The Whole Hog Project: Meet the farmers, part two | Bleader

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The Whole Hog Project: Meet the farmers, part two

Posted By on 07.17.07 at 10:55 AM

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When we left Mark Kessenich and Linda Derrickson at the end of part one, it was 1981 and he had just volunteered at her co-op in Madison. Even with Mark's help the little store was a lot of work, so after two years Linda started looking for a business partner. After an article appeared about the co-op appeared in the Isthmus titled "Holistic Twinkies," a friend of the author's expressed interest. Rena Gelman worked in the store for a month before deciding it wasn't for her, but meanwhile she'd noticed a little cafe for sale in downtown Madison and asked Linda if she'd be interested in going in on that. Linda wasn't looking to get into the restaurant business, but when she got a look the place she fell in love.

"Edith Piaf was playing in the background and there were all these professors and grad students sitting at tables," she says. "And I heard like three different foreign languages. I said, 'Oh my gosh yes. I want to do this.'"

Linda sold the co-op, and under the women's ownership the Sunprint Cafe served desserts, salads and pita sandwiches made from scratch, and coffee drinks made on what she thinks was Madison's first espresso machine. "Our hummus recipe is still famous in Madison," she says. The year before they took over, the place had posted a $10,000 profit. After their first year, the figure was $60,000. "In 1984 that was handsome for two women," Linda says. She and Gelman became business sensations, making the covers of several magazines and winning business awards. In 1987 they opened a second place in a larger space in a strip mall on the edge of campus, planning to host art shows, live music, and fund raisers for politicians and causes. "On opening day there were lines out the door and on day two we knew it was too small," she says.

By 1990 Mark and Linda were a couple, divorced from their respective spouses. Linda and Gelman, meanwhile, had begun to grow apart, and in early 1992 they dissolved their partnership. Linda took over over sole ownership of the new restaurant, renaming it Sunporch, and Gelman took the cafe.

Inspired by Alice Waters, Linda had taken an keen interest in growing food for the restaurant, and would "garden by lamplight" when she got home from work. In 1994 she and Mark expanded their growing operation, selling their Madison home and buying a place in the country near Mt. Horeb with a “rambling farmhouse” and an operating restaurant. "The idea was that we were going to grow food out there for that restaurant and also for Sunporch in Madison," Linda says. "We didn't have animals at that time." 

Sunporch continued to thrive. "I would haul in boatloads of fresh produce and flowers to put on all the tables," Linda says. "Every entree and dessert that went out had fresh flowers on it." But she had trouble keeping the new place staffed, and its local following of old folks didn't like the changes they made, like replacing the premade frozen lasagna with things like elk steaks, wild boar, and pheasant. “They called us the Roadkill Cafe. They were very disappointed we weren't opening the same cans of soups that were there before.”

They took another step toward full-time farming in 1995, purchasing their first heritage chickens. Jacob sheep followed in '97 and Scottish Highland cattle in '98. Linda says they chose heritage breeds because they didn't have a barn and needed animals that could survive outside with minimal shelter. 

In 2000 some adjoining property came up for sale, a Prairie-style limestone house. They sold Sunporch, bought the house, and opened a B & B they called the Othala Valley Inn (still in operation under different owners), which they ran for two and half years before realizing their hearts were more with their crops and animals than with the doctors, lawyers, and professionals they were hosting. “We said running a B & B and farming at the same time is too much for two people and we'd rather be farmers,” says Linda.  

Next: Linda and Mark go all the way back to the land.

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