by Cecilia LaFrance
On the first Saturday of May, a steady stream of visitors get a closer look into Kristen DeWitt Schmitz and Luke Schmitz’ backyard, aka Skål Farm. Open House, a monthly event advertised on a handmade sign facing the heavy-trafficked commercial district on Colfax Avenue, attracts people of all ages, families, couples, and the lone curious. All are welcome to wander and linger in the life of a goat farm.
Some guests step cautiously, trying to keep flip-flop sandal feet on thin strips of hay thrown down over dirt and farm byproduct. Others head eagerly toward the nearest pen of goats, skirting a fire pit where a chicken kicks up a cloud of ash in its dirt bath. A young helper may remember her job and offer newcomers a tour. This month’s highlight is Birthday Cake, a kid goat, which ends up in the arms of many guests before running back to its mamma.
Kristen, the woman often seen working the farm on the other days of the week, gladly answers questions beyond her young tour guide’s knowledge. Educating others about permaculture, as much as can be expected in a short visit, is the inspiration behind her and her husband’s business. All the components work for each other, she explains–zones for vegetables and herbs, poop for fertilizer, vegetation for goat feed, and waste recycled into compost. The open house carries another purpose. “People get more of an idea that these food animals are kind of more like pets than dumb creatures,” says Kristen. Indeed, across the yard, an older man leans over a fence studying a group of goats.
While other urban property owners strive to sod and landscape every square foot of a large plot, Kristen and Luke keep their acre resembling a country setting from a less technical era. Fences prove practical rather than decorative. Chairs clash in era and design. An old sofa under a portico of an outbuilding is the choice for a sit and chat. Water hoses run hodgepodge throughout the pens. Nothing is automated, set to a timer, or run by a smart app. When one of the guests inquires if the farm has a webpage, Kristen explains that computers aren’t her thing. Kristen created a Facebook Page for the farm years ago, but it falls last in the priority of chores. “I’m not great on the computer, and this is a lot of work. Once I’m done, I go to bed.”
Remarkably, guests appear be detached from technology, too. Besides the occasional photo, eyes of children and adults light around the active farm rather than turn down into smart phones. Even the whine of motorcycles gunning through a yellow traffic light beyond the agricultural fence becomes muted by the farm’s stimulus of other senses. Young children act like unleashed puppies and chase chickens through dirt and droppings. Grownups stroll and make sense of the separated pens, note oddities of horn curling on goats, or stick arms through fencing to learn through touch, too.
Simple, Not Easy
Kristen appears at ease on a Saturday. Yet, the body of the 38-year-old mother bears evidence of long work hours. A fresh sunburn spreads out from her nose. Her lean frame holds the tone of a younger athlete. Soil hides under a fingernail. And, the painted toenails of her feet endearingly contrast with working calluses tucked into sandals.
Farming wasn’t something Kristen envisioned for herself when younger. “I wanted to be a veterinarian or a Cherokee Indian.” Raised in Madison, WI, the daughter of a University of Wisconsin law professor, Kristen’s childhood home was lakeside in a ritzy neighborhood, she says, “nothing like this.” But, her father taught her to live up to principles. Pressed for more specifics, Kristen’s aqua eyes squint. “I think we’re all lucky to be on the earth.”
“We take care of ourselves and practice what we preach,” Kristen says. She looks out at the 35 goats, 47 chickens, garden plots, and structures in need of repair. Treating animals humanely, raising and eating nutritious food, and advocating for awareness of the real cost of its production are principles Kristen puts to practice. The farm’s name, Norwegian for “cheers to health,” aligns with the value. She caters to others like her concerned for their health by selling natural eggs, cheese and goat milk shares.
The private tours she offers to daycares and schools, along with leasing animals for goat yoga, make more money than the produce sales, though. As a teacher, Kristen passes on lessons industry and factory farms removed from common practice. Ironically, her struggle lies in the teaching she loves. “People aren’t used to it. The do not understand why it costs so much.” A dozen eggs, sold on the honor system from a refrigerator at the front of the house, costs $6.00, news to make one open house visitor’s eyes widen. Magazines, too, Kristen says, paint an idyllic view of farm life. In real time at Skål Farm, goats outnumber the current number of visitors and the chores outlast the daylight hours.
A Farm Family
Kristen and Luke’s two-year-old daughter naps inside. But, other children flock to Kristen as if she were home base before jaunting off to find eggs or other amusement. A group of Kristen and Luke’s friends hang out by the back of the house, drink beer, and socialize while their children roam. One of the girls sits next to Kristen and asks about the crocheted scarf she made her. Kristen adjusts the yellow strand around her neck and compliments the soft material. In a few minutes, a pair of girls race to the Kristen’s ear to whisper an urgent message. Kristen listens and pragmatically explains that the blood discharge from the mother goat is a natural afterbirth effect and not a period.
More people arrive while others head back to their domesticated homes. The crowd varies, Kristen says, depending on weather and time of year. Undeniably, though, the occasion provides a chance to learn and gain appreciation for the animals. Among misconceptions about milk production and mistaking goats for dogs, Kristen also sees the wonder of youth who’ve never been out of the city.
“Most of my jobs, I had to compromise something, and I get to make the decisions here.” Fundamentally, the farmer role keeps her connected to her core values and provides the upbringing she wants for her daughter, to be the strongest she can be.