FB Laureate Kellie Zahn helps create farming program for Native American community

CLINTONVILLE, Wisconsin – Growing up on a farm often involves making strong connections with the animals and the land. For some that means staying on the farm, while others find a route to a career in agriculture off the farm.

Kellie Zahn continued to help her family on the Waupaca County multigenerational dairy farm while building a successful agricultural career off the farm.

She received the Wisconsin Farm Bureau’s Young Farmer and Farmer Award for Excellence in Agriculture at the organization’s 102nd annual meeting in early December.

The award is presented to a Farm Bureau member between the ages of 18 and 35 who is actively engaged in farming but derives the majority of his income from a non-farm farming career. The winner is selected based on their knowledge of agriculture, leadership in the Farm Bureau and other civic organizations.

“This competition shines a light on people who have made a positive impact on Wisconsin agriculture, the Farm Bureau and their communities while motivating others to do the same,” said WFBF President Kevin Krentz. “Kellie is a tremendous agricultural advocate and member of the Farm Bureau.”

Zahn has been a member of the Farm Bureau since 2012 and is a member of the board of directors and president of YFA for the Shawano County Farm Bureau. “I love to help build this network of young farmers within the community,” she noted.

Zahn will attend the American Farm Bureau Federation’s annual convention in Atlanta, Georgia in January and receive $ 1,500 from GROWMARK, Inc.

Passion for agriculture

The youngest daughter of Douglas and Mary Behnke, she graduated with a Bachelor of Agricultural Commerce from UW-River Falls and worked as an agronomist for a local cooperative. Five years ago, Zahn became the agricultural agent for the Stockbridge-Munsee Native American community.

On a recent Saturday morning, Zahn took a break from grinding corn on the farm to share with Wisconsin State Farmer the details of his work as a farm officer and his involvement in a variety of other activities, including working with the youth of his church.

Growing up on the farm, her first love was animals. “I started to feed the calves, and when I was 9 years old I would bring the cows to the barn for milking and stall cleaning,” she recalls. “Animals were my first passion and I still really enjoy working with them.

She never seriously considered a career outside of farming. “I knew it was my passion. Now I find it such a gift to be able to grow food for people, ”she admitted. “Being able to use the skills and gifts I have to grow food for people is something that I find very rewarding. “

Zahn was looking for new challenges – something with a little more flexibility so she could spend more time on the farm – when the position within the Stockbridge-Munsee community became available.

Building a department

“It was a whole new job for an agricultural officer,” she said. “It all started with two points as part of a strategic plan that included the tribe’s interest in investing in agriculture. When I started, there wasn’t really a job description – maybe a half-page to-do list.

The Stockbridge-Munsee reserve includes a checkerboard pattern over two townships in western Shawano County. “The tribe has a population of approximately 1,600 members, of which 600 to 700 members live on the reserve. Some members live nearby and others live across the United States, ”she said.

The position and its functions have evolved over the past five years.

“It’s really fun to be able to create an agriculture department. Right now we have six fenced acres and we grow vegetables on two acres. We grow cover crops on the rest to slowly build up the sandy soil and expand the areas where we can grow vegetables, ”she said. “We also have four community gardens that I manage. “

One of the things Zahn has been working on for the past two years is bringing native cultures back to the community.

“Some tribes have a very strong history of seeds that have been passed down from generation to generation, but that was really not the case here,” she said. “There wasn’t really a huge traditional seed bank in this community, so I worked with tribal members who are really interested in growing indigenous foods. I’m working to find some of these seeds and bring them back to the community.

As an agricultural officer for the Stockbridge-Munsee community, Kellie Zahn controls the fall corn harvest.

Two seasonal high tunnels serve as three-season greenhouses for the community. “In one of them, we had tomatoes and cucumbers that grew until November. We also grew lettuce and spinach in another, ”Zahn explained.

While the focus is on native corn, beans and squash, the main products this year were cucumbers, watermelons, tomatoes and beans. “This year we harvested over 9,000 pounds of product,” she said.

Learn and share

Zahn strives to help community members learn more about planting and growing crops.

“I try to have between 15 and 20 classes each year that focus on starting plants and caring for the plants while they are indoors, as well as information on planting and growing techniques. “, she explained. “We really try to communicate with people, whether they are growing a few tomato plants on their porch or whether they have large gardens. We try to make sure we have something for everyone.

Zahn also offers beekeeping classes and food preservation classes. “We’re just trying to cover a variety of areas to connect with all members of the community,” she stressed.

Seed saving is also part of his work with community gardens.

“We have a few different varieties of blue corn and white corn, and we have to separate them so that they don’t pollinate,” she said. “We also need to separate our beans and squash, and we have them in our other community garden plots, so that we can save the seeds from those and share them with community members.”

Much of Zahn’s job during the winter is preparing grant applications for various community projects.

“Right now we are working on the infrastructure around the farm,” she said. “We were able to dig a well this year and have a washing and packing facility on site to take better care of the vegetables.

“We received a grant last fall to build a retail space so that we could have more than one food distribution center. We have a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program serving about 55 families who were given a box or two of vegetables each week during the summer, and I brought it all back to my office, so it will be good to have a building near the garden.

She also works on creating frozen dishes and mixes so that food is more easily accessible for everyone in the community.

Ryan and Kellie Zahn, left, are joined by his parents, Doug and Mary Behnke, at their dairy farm in Waupaca County.

Future on the farm

Although Zahn plans to continue as an agricultural officer with the Stockbridge-Munsee community for the next three years or more, she and her husband, Ryan, are striving to become owners of her family’s farm.

“We got married in 2012 and Ryan has been working full time with my parents since 2015, and I help on weekends and during the summer with harvesting and scouting crops,” she said. “We have been seriously discussing the transition of farm ownership over the past three years and in early December we formally formed an LLC with my parents to operate the farm.

“Over the next few years Ryan and I will be slowly working on buying the farm, moving on to the next generation, as my parents consider retiring,” she said.

Zahn admitted that the prospect of owning a home can be daunting. “The farm is so much bigger than when my parents bought it, but they really want to see the farm succeed and are working with us to make sure we can have a smooth transition. Ryan and I are thrilled with this opportunity.


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