Josh Engel can recall the moment he knew he wanted to live and farm in the Driftless Region of Wisconsin where he was born and raised. He’d been away for a while, travelling, and was returning home to Soldiers Grove after driving through an endless brown expanse.
“It was the most magical thing, after sitting on I-90 you drop into the Mississippi River Valley and you’re just like, ‘Whoa,’” Josh said.
The Driftless Region of southwest Wisconsin where Josh and his brother Noah Engel started Driftless Organics with their friend Mike Lind in 2006 is characterized by a rolling landscape with bluffs and valleys. In the summer the land is impossibly green, and it’s here where they tend the earth on a patchwork of three small farms growing, as Josh puts it, “everything we can.”
There are a multitude of caves, underground streams and cold springs. Near Josh’s house an old-fashioned bathtub collects clear water gushing from the side of the earth. Nearby hang two drinking cups.
“That’s called Bathtub Spring,” Josh said, pointing it out as he drove by in his pickup truck, a fresh-picked morel mushroom on the dashboard.
The region is so named because it wasn’t impacted by the movement of glaciers, and therefore is without the sediment, or “drift,” the vast sheets of prehistoric ice left behind in the areas to the north and east of it. Thus the region is “driftless.”
Like any place, there are downsides to living here. A hard rain can easily turn into a flash flood, and the winters can be harsh.
“But it’s a beautiful area that’s quiet and fun,” Josh said. Noah is 28, Josh is 30 and Mike is 34, and in the summer Josh said they spend their hours when not working biking the country roads or canoeing the many creeks. “Nowhere else has more water than this area,” he said.
On its website, the guys describe the Driftless Region as home to “organic pioneers, musicians, back-to-the-landers, farmers, entrepreneurs, artists and conservationists.” And it’s here, among them that all three of the young men wanted to put down roots—to live and work and play.
“We’ve kind of been in cahoots for awhile,” Noah said of his partnership with his brother.
The Engel brothers started farming early in life. Josh was 11 and Noah was 9 in 1994 when they began setting up at farmers’ markets selling the organic potatoes they grew in their parents’ backyard. They called the business Rainbow Potatoes because they offered so many varieties of spuds.
“It was just kind of a summer project,” Josh said. “We had to help our dad out a lot around the farm, too.”
The Engel brothers grew up on their parent’s dairy farm—one of the first certified organic dairy farms in the country–and they learned a lot about farming by working it. But the potatoes were always his and his brother’s business, and their parents allowed them to keep the money they made from it.
“That would be a great picture, us at the farmer’s market at that age,” Josh said. “But I don’t think we have one.”
What began as less than half an acre of potatoes when they were boys has grown into a thriving small business with more than 100 acres of vegetables, fruits, grains and sunflowers all of which are grown within a few miles of the home where Noah and Josh were born. Their parents recently sold off most of their dairy cattle because their other careers—their mother is a veterinarian and their father certifies organic crops—were commanding most of their attention.