Hack Farm, generations of farmers

September 2, 2012

By Sheila Julson

Thomas “Ray” and Gail Hack on their 128-acre farm, as much-needed raindrops sprinkled the fields.

Gail Hack gazed toward the 128 acres of lush fields that make up Hack Farm in Union Grove, Wis.

She clutched her two year-old granddaughter Malaya’s hand. “She’s the fifth generation of farmers,” Hack said, and readjusted the toddler’s pigtails.

Thomas “Ray” Hack, Gail’s husband, is a third-generation farmer, running the business his grandfather started. Ray and Gail run the farm full-time. Gail was a secretary until she married Ray 31 years ago, and she has been farming ever since.

The couple has three children, all of whom are involved with farm operations. Their son Jason, an English teacher, was recently laid off from the Kenosha school district. He often helps at the family’s South Shore Farmers Market stand. Their other children, Nick and Mia, also help part-time.

Hack Farm sells eggs. Chickens roam about the farm, scratch at the ground, and peck at tomatoes and corncobs left out for their dining pleasure. The vivid plumage of the jungle fowl stood out as they mingled with their domestic cousins. “There’s not a big profit [in eggs],” Ray said. “Chickens are a lot of work.”

Instead, the farm’s main focus is the big array of vegetables grown on 128 tillable acres: eggplant, tomatoes, squash, beets, radishes, pepper varieties (green, yellow, red, jalapeño and other chile peppers), pickles, cucumbers, cabbage, kale, cantaloupe, and watermelon. They also grow sweet corn, soybeans, and winter wheat.

Jungle fowl rooster strutting his stuff.

The Hacks have colorful jungle fowl, like this handsome beast, along with their domestic chicken species.

The Hacks mostly sell in the retail market but they have some wholesale customers. Gail said much of the wholesale business was lost with the downfall of the old Commission Row on Broadway St. in Milwaukee’s Third Ward, when that neighborhood’s makeover and revitalization began in the 1990s. Vendors in Commission Row had been Hack’s customers for decades, she said.

Their retail outlets today include farmers markets at Union Grove, Greendale, Hales Corners, Racine, and South Milwaukee. This summer is their first season at the South Shore Farmers Market. Ray said they will be there again next year.

Ray and Gail store beets, onions, and squash to sell at winter markets, including the market at St. Ann Center in Bay View. The farm will offer a corn roast this year at the renowned St. Martin’s Fair in Franklin, Wis. on Labor Day weekend. They do not sell to any restaurants, but have discussed the possibility of setting up a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture).

Zucchini, cucumbers, and squash growing on a section of the 128-acre farm.

Concerning farming’s greatest challenges, with no hesitation, Gail and Ray both exclaimed, “The weather!” The mild, dry winter and lack of snow in 2012, combined with record-breaking heat waves and little rain, created a farmer’s nightmare. Ray said that climate change and unpredictable weather has made growing difficult over the years.

“It’s scary,” said Gail. “We need snow this winter. People have commented on what a nice winter we had, but it wasn’t. The water table is low.”

Ray said the past winter and summer made for a bad season for their leek and onion crops. “They went to seed,” Ray said, adding that their squash will be late this year.

The farm currently employs no greenhouses or hoop houses. The Hacks must be creative to keep crops in good condition when challenging weather arises, using strategies like covering young plants with quart baskets if a late spring frost hits, then removing the baskets promptly the next day to prevent overheating.

The Hacks said that they use no insecticides, pesticides, or fertilizers. Ray said one advantage of this arid summer was that it kept the pests at bay. Gail added that in the past they have occasionally sprayed cabbage, but not this year.

Ray puts in 12-hour days during the market season. As for what he does during winter…

“As little as possible,” he joked. Kidding aside, he said there are miscellaneous projects and things to fix.

As Ray gazed across his fields, he noted that there are fewer family farms now than in the past. “We’re dinosaurs now,” he said. Acknowledging that it may be more difficult now for young farmers to start up, he was quick to tout the rewards of farming. “The best thing about farming is being your own boss.”

Gail agrees. “Nobody’s on your back.” Customer interaction at farmers markets is a plus, she said. “

She shared a story of how, when she and Ray were on vacation, she was recognized by a couple as “the corn lady.”

We love the people,” Gail said. “They’re nice, and appreciative. The customers become your friends.”

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