Volume One Special Coverage: Pulling Together While Staying Apart

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Raised Organic: Wheatfield Hill Beef

for Durand farm family, good soil and good grass equal great meat

Tom Giffey

If you’ve frequented the Eau Claire Downtown Farmers Market, you’ve undoubtedly seen the Wheatfield Hill Organics display, which typically overflows with a rainbow of beautiful produce, from asparagus to muskmelon, not to mention homemade fruit spreads and toffee. It’s a veritable vegetarian wonderland.

Wheatfield Hill, however, is the birthplace of more than just fabled fruits and veggies. The farm fills carnivorous cravings as well: Since the 1990s, the Kees family has raised a herd of beef cattle. Like the produce, the black Angus cattle are certified organic, a process that entails all-organic feed, access to pasture, and other stringent requirements.

“It’s challenging, but I wouldn’t want to see it any other way,” Chris Kees Winkler says of meeting the organic criteria. “I want to feed your family what I’d want to feed my family.”

Winkler is part of the fourth of the five generations that have worked the fields of the family’s rolling acreage overlooking the Chippewa River near Durand. What began as a dairy farm a century ago evolved into a produce and beef operation that became certified organic in 1997.

“They’re really growing soil and grass more than they’re growing beef.” – Just Local Food meat buyer Nik Novak on Wheatfield Hill Organics

From a herd that ranges in size from 80 to 100 head, the family produces two kinds of beef. Some animals, after they are weaned, are entirely grass fed: They are rotationally grazed in pastures in the summer and fed organic hay in the winter. These grass-fed animals are destined to become lean ground beef.

By contrast, others are grain-finished to produce a different quality of meat. After being weaned at six months of age, these cattle are fed hay, corn, and barley over the winter. The grain, Winkler says, imparts a different flavor and a heavier marbling of fat: “We always say fat equals flavor,” Winkler says.

So how does it compare to other meat on the market? Nik Novak, the meat buyer at Just Local Food Cooperative in Eau Claire, raves that the Wheatfield Hill steaks are the best he’s ever tasted. “You can practically cut it with a spoon,” he says. “It melts in your mouth.”

Novak praises the family's “holistic” system of raising and grazing their animals, which are born on the farm and live their lives eating grass and grain grown there under rigorous organic standards. “They’re really growing soil and grass more than they’re growing beef,” Novak says.

As Winkler explains, “We like to take into consideration the life we provide for those animals we have here. We strive to give them the most humane treatment and conditions and respect, because ultimately we end up taking their life so others can eat.”

Like fat in a well-marbled steak, such considerations are deeply ingrained the entire Wheatfield Hill operation. Winkler’s parents – Helen and Bob Kees – transitioned the farm to certified organic after a conflict with a neighboring potato farm that repeatedly sprayed chemicals on its fields by helicopter. They were relatively early champions of the now-flourishing organic farming movement.

“At first my dad was a little hesitant,” Winkler says, “because to be honest with you, there wasn’t a lot of research, there wasn’t an opportunity for people to get together and brainstorm.” However, they became involved in Wisconsin-based pro-organic groups such as MOSES (the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service) and the Cornucopia Institute (for whom Helen now serves as board president).

Over the years, their operation has continued to grow. The 320-acre home farm includes 100 acres of pasture and 100 acres of cropland. Some cattle are grazed on a relative’s land nearby, while more crops are grown on another 120 acres a few miles away. A few years ago, the family added a kitchen where goodies such as strawberry and raspberry topping, turtles, and toffee can be prepared.

Now that spring is blooming into summer, the produce season is in full swing. As of mid-May, 1,200 pounds of asparagus already had been harvested, and in the coming weeks and months there will be tons (literally!) of rhubarb, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, sweet corn, watermelon, muskmelon, raspberries, blueberries, squash, pumpkins, and more. The produce is available at the Saturday (and, beginning in July, the Wednesday) farmers market in downtown Eau Claire, as well as at farmers markets in Spooner and Hayward and at several stores in the Twin Cities.

In addition to family members – including Chris, husband Andy, children Lucas and Robert, and grandparents Bob and Helen – the farm relies on the labor of local high school and college students during the summer.

The family is passionate about farming as a way of life and a source of life. Helen Kees spoke eloquently on that subject in an interview broadcast in 2014 by the locally produced Wisconsin Public Television program Around the Farm Table: “Literally by bones and my blood, my marrow, my DNA, they’re built from the soil,” she said. “My mother formed me here. I was built here. My very composition is of this soil. I do get emotional.”

Wheatfield Hill Organics, Durand • organic confectionaries, beef, forages, and produce • (888) 255-0491 • wheatfield@nelson-tel.net • Wheatfield Hill Organics on Facebook

Lasker Jewelers
Lasker Jewelers

Pulling Together Partners

The following organizations are currently supporting Volume One’s work in the community during the pandemic:

Lasker Jewelers

L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library, Eau Claire

Downtown Eau Claire Inc DECI

University of Wisconsin Eau Claire

Pablo Group

Wisconsin Independent Network

Middle West Management

Bon Iver

Royal Credit Union

Silver Spring

Evergreen Surgical

Charter Bank

Chippewa Valley Technical College

The Murty Henriksen Family

The Larry and Marie Past Family

The Dan and Kerry Kincaid Family

Anton and Rae Schilling-Smets

Brady and Jeanne Foust

If your organization is interested in supporting Volume One during this difficult time, nick@volumeone.orgcontact us.