, though, Shea's talents run far past painting. She began working on the farm in 2014, manning the admission booth and snack counter on Sundays. Since then, she has added to her repertoire, learning to make all our fall season treats, working the pumpkin checkout, and helping out during our holiday breakfasts.
But Shea's absolute favorite job at the farm is making our caramel apples, which she is the hands-down champion. There's a lot of finesse that goes into making the perfect apple, but after making what has amounted to thousands of these treats over the years, Shea is a pro.
Shea has been around the farm for years and has witnessed a lot of growth and change since she first stepped into the admission booth. As she helped out more and more, she was witness to the year-round work and dedication of Kyle and his family and workers to create a fall season experience for our farm guests. She has always enjoyed being a part of people's fun days and helping them to make memories at the farm.
Although we don't see Shea as much as we'd like to now, she is still making the farm a better place. Her living room has more furniture now, but the signs are still there, getting a much-needed hand from much-loved farm artist.
We were super excited to learn that Kyle was named Business Leader of the Year by the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce! He was honored in February at the annual Chamber banquet, held right at the farm. And even though Kyle whipped up some delicious cider donut sundaes for the event, we still got some cake to celebrate this great boss!
Congratulations, Kyle! We're super proud of all you're doing and really excited and happy to be a part of it all!
Some days when I walk into the barn, it's in full wedding make-up, beautiful and floral and gorgeous. Other days it's an explosion of fall: pumpkins, happy families, and the smell of donuts. And then there are other days, when I walk in the barn to see a tractor parked there, or a truck, or giant piles of torn-apart equipment.
The constantly changing landscape of the barn was the inspiration for us to add a new "monthly round-up" about the farm to the blog. Because every month - every day, really - there is something new going on, and while these things aren't always the most Instagram-able things we do, they are always interesting and always in service of bringing you a better experience here at the farm.
We're a little last posting our January wrap-up because, to be honest, these first months of 2020 have gotten away from us. But in the month of January, we've been busy making a mess out of the barn.
The first project on Kyle's 2020 maintenance agenda was to refurbish the wagons on the kiddie train. We built the original green wagons back in 2015 and then built the red ones in 2016. The green ones - being our first experiment with a wagon build - weren't as strongly constructed as the red ones and they've needed quite a bit of upkeep and maintenance throughout the years.
So the first thing I walked into when I came back from a little Christmas break was wagons piled high all over the barn and the VERY strong smell of paint. Kyle and Q, one of our favorite multipurpose guys, rebuilt all the green wagon frames and replaced wheels and other parts so they matched the construction of the red ones, which have been virtually maintenance-free since they were built. Then they all got a new coat of paint and were sent out of the barn, all ready for next fall.
Next on Kyle's list for maintenance are the big pumpkin patch wagons, which means that the next time we have a few weeks with nothing scheduled, I might be working from home!
But the thing that has been taking most of Kyle's energy and time has been ice cream. A few months ago, Kyle bought an old cable repair truck and we here at the farm were...confused. But much like the barn itself and in true Kyle form, the vision he sees that has us all scratching our heads at first is becoming a reality...and a cool one at that because this funky vehicle is going to become our new ice cream truck!
He's been gutting the truck, has ordered and received the new window (which we almost tripped over), ordered essential tanks and equipment, talked about rewiring, and has been chatting with the State about the licensing requirements. Add to that installing back-up cameras and other safety equipment, working with a designer to spruce up the outside, and working with a welder to fix it up to our requirements, and you can see why this month has flew by!
Right now, the truck still doesn't look like much, but quite a lot of the time-intensive work is almost behind us, and we hope that the remaining parts will come together quickly and we'll have our truck up and running in a month or six weeks. And we can't wait to bring you more stories about ice cream, which we will feature a lot here on the blog in the next months as we get more going on with our new fun farm treat - and it's new fun farm wheels.
Fifteen years ago, Kyle was a high school student, planting pumpkins and toting them to his grandmother's yard to sell, sometimes by himself and sometimes with his mom and dad, Judy and Bruce.
And a few days ago, while we were reflecting on the last few years since building the barn, the thing Kyle kept coming back to is how much his role in his business has changed in those fifteen years, and how many people have gathered around him during that time, including and especially his fantastic staff.
After the initial years, the fall season moved to the farm, and then it was Kyle, Bruce, and Judy all the time. There originally was just one counter, which Judy worked, and where you would pay for admission, get sodas or water or pre-packaged candy from a cooler, and get your corn maze maps. If you wanted to go out to the patch, Bruce would drive you. And Kyle would be there for anything else anyone needed.
As Kyle started to add more things and the crowds got bigger, Kyle and his parents couldn't do it all any longer. It was then that he hired another person to help at the counter, and the next year another, and then after a few years and adding food, five or ten more people joined the farm crew.
But in those early years on those busy weekend days, some staff would work LONG days, sometimes 12-14 hours. Kyle remembers clearly an employee who worked a long shift on Saturday, and then Sunday - without him asking - she came in early to help restock from the day before and worked a full day after that. After that weekend, Kyle realized that more staff was needed!
Today at the farm, we have a few year-round employees and almost 60 seasonal employees. We have high school kids and retirees and an amazing variety of people and we learn something from each and every one of them. Sometimes the farm is a person's first-ever job; other times they've been working their whole lives and are looking for something to keep them busy in retirement. Most of our employees have full-time jobs themselves and lend us their time at nights and on weekends. No matter their situation, every person at the farm brings something new and different and interesting to our table.
All this has come with its challenges and growth. All of us, including Kyle, have learned to communicate better. There have been pretty massive changes in how Kyle does things. Everything now has more structure and more organization. Even though people still cross train in almost everything, there are more defined roles and schedules. There is a lot less chaos...well, SOME less chaos in some ways!
More importantly than the growing pains are the amazing things that these employees have brought to the farm. Every day and every fall season, Kyle is humbled at how his staff makes things happen. His employees show up and do any kind of work he asks them to do and they stay late if they are needed to complete the job or task. They care about the farm and they care about our guests and they make our days a lot of fun.
This great team of people who enjoy the farm, are committed to taking care of guests, and are invested in people having a great time at the farm. Everyone at the farm takes care of our farm guests in the way that Kyle and his mom and dad envisioned they would be cared for, something that Kyle is always grateful for.
In the next few months, we'll continue to feature our awesome staff on this blog, because some of the most fun we have is giving credit back to these great people who have come together to make all this happen.
Fun on the farm...in blog form!