The Pedretti Family Farm
If you had to choose just one word to sum up Fred Pedretti’s farm life, “tradition” would be an obvious choice. His 360 acres stand at the top of a gear-grinding switchback road that climbs up out of the Mississippi River valley in southwestern Wisconsin. The road is a paved highway, but there were Pedrettis farming up here when it was a gravel road, and even earlier, when it was a narrow horse track.
Fred and his son Jason are the fourth and fifth generations to work this land. “One of the proudest moments of my life,” Fred says, “was when we were doing crop work one day. I looked across, and there was my dad working a contour up the hill and then down below me was my son on his tractor.”
It was Fred’s great grandmother Adelaide Pedretti who started the farm after her husband was killed hauling cordwood in 1869. She made do—took in sewing, sold butter—all from a tiny pioneer cabin that once stood on the land. “She told stories about bears and wolves outside the door,” Fred says. Her sons (Fred’s grandfather and great uncles) bought land near the cabin and started farming. In turn, Fred’s father Joe bought the farm from them.
When Fred was 12 years old, his older brother David left home to join the Air Force. As the oldest boy left on his dad’s full-scale milking operation, “I grew up in a hurry,” he remembers. But he also took to the work, and before too many years had passed, he became the fourth generation to take over the helm. Later, Fred’s son Jason was still a toddler when Grandpa Joe started introducing him as the fifth generation to run the family farm.
By then, however, the economics of farming had altered. For Fred, the story of his father’s seed company illustrates the change. For years, Joe Pedretti had sold seed to other farmers in the region. His relationship was so personal, it got so he knew their orders by heart. But as the seed industry consolidated, Joe’s supplier was bought and sold more than once, and his new bosses demanded changes. First came contracts and computers. Next, the company refused to advance credit to his customers—the neighbors and friends he’d known and trusted for years. “Everything got too big, and the face-to-face, farmer-to-farmer culture died,” he says.
And so it was with the farm. Generations of the Pedretti clan had managed to make a living from milking cows and selling the product of their labors in local and regional markets. By the time Fred took on the farm in the 1970s, agricultural practice and economy was increasingly mechanized and chemicalized, and a spiral of higher costs and lower pay prices were driving many farms out of business.
Fred held on through the hard times, but in 1996, when his children were grown, he sold off his herd. “One of the main reasons we sold was that the kids were too dedicated to the farm,” he explains. “After they graduated high school, they still came home every weekend to help with the cows.” He worried about what kind of economic future his son Jason would face if he took over the farm in the future. “We were hesitant to have him jump in with both feet at a young age. The markets were going in the wrong direction.”
Like a lot of farmers who care about rural farm traditions, Fred Pedretti turned to organic farming as a way to sustain those traditions. Organic farmers are held to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) standards that prohibit the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, artificial hormones, or genetically modified seed.
A few decades ago, chemicals were seen as a boon, boosting yields and making farming easier. There was little perception that the chemicals which killed problem weeds could have negative effects as well.. Fred remembers watching his father use his bare arm to mix a batch of Atrazine, a now-regulated herbicide that has been linked to a number of health problems. Back then, the sales rep told his family that the chemical “was so safe you could drink it.”
Nowadays, farmers are starting to see the long-term effects of chemical applications. “You’d see the earthworms dying off and disappearing,” says Pedretti, who started growing organic crops in 1999, and added organic beef cattle in 2002. “It doesn’t take much to stop and think, ‘Why would I want to kill off all the earthworms in my land?’”
Raising cows on pasture and crops without chemical sprays is better for the entire system. Cows stay healthier. The water stays cleaner. And the earthworms come back.
The organic standards are designed to protect the integrity of organic production, and promote practices that are sustainable for the land the crops are grown on, for the health and enjoyment of the food consumer, and for the environment of the entire planet.
Above and beyond the USDA organic standards is an entire philosophy of decentralized, family-sustaining, person-to-person farming that appeals to folks like Fred Pedretti who remember how their grandfathers ran their farms.
Organic Valley, the nation’s largest organic farmer’s cooperative, is structured to support farmers and help them reach consumers who share their values. At Organic Valley, farmers set their own prices to ensure a living wage for farming families.
For Fred, that means he can welcome generations five and six back to the home spread. His son Jason recently moved back onto the farm with his wife and four children. He and Fred are working side by side raising organic crops and beef cattle, which they sell through the cooperative under the Organic Prairie brand.
“Jason made a lot more in construction than he would in farming,” Fred notes, “and the hours are longer on the farm.” Still, it was an easy decision: For a chance to raise his own children on this storied patch of land, Jason was willing to give up a lot.
In addition to supplying Organic Prairie meats, the Pedrettis are able to sell beef directly to consumers. His customers come to him by word of mouth—and stay for the taste. One customer ran short on Pedretti farm hamburger and thought she could sneak some from the grocery store into a meatloaf. Her four-year-old could taste the difference.
Now that Jason has returned to the farm, Fred Pedretti is once again working side-by-side with three generations on the land. His grandchildren come running out to the barn whenever they get a chance, and they love to ride along on the John Deere or work at shoveling manure. Soon enough, Fred hopes, they’ll take up their share of work as young adults, and then sustain the farm through another generation.
Fred’s eight brothers and sisters, who went off to various places to earn a living, enjoy the opportunity to come back and visit the home farm with their own kids. “They all tell me how lucky I am to be living this life,” he says, “and I have to say I agree with them. I grew up here, and I was smart enough to stay here.”