Centuries of farming: fair celebrates rural heritage of Walworth County
ELKHORN This year’s drought in Wisconsin isn’t new to Ralph Quinney, a retired banker now living in Ripon, who grew up on the Quinney family farm in Elkhorn.
“I remember going through dry years just like this,” he said. He remembers, too, the dairy farm where he and his brother, Richard, spent their childhood: the Holsteins, chickens, sheep and swine. He remembers the small fields, and his dad’s stories about gypsies camping out in summer nearby along a bend in the road down by a pond.
The Quinney family farm, founded in 1868 by Ralph and Richard Quinney’s great-grandparents, John and Bridget, is one of three Century Farms being honored at the 2012 Walworth County Fair
Also recognized are the Wendt Farm in East Troy, which dates back to 1863—a dairy farm turned crop farm—and the Mitchell Homestead in Delavan, founded in 1842. The farm’s founder, Edward Mitchell was the great-great-great grandfather of its current owner Casey Kelleher, and the well Mitchell had dug in 1843 is still used by Kelleher today.
“When you look at the history of farming over the past century, it is really amazing that there are so many century farms still in existence,” said Peg Reedy, agricultural/agribusiness agent for the University of Wisconsin-Extension of Walworth County. “This year is just one example of some of the trials and tribulations that farmers have endured, from drought to dismal farm commodity prices, and yet they keep up the tradition of farming. We hear so much about corporate farms, but most of our farms are family corporations; they are still owned and operated by family members. I think the values of family, land stewardship and a deep commitment to that type of lifestyle are a pretty powerful draw.”
Reedy noted that while farmland has, for the most part, escaped the real estate bubble over the last five years, she’s seen relatively few parcels of agricultural land for sale in this area.
“Walworth County has a good comprehensive land use plan and its drafters obviously understood the value of keeping farmland around for agricultural use,” she said. “Although it has a higher value for development, I believe that our farmers see a higher non-monetary value in keeping that land in farms.”
“We could have made a profitable sale of the land, but we chose not to,” said Richard Quinney, a retired professor and author who now lives in Madison.
Both brothers maintain ties with the family farm, leasing it out to John Hall, a researcher in the productivity and value of grass-feeding animals, who keeps 20 head of grass-fed beef on the farm.
Additionally, Hall leases 20 acres of the property to subscription farmer Tim Huth, whose organic vegetables and fruit, honey, egg, chickens, beef and pork are sold to LotFotl CSA members, grocery stores and restaurants.
Richard Quinney said the farm’s focus on sustainable agriculture today take it closer to what his family members practiced there all along, back to his great-grandparents, who came to America after fleeing the potato famine in Ireland.
Their story, and the family’s history and genealogy, are told in the recently published, “A Farm in Wisconsin,” written by Richard Quinney. The book is a loving tribute to four generations—both dedicated farmers and family members like Quinney himself, who couldn’t wait to leave the hard chores of the farm, but somehow continued to be drawn back to the land.
For the book, Richard Quinney also spent time photographing a large collection of family items in the farmhouse and barn, from a hay wagon and silo filler to his mother’s canning jars and an emigration trunk that was still in the house.
“If you look at some of Richard Quinney’s photographs,” Reedy said, “you get a unique perspective of someone who was very intimate with the smallest details of the farm he grew up on.”
“I wanted, in a sense,” Richard Quinney said of the photos, “to capture time.”
The three Walworth County Century Farms will be honored at 1:30 p.m. Mon., Sept. 3, at the Park Stage of the Walworth County Fair.