For years, Ross and Brigid Ferkett dreamed of living off the land.
“Before we even got married, homesteading, growing our own food, living in the country were things we really wanted,” she said.
And from the time Brigid was a child, she had an idea where she wanted to do just that.
“I knew I was going to move to Waupaca when I grew up,” she said.
This past winter, the couple moved from Pittsburgh to rural Waupaca with their three children – 8-year-old Leila, 5-year-old Fisher and 3-year-old Elsa.
They did so to start a family farm called Gravel Road Farm.
Brigid was about 2 years old when her parents, Gene and Mary Pat Nielsen, bought 40 acres of property on Gravel Road in the town of Lind.
He was born and raised in the city of Waupaca. One of 13 children, he, like many of his siblings joined the military after graduating from high school.
Eventually, he ended up in the Chicago suburbs. He and Mary Pat met at Argonne National Laboratory, where they both worked.
The couple bought 40 acres in Lind after a childhood friend of Nielsen’s was buying property in Lind.
“The same person had this 40. The friend wasn’t interested in the 40,” Brigid said. “He asked my dad if he was.”
During visits to Waupaca to vist family members, the Nielsens always went to the land, too.
“My parents did think eventually they would come up here, retire, maybe build a cottage,” Brigid said. “They would call it the farm.”
Brigid got a taste of life in the country and never forgot it.
Off to Northland
After graduating from high school, Brigid headed to northern Wisconsin to attend Northland College.
“When it was time for college, I knew I wanted to go somewhere in Wisconsin. A family friend was at Northland. I visited,” she said. “It was great. I didn’t even apply anywhere else.”
Ross was a senior in college, when he recevied a mailing from Northland College.
“I wanted to go somewhere where no one knew me,” he said.
The Pittsburgh native found that at the college, and he and Brigid met freshmen year working in the college’s admission ofice.
Brigid majored in outdoor education, and after two years at Northland, Ross transferred to John Brown University, in Siloam Springs, Ark.
“I wasn’t really settled on a major,” he said.
At John Brown University, he studied construction management, and after graduating, returned to Pittsburgh and working in construction management and green building.
Following the formula
Ross and Brigid wrote letters to each other after he transferred from Northland College, and she, too, found a job in Pittsburgh, eventually getting her dream job when she became an educator at the Pittsburgh Zoo.
They were married in 1999.
“We were following the formula – jobs, marriage, a house, a dog, kids,” she said.
They soon began to think about whether they wanted the suburban life or what Brigid calls “this other thing.”
Ross did not enjoy being in an office all day, and in 2007, became the manager of one of the first organic farms in Pennsylvania.
That happened after he posted a comment on the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture’s website, saying he was interested in farming.
Within an hour, they got a call at their house saying there was an opening for a farm manager at the organic farm.
On a cold Saturday in January, Ross met with the farmer.
“It all worked out. I gave notice. It was a big pay cut. No benefits. She was a stay-at-home mom. We had one child at the time,” Ross said.
They were nervous.
“It was a big jump for us. He paid a very fair wage,” Brigid said of the farmer.
Ross said, “We had to be very frugal, but it was enough to get by. That is what we wanted, and he wanted someone who would stay more than a year and learn.”
A model for farming
At the Community Supported Agriculture farm, which had about 1,000 members, Ross learned the business.
A CSA is an arrangement between a farmer and households. People support the farm by paying an annual fee, and that entitles them to a share of the harvest.
After Ross began working at the farm, Brigid same an immediate change in him.
“He was happier,” she said. “We started eating a lot more organic produce.”
The couple began reading about food after their daughter Leila was born.
“We look to take what he learned from that model and do that here,” Brigid said. “We plan to do that (CSA) here next year after we establish a customer base.”
Last July, the Ferketts were back in Waupaca for a family reunion. By then, they had begun to seriously think about moving here.
“We were scouting out if it would work,” Ross said.
They were walking the 40 acres when a neighbor approached them to make sure everything was all right.
“We told him we were taking about starting our own organic farm,” Brigid said. “We said maybe we would build a house, a small green building on the 40. The neighbor said, ‘You don’t have to build. See that house over there? I own it. I rent it out. You don’t have to rent it. I’d sell it to you.”
The neighbor was Fred Forseth, and Brigid said he liked the idea of what the couple intended with the land.
Back in Pittsburgh, the couple put their house on the market in September. It sold in about 30 days – to someone who wanted to have a small, organic garden in its backyard.
The idea of living Pittsburgh was a difficult one for them.
Brigid describes it as an “up and coming” city with lots of young people, new ideas, universities and museums.
And, Ross’s family lives there.
For a time, they considered starting a farm in western Pennsylvania, but with mineral rights an issue in the state, they did not want to take the risk.
On to Wisconsin
Brigid had always told her parents to never sell their 40 acres in Wisconsin. They transferred the property to Ross and Brigid, and on Dec. 17, the Ferketts closed on their house in Pittsburgh.
Within days of arriving in Waupaca, they opened a bank account and got library cards.
Rental space had already been found, as there was yet no agreement to purchase the house across the road from their land.
In January, they walked through the old farmhouse, and they closed on it on Feb. 1.
Several days before that, Brigid began working part time in the Children’s Department at the Waupaca Area Public Library.
In February, they began buying seeds for their farm.
“Everything is organically grown,” Brigid said. “No pesticides. We have four hives of honeybees on the farm and are hoping to expand.”
Their 40 acres of land includes wetlands and woods.
Ross says about 25 of the acres are tillable.
In their first year of farming, they are using four to five acres.
“This year, we’ve grown a lot of crops that are dependable, because it’s our first year,” Brigid said.
The produce on the farm includes potatos, sweet potatoes, winter squash, cucumbers, melons, zucchini, pumpkins, tomatoes, lettuce, beets, carrots, peppers, radishes, broccoli, onions, cabbage, turnips and herbs.
They sell their produce at the Waupaca Farmers Market on Saturdays and at the Menasha Fresh Market on Thursdays. Brigid says to also start looking for them at Waupaca’s Wednesday afternoon market.
They are looking to get wholesale accounts with local restaurants. Their future plans include adding berries, offering educational programs and classes for children and adults, possibly having chickens and employing young people who are also interested in learning about farming.
They also hope to pick your own fruit and vegetables some day.
Check out their website at www.gravelroadfarm.com and contact them at 715-281-0812.
Brigid said their farm is not a hobby.
“It’s a real business, the way we want to earn a living,” she said. “We know a lot about growing things. We know what we are doing.”
Ross said they have a more balanced life.
Their days are broken up between work and family time.
“This feels exactly where we’re supposed to be. Everyone has been so supportive,” Brigid said. “I’m confident everything is going to work out for us.”