Garden Gone Wild

In Conversation with Landis Spickerman

Landis and Steven Spickerman own and operate Hermit Creek Farm in Highbridge, Wisconsin and have been providing local vegetables to the northwoods for almost a quarter of a century. Their farm, a collage of hoop houses and open field surrounded by national forest, has become a rich and fertile plot after decades of careful stewardship. A few weeks ago, Landis baked us rhubarb pie and answered our questions about washing carrots and putting down roots. What follows is our edited conversation from that day.

Can you tell us a little more about how you got here and how you got into the work that you’re doing?

I kind of married into northern Wisconsin. I grew up near the Gulf Coast and wanted a big piece of water to live nearby, and for a lot of reasons you can’t live by an ocean and farm. But Lake Superior, you could. I was fascinated by it. We set out to homestead, and live a simple life and grow all our own food, but one thing led to another and really, we joke it always comes down to a garden gone wild – we just couldn’t help ourselves. We didn’t set out to farm; we set out to live simply. We homeschooled, we chopped firewood, we built our house, we wanted to grow our food and that’s what we set out to do and it just seemed really natural. Our passion turned into an occupation. We bought our land in 1989, and we lived in a tent for the first two-and-a-half years, then built this house, moved into it in the fall of 1992, started selling vegetables in 1993. So this will be the 24th year.

It is such a huge opportunity to get wedded to a piece of land and see it change both by your hand and by other forces.

I think when you start out you don’t particularly see that. I was in my twenties. I just knew I wanted to put roots down, but I didn’t really know what that looked like. Where I grew up, we weren’t born into farming families that have second or third generations in a house or on a piece of land. So we never really knew what that felt like. I think now our goal is, wouldn’t that be cool to have second and third generations still living on this piece of land and still farming it somehow. It’s a long time, and it seems really short too.

Any advice for a twenty-something looking to put down roots?

Wow, that’s a hard question. It always comes down to following your passion. I really think that’s what you gotta do. Don’t fret if your goals and your paths change, because I think if you’re following your passion it’ll be the right occupation or right place to live, or whatever, and I think that’s the better value to focus on. It’s important to stay true to yourselves.

I can totally relate to my parents, who were like “what!?  You want to wash carrots?” But it just seemed right to me. I haven’t necessarily succeeded with a bank account, but I feel so successful because I have other values that I believe are important. I think it just came down to, we just knew what felt right. Those little choices, they kind of lead to big picture choices.

Since you’ve moved here and got to know the community and found your place in it, how has the lake affected all that, or what sort of piece has the lake played in that?

The lake is the foundation. I feel like that’s always what brought everybody here. I feel like everybody has come because of the lake. I can’t even explain it. It’s like a foundation and it doesn’t change, it’s always there. For me particularly it's knowing that I live near really clean water. As a farmer, you live and die by the need or lack of water. Yeah, I think that’s probably it. It’s a great reminder. There’s nothing better when you’re driving south on Highway 13 on deliveries and you get your first glimpse of the bay, you’re just reminded. More specifically, the lake affects our weather for growing things. We’re in the snowbelt because of the lake, and we’re up above the lake so a lot of times we'll catch certain storms that have crossed the lake. So it has really affected our farming, specifically besides figuratively.

Are there downsides to living on the lake that you felt like you’ve dealt with personally, or in a community sense, or farming?

I can think of one, and it’s not really a downside but it is something that you have to work with. We had a consultant come to our farm as we were building our farm bigger, and he asked us about our community size, and it was Ashland which is a town of 8,000. When you draw a circle around our farm there’s the national forest and there’s the lake. If you lived down in Minneapolis you could go, oh I have all these customers. And like I said, it’s not really a problem because I would never choose differently. There will never be a million people here because there’s the National Forest and the lake, and that’s good. That’s good for me. But as far as a business goes I have a limited customer base, so I grow my customers deeper. Hopefully I will help them eat more of my food as their daily diet than rather have a lot of people eat a little bit of food.

What are the threats you see facing Lake Superior right now?

There are a lot of current threats to Lake Superior right now, especially in our neck of the woods. We have CAFOs and we have mining, we have encroachment by development in general, and it seems like we’ll have to just battle it out. There’s no plan to save it for posterity or even to discuss what we want to do with this, it just seems like a given that we can pollute it and always have clean fresh water to drink. It’s kind of sad.

After twenty-four years of growing and selling, how has the land and the community changed?

I feel like the community has gotten more educated in health and eating, and part joke part truth, but people know what kale is. People know how to eat differently, and it’s not just meat and potatoes. I’ve really watched, especially with CSA now in its 24th year, and I’m starting to see the kids that are now adults, and the grandkids are starting to eat vegetables. And I see this quite often, kids won’t eat anybody else’s carrots. They know what a good carrot tastes like, what health is, and they demand it. And that demand helps every new farm too, because you have a reason to grow. You’re actually making a difference in those family’s lives. And I think that there probably always were people that ate really well, but because there are more small farms in the community and we all know each other and we all help each other, there’s sort of a network. And social media really helps with that. For instance, I never see Chris Duke because we’re both in the field, but I can Facebook him, and so there is a strong connection. Even though the rest of the world feels like it’s heading in a different direction, there’s a vibrant food community here.

In the past five years I felt like I got to see a lot of changes, for instance the cafeteria on Northland's campus sourcing more local foods, it seems like a lot of change in a short amount of time.

I feel the same. Things like the Co-op’s expansion, or that most of the restaurants in town have some ingredient that’s sourced locally or regionally, or least or are conscious that they need to source good food. The next step is to get seasonal eating. The gap for us is, for example, local tomatoes have a short window, but there’s a plethora of food the rest of the year that we can grow and provide. So I see much potential too, there’s still room to grow and change, and to build upon that desire. The first step is already done. People want local food and see the importance [of it]. Now if we can get seasonal eating, that’d be great.

Do you feel like you’ve been an agent of change?

In a little way, for sure. I think a good example is just my neighbor here. The farming that happens around here is very conventional farming. I think being out here and they can see us farming, and they can see us growing things and getting results, they’re exposed at least to a different way of farming. I think there’s a myth that [with organic] you can’t fight weeds or you can’t grow things, or you can’t make money doing that. The conventional farmers can see that organic works because they can see us accomplishing it. And maybe that’s how you can change people, just being the good example. I don’t have expectations that I can change the world, but if I can just set a good example… I think of the ripple effect. You just shift it one way or the other and I prefer to shift it positively and who knows where that will go.  

Double Exposure from a film exchange with Mae Lynn.