As I drove out to Stolen Acres on a sun-splashed Saturday morning in November, I saw dormancy glitter all along County Trunk Highway N in the township of Pleasant Springs. The town takes pride in its local farming and rural character in an era of industrialized farming and subdivisions.
My journey took me to a 125-acre farm along Kinney Road, across from what was my grandfather Henry Schroeder’s barn, out-buildings and farmhouse. Steve, Dave, and Doug Stolen manage Stolen Acres, Inc., renting their family farm to corn and soybean producers. They won’t sell the place because it’s part of their ancestry and it has more value to them than any amount of money.
Every Saturday morning, a special guest joins them as they do maintenance on equipment and whatever else needs doing. Tom Stolen, now 97, is the patriarch of the Stolen clan. A pioneer in Dane County, Wisconsin soil conservation, Stolen worked closely with the University of Wisconsin to initiate contour strip farming practices designed to reduce soil erosion. Corn, soybeans and wheat had their own strips on the hillside. Stolen recalls that his neighbors “thought I had lost my mind.” Eventually, other farmers adopted at least] some contouring practices. Busloads of visitors from as far away as Japan came to view Stolen’s innovation.
Tom was an Edison when it came to efficiency. Stolen was the first to put a concrete floor in his dairy barn, developing a mechanical loader to scoop animal waste into his manure spreader. He also built an automatic feeding trough that transported ground silage from the silo to the cow barn so all the cows could feed at once. During my visit, Stolen showed me a vice and a horseshoeing tool that he made himself.
Stolen’s advice to farmers is to “keep up with the times.” Yet Pleasant Springs farmers have left a valuable legacy from the past. On other side of the former Schroeder farm is Otis Anderson’s farmstead. Anderson farmed from age 21 to age 85. The Olson brothers of rural Stoughton, Wisconsin rent the 80 acres and grow corn and soybeans. In his heyday, Anderson recalls milking 21 cows, filling eight, 80-pounds milk cans, and sending the load to the Albion milk plant.
Anderson once had 40 sows and hauled a pickup truck of feeder pigs to Johnson Creek, getting $9 for each animal.
The Commitment to Farming
Today, Otis says he has no use for big-time farming. The town’s larger producers, however, remain committed to local farming and Pleasant Springs’ rural character. Jim Skaar has farmed in the area his entire life and has 300 acres in Pleasant Springs alone. Ron Lund owns 1,800 acres in Dane County, but says a 40-acre parcel in Pleasant Springs is one of his better farms because of its rich, dark silt loam soil that historian A. R. Ames wrote about back in 1877. Lund and his brother refuse to sell the 40-acre farm because they don’t want someone to build a house on it.
Big or small, my journey taught me that these farmers have left a two-part legacy. The lifers built their farm community and showed people how to grow local food. The current group, regardless of size, is committed not only to farming but the rural character of the place where they make their living.