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Serving: WI
Kristina Beunig, owner of Sunbow farm near Eau Claire, Wisconsin, posing next to carrots on her vegetable farm
GROWING PASSION: Kristina Beunig owns and operates Sunbow Farm. She has been growing vegetables for more than 15 years.

Self-taught farmer trades academia for vegetables

Kristina Beunig operates a CSA farm with 100 members near Eau Claire, Wis.

Unlikely farmer Kristina Beunig left academia to operate a 60-acre Community Supported Agriculture farm where she raises “every vegetable that you can grow in this latitude except corn.”

Sweet corn, she explains, can’t be grown organically, and while she no longer keeps up organic certification, she says, “I follow all the rules.”

Learning by doing

“I did not grow up on a farm,” Beunig notes. “I had never farmed. We bought the farm as an investment.”

However, the farm, located near Eau Claire, Wis., came with eight 2,000-square-foot greenhouses and several high tunnels fashioned from used garage door panels and straw.

“Oh, gosh,” she recalls thinking. “What can I do with all this?”

With a master’s degree in teaching biology and a doctorate in plant ecology, Beunig was on the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire faculty at the time. She did some research and turned to farming. That was more than 15 years ago. She started small with a 25-member CSA. After four years, she resigned the UW-Eau Claire professorship to become a full-time farmer. She grew to 150 CSA members, but has settled on 100 members as her ideal size.

“There’s no grow, grow, grow [for the business],” Beunig says. “I like to get my hands in dirt. That’s what I like. That’s what I want to do and still have time to run the business.”

She’s returned to the UW-Eau Claire staff as part-time greenhouse manager but does admit to missing teaching, the classroom and the camaraderie of classmates.

Some of her agronomic knowledge came from her academic background. “It’s very interdisciplinary,” Beunig explains. She taught environmental science and related material at the college level in several states. Mostly, though, she’s self-taught, helped by networking and a close friend who’s a trained herbalist.

Beunig specializes in herbs, growing, drying and packaging 50 different herbs, along with the 75 fresh fruits and vegetables available to her CSA members. Almost exclusively, the CSA group is her customer base now, along with some wholesale store sales and through her website, sunbowfarm.com. There are 10 different member options, including pick-your-own. She also offers grow-your-own consulting.

A cheerful, intelligent and outgoing woman, Beunig sold for a while at the Eau Claire Farmers Market but found it too labor intensive and wasteful. “I hate waste,” she says.

Self-taught skills

Beunig keeps 100 free-range laying hens and five beehives to pollinate her crops. Again, both are self-taught skills. She harvests from March through December. She starts some herbs in January and does her planning in January and February. By May, she will be heavily into planting and harvesting and getting her hands into dirt.

An aerial view of Sunbow Farm
CSA FARM: Sunbow Farm is a 60-acre Community Supported Agriculture farm near Eau Claire, Wis.

Acutely aware of costs, Beunig works by herself over winter, brings in three 25-hour-a-week helpers from mid-April through Labor Day, and hires other seasonal workers as needed.

She raised lambs for a time but doesn’t anymore, and converted the former sheep pasture into a Fraser fir Christmas tree plantation.

A lot of time and effort goes into improving her farm’s soil. She adds compost and does a lot of soil testing, raising organic matter content from less than 1% to 2.5%, and sometimes 3.5%.

The hardest thing about her operation, Beunig says, is not growing the food but marketing it. “The business end was really hard for me,” she says. “You need a brand, a logo. When I started, I really struggled with that.”

The farm name, though, came easily. On an early visit to the farm, she watched “a gorgeous sunset” in the west and turned east to see a double rainbow. Sunbow Farm, she decided, had more appeal than Rainbow Farm.

Buchholz lives in Fond du Lac, Wis.

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