Interview with a Farmer: Peg Sheaffer, Sandhill Family Farms

Peg Sandhill

 For over fifteen years, Sandhill Family Farms, along with partnering family farms, have been serving as many as 475 CSA members in the Chicagoland area, supplying them with organic vegetables, fruit, eggs, dairy and meats. 

While located on two farms, one in Brodhead, Wisconsin, and the other in Grayslake, Illinois, the award-winning Sandhill Family Farms creates member share boxes that are consistently full of certified organic, high quality produce.  At the helm, is co-owner Peg Sheaffer, who works alongside her farmer-husband Matt on their Brodhead farm, along with farmers Jen and Jeff Miller who steward the operations in Grayslake.  Together, they turn out a dizzying array of over 150 different cultivars of vegetables over the eight-month growing season. 

We took a walk with Peg Sheaffer as she checked on her flock of St. Croix sheep to learn more about her and her farming operations. Her farm will be featured on the  SOIL SISTERS: Tour of Farm on August 2, 2015.  She’ll also be teaching a SOIL SISTERS: Green Acres Workshop on raising chickens on August 1.

Your operations encompass two farms, thus your name, Sandhill Family Farms.  How can you be in two places at once? 

One of the goals behind buying a second farm was actually be in fewer places at once. Over the years our farm operation has grown tremendously in size and complexity, and a number of years ago I started to feel like I was being pulled in too many different directions. When we bought the farm in Wisconsin, we partnered with another couple, Jen and Jeff Miller, to take over the day-to-day responsibilities of our Illinois farm. Because of the amazing team we’ve created, I feel more sane now than I did when we had only one farm!

Why do you call your farm Sandhill?  What drew you to plant roots in Wisconsin?

Our farm is named for the majestic Sandhill Crane, of course! We love birds, and we have lots of birds on the farm, both wild and domestic. At the moment our domestic birds include chickens, ducks and geese. 

With your CSA, you offer vegetable, egg, dairy, meat and fruit shares.  How do you pull this off and still have a smile on your face, raise three kids with your husband and perform in the local theatre?

Ha! Sounds like you need to ask me that question during lambing season when lack of sleep can make me pretty loopy. In all seriousness, the only way I pull any of this off is because of our awesome team. I work really hard to be a good boss and a good business partner because I know that whatever effort I put into that will come back to me tenfold. 

Speaking of your passion for performance, what’s your most interesting role you’ve played?

I’ve never played a role that I didn’t think was interesting, but one of my favorites was the role of Jane Austin in an adaptation of Emma. I even named one of my sheep Jane Austin. She came to the farm at the same time as Nancy Drew, Tasha Tudor and Trixie Belden.

What’s your leading role in your farming operations?

My farm role has evolved over the years. At the moment I handle bookkeeping and accounting as well as some of the more creative stuff like writing the weekly newsletter for our CSA members. I’m also the primary shepherd. I love my animals!

The creative arts play an important part of your life.  When did this start?  How does keeping active in the arts today contribute to your farming life?  Are you still taking ceramics?  How is that going?

I’ve been a theater geek since I was a kid. Farming gives me the flexibility to pursue my artistic interests, especially in the winter. That’s when I tend to be most involved in theater. Pottery was fun for a while, but it seems to have fallen by the wayside. I guess I didn’t really need another excuse to get my hands muddy. Growing vegetables gives me opportunity enough!  

What’s your favorite vegetable or fruit – and what’s your favorite way to savor it at mealtime?  Is there a special way you like to prepare it?

Many vegetable farmers, myself included, tend to love foods that can be enjoyed without much cooking. Maybe it’s because we’re so darn busy during the growing season. A slice of red pepper, a handful a snap peas, an ear of sweet corn. Throw in a wedge of Wisconsin cheese and a hunk of good bread and I’m in heaven!

Is there anything you love to eat that you don’t already grow on the farm or get from other farmer-friends?

Hmmm. Let’s see…there’s chocolate and almonds and avocados and coffee. Lots and lots of coffee. Sounds like I need to make some farm friends abroad, doesn’t it?

What’s the biggest perk of being a female farmer?

You mean besides all the incredible food? It’s the ability to do things every day that appeal to all facets of my personality. I guess it’s the whole right-brain, left-brain thing. I get to do work that is physically demanding, intellectually challenging, and artistically stimulating. It’s really the best job in the world.

Favorite season and why:

Honestly, they’re all my favorite. Spring for the promise of new beginnings, summer for the satisfaction of hard work, fall for savoring the rewards of a job well done, and winter for reading books and drinking red wine! 

Who do you revere?

Pretty much every woman farmer I’ve ever met.

What keeps you up at night?

Most nights nothing keeps me up. My family will tell you that it’s a challenge to keep me awake past 8 o’clock.

Ideal way to wind down the day in the middle of a busy growing season?

Bonfire in the backyard with my kids and my husband. 

Any “best advice” for farmers and/or for life?

When we were just starting out, an experienced farmer told me that if I wanted to farm I was going to have to give it my all. He told me to farm as if my life depended on it. I think about that a lot because it’s the best piece of advice I ever got.

Another SOIL SISTER, Lindsey Morris Carpenter, got her start and mentored under you.  What piece of advice did you give her back then?  How does it feel to see her so successful with her farming operation today?

The same piece of advice that was given to me — you’ve got to farm like your life depends on it. Lindsey is one of the hardest working farmers I know, but she also knows how to have a good time and to enjoy what she’s created. I’m really proud of her.

One thing you couldn’t live without?

My kids, my husband and peanut butter. I know that’s five things, but I don’t think I can choose just one of them. 

We know collaboration with other farms is an important value for you, like the Riemer Family Farm providing the meat for your CSA meat share.  How does partnering up like this achieve more than each farm striking out on its own?  Are there any “fringe” benefits, too, with this kind of partnership?

The fringe benefit to working closely with other farmers is the camaraderie that develops. The relationship we have with the Riemers, for example, is so special because we talk about everything with them, including our farming successes and challenges. Sometimes Jen Riemer and I will be talking about some not-so-glamorous aspect of our farming lives, like playing midwife to a laboring cow or ewe for example, and I will be struck mid-sentence by how grateful I am to have a friend who understands the challenges ­-- and the rewards -- of farm life. It’s a great feeling. 


Lisa Kivirist and John Ivanko are co-authors of Homemade for Sale, Farmstead Chef, ECOpreneuring and Rural Renaissance.  They also operate Inn Serendipity, completely powered by the wind and sun.