Four friends, one dream

Fresh produce is on display at a pop-up market hosted at the Commercial Avenue storefront Avrom Farm purchased earlier this year. submitted photo

by Joe Schulz

When restaurants closed in March for dine-in service to slow the spread of COVID-19, Avrom Farm lost all of its restaurant accounts almost overnight. 

At the same time, all of the winter farmers markets in the area were canceled due to the pandemic, further impacting the farm’s cashflow. 

“When the farmers markets shut their doors, it was terrifying because that along with restaurant sales is really how we get through winter,” owner Hayden Holbert said.

To compensate for the lost revenue, Avrom Farm launched an online store to offer its product catalog, along with a selection of products from other local farms. 

The online store took off as the farmers markets and restaurants that did business with Avrom Farm began sharing the store with their followers on social media.

The farm began delivering locally grown produce anywhere and everywhere, but primarily to Milwaukee and Chicago. 

“It caught on instantly and it overwhelmed us for several months with the influx of orders,” Holbert said.

Digital sales quickly began to exceed the farm’s capacity, at W0908 Scott Hill Rd. in Ripon, so Holbert and his business partners — Andy Sotter, Lydia Nye and Sara Abolt — purchased a warehouse and retail space at 601 Commercial Ave., in Green Lake.

“With this space, we’re actually able to have some breathing room and focus on doing a really good job of bringing people amazing food,” Holbert said.

The group plans to convert the property into the Avrom Farm Store, a brick-and-mortar local grocery and garden store that will open next year. 

“Being young people, we all have time and energy, but no money,” Sotter said. “Being able to come at this together … and to impact the broader community is something we strive for.”

In the meantime, Avrom Farm is hosting pop-up markets at the retail space each Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., offering meats, produce, dry goods, dairy, eggs and more.

Holbert noted the purpose of the storefront and pop-up market is to engage with the local community.

“We want to bring people to a space and really show them how we raise food and how these other farms raise food,” he said. “We also want to make this an event space, and we’re going to have a big garden in the back with seating for farm-to-table dinners.”

In addition to selling food and hosting events, the storefront also would serve as a garden store, carrying seedlings, organic potting mix and fertilizer. 

Holbert hopes the space can become a place where the community can learn about organic farming and the benefits of sustainable agriculture practices. 

“We’re really trying to connect food production to food consumption, where you can walk outside and see kale growing and then buy it in our store,” Holbert said. “And then you can buy a kale seedling and put it in your garden at home.”

Holbert describes Avrom Farm’s style of farming as “regenerative agriculture,” which requires “using the ecosystem services of livestock to benefit vegetable production.”

Avrom Farm owner Hayden Holbert walks past a tractor on the property. Holbert holds a degree in sustainable agriculture from Warren Wilson College. Joe Schulz photo

“We’re using each enterprise on the farm to reduce the inputs that we use and to increase biodiversity on the farm,” he said. “We make our own compost using a manure and straw mixture that gets spread across our fields and supplies the nutrients for a large portion of our vegetables.”

To fill the storefront with locally grown produce, Avrom Farm is looking to partner with other local farmers. 

Partners won’t be required to be certified organic farmers, but the farm will choose partners based on their practices and prices.

“We’re looking for sustainable agriculture practices, but we’re also concerned about food access and part of food access is the price of food,” Holbert said. “It’s kind of a balance between what things provide concrete benefits to the environment and animal welfare, and what things don’t necessarily do that but make food more expensive.”

While Avrom Farm’s restaurant sales have picked back up and its online store continues to exceed expectations, Holbert noted the farm’s broader goal is to create a farm system that operates on an even larger scale. 

“We want to continue growing to produce an amount of food that makes a significant impact in our regional food economy,” he said. “By doing that and scaling up, we’re able to give opportunities to people that want to farm but do not necessarily have access to everything that’s involved in starting a farm.”