Walworth County, WI – Early last week, 14 grade school students from the Four Winds Waldorf School outside of Chicago visited Turducken Farms in Walworth County, Wisconsin, for three days of agricultural and naturalist education. I was supposed to join them, tag along, get an eyewitness account of the learning that goes on here, but it rained the day of my scheduled visit. Then, the day after, I became lost when my GPS went bonkers and my calls to the farm went unanswered. By the time I turned onto the farm’s half-mile driveway, the kids were long gone.
It was approaching evening when I finally caught up with Nathan Chappell, proprietor of Turducken Farms, an upstart farm that launched earlier this year in southeastern Wisconsin. Chappell, 34, was preparing to lay new hay in the chicken coop when I rolled up. “Sorry you couldn’t make it earlier,” he says, rake in hand. “I think the kids had a really good time out here.”
It’s hard to imagine anyone not having a fine time on this 260-acre slice of rolling paradise, with its prairies, forests, hiking trails, campfire ring, two creek-fed fishing ponds full of bass and blue gill, the deer and wild turkeys, open sky and solitude. For Chappell, the land is the launch pad for his longstanding culinary ambition – to open a catering business that serves mostly food he himself raises.
It’s the next junction along an already long road for Chappell, whose interest in food began in his teens. In the late 1990s, he owned a food cart on the UW-Madison campus, which he sold before attending the French Culinary Institute in New York City. From there he worked in an organic bakery, until becoming the research and development chef for the Michael Field’s Agricultural Institute. Now, he juggles several farm and catering gigs while building up Turducken Farms’ name.
Since moving onto the property in January, Chappell has acquired several chickens and ducks, the farm’s first generation of animals. In the coming months he’ll add to this stock, bringing in more chickens, and possibly a hog, turkeys and a goat or two. The garden he’s begun will also expand.
Chappell has a knack for ideas and trend spotting. Something that fascinates him immensely is feeding livestock specialty diets to produce uniquely flavored meats. It’s a European idea that hasn’t quite caught on here in America. “You might eat three different animals a day and they’re all fed on corn,” he explains. “Different feeds influence the flavor of the meat. The American palate is used to pork and beef tasting a certain way. There’s a big difference in taste between grass-fed and corn-fed meats. It’s a taste that might be acquired.”
While his catering endeavors take shape, Chappell, and his business partner, Dori Sorenson, have begun hosting a variety of educational tours for students grade school through college age. Already, Chappell has hosted several college tours, where students, among other hands-on activities, learn to harvest a chicken from coop to plate. And his culinary field training is a part of Robert Morris University’s master’s program.
During the visit from the Waldorf students – Turducken’s first grade school age tour – Chappell and Sorenson led a variety of naturalist activities – identifying insects, birds, plants, fish, etc – as well as taking students on tours of nearby poultry and organic vegetable farms and a fish hatchery.
“For the kids, and most people, I think, it’s eye-opening to discover where the food they eat comes from,” he explains. “It’s a foreign thing to a lot of people because everything is done behind closed doors. It changes how you think about food.”
After cleaning out the chicken coop, which he built earlier this spring, Chappell and I, accompanied by Lucy, an excitable Blue Heeler, stroll around the property. Starting a farm is fraught with uncertainty, he says, which is why he’s focusing on educational programs. “Farming is hard work and the money isn’t always great,” he says. “It’ll be a big part of what we do here, but it won’t be the only thing.”
Eventually, he envisions Turducken Farms providing colleges, foodies and farmers with culinary tours and artisan-cooking courses. A massive fire pit on the property, Chappell later points out, is where he’s honing the live-fire cooking skills he’ll one day offer a course in. Chappell wants Turducken Farms to become a destination place where people from all walks of life can come to learn about raising, prepping and cooking fresh food.
And if starting a farm weren’t difficult enough, the fact that Chappell rents rather than owns the property on which he’s building his enterprise presents another layer of risk. I ask if he worries about losing the property after expending considerable time and labor in achieving his vision. It’s an unlikely scenario, but a possibility nonetheless.
Several minutes pass before Chappell answers.
“I have thought about that,” he says. “You know, I feel like I could die any day. Nothing is guaranteed, not tomorrow, not even the rest of today. Doing this – and it is going to be a lot of work – but even if something happens, it’s one of those things I’d always regret not having done. That alone makes it worth it.”
For more information on Turducken Farms, visit www.farmfreshenterprises.com.