By Jennifer Bradley | Photography by Holly Leitner
For a man who never set foot on a farm until he was 19, Chaz Self says falling in love with organic agriculture may seem like an unlikely path, but it’s one that has proven to be the perfect fit for his family. He and his wife, Megan, and their three young sons are celebrating their third season operating Grassway Organics, just 20 minutes from Lake Geneva, near East Troy.
Their 390 acres on Friemoth Road supports pasture-raised chickens, steers, turkeys and hogs. A farm store is open three days a week and offers organic bulk goods as well as the farm’s meat products to the public. Their well-known Pizza on the Farm events have been a mainstay, even before the Selfs relocated Grassway Organics from New Holstein, Wisconsin, to East Troy.
Even though they’re both lacking farming backgrounds, Chaz and Megan have been fortunate to be the benefactors of some good luck and good mentoring, which has allowed them to become proficient in the many skills it takes to successfully run a multi-animal farm, a store and agri-tourism attraction. Now that the summer season is in full swing, the family is excited to welcome their neighbors, friends and their community to their organic farm and share its bounty.
“The main reason we started farming was to support our local communities, because the rural communities are dying out faster than anyone ever thought,” Chaz says. “Our model is to have people come to the farm, be a part of agriculture again, since many are so far removed from food in general.”
Chaz, a California native, studied dairy science in college but realized the farming methods he was learning did not mesh with his beliefs. He explains he’s always had a strong passion for animal welfare, natural foods and organic healing processes and sometimes those beliefs aren’t in sync with traditional farming practices. For example, he thinks cows weren’t meant to eat grain at the level in which modern agriculture recommends, and animals shouldn’t be confined to cages their entire lives.
“It’s common sense to me,” he says. “A lot of people will show up on our farm and learn things, and then say: ‘Yeah, that does make sense.’”
A year after he graduated from college, Chaz and Megan spent two years in Norway, where they worked on farms that milked 17 cows (the national average there) and learned how to farm on a grass-only system.
“We loved it,” Chaz says. “We came to Wisconsin and embarked on our journey to take over Grassway Organics in New Holstein. Three years later, in 2016, we purchased it, allowing Wayne and Kay [Craig] to retire from the operation.”
A few years later, after a big farm move (an extensive undertaking considering animals, equipment and a family), they are enjoying their location in East Troy and the local community it surrounds. Walworth County is also closer to Beloit, where Megan grew up.
A COMMUNITY MISSION
To fully embrace their community mission, Chaz and Megan, and their three kids, welcome people on their farm with open arms. Chaz says that it’s part of their goal and desire to connect the non-farming community with where their food comes from.
His organic approach has been appreciated and the growth of the Grassway Organics’ family is proof of that. Those visiting, Chaz says, enjoy learning about the methods the farm is using, such as regenerative agriculture, which allows humans to heal the planet through feeding the soil.
Part of this method involves the rotational grazing model employed at Grassway Organics, which he says means they rotate the grazing cows up to four times a day, depending on the season. They milk about 35 Jersey cows, focusing on blood lines of A2A2 cows only, which produce a more digestible product, similar to goats’ milk.
“We have 279 fenced-in acres and the rest is planted in forage (hay),” he explains. “My passion really is the cows. They mow the grass for us, produce milk and meat, they’re part of the solution, not the problem.”
The farm has a YouTube channel titled Grassway Organics, where Chaz posts “Farming with Chaz” videos that showcase their daily life, animal care and farming techniques. He’s talked about haying in the summer, how to raise free-range chickens, milk cows and what rotational grazing involves.
The animals and the farm visits are a big part of the Selfs’ business approach and that contributes to their farm store sales, too. The farm, according to Chaz, functions as a cooperative and for a one- time $10 fee and $1 annual subscription, customers can access all the farm goods and bulk grains, he explains.
“We’re also a trash-free store, mimicking the European style for that,” he says. “This is a low-impact model, where you bring your own jars. We weigh them and then fill them with bulk goods or herbs.”
Grassway Organics offers herbs that he says are hard to find in traditional stores, which has been a popular draw for the local community.
Chaz explains that visitors are welcome in the store but must be a cooperative member to purchase items. Altogether, the farm works with more than 30 vendors, collaborating with other local farms, to provide high-quality, organic vegetables, grains, meats and more.
He says the farm’s organic beef and poultry meats are the biggest sellers by far, but the main attraction in the warmer months is the pizza Chaz serves up every weekend.
IT’S A PIZZA PARTY
Although COVID-19 is still very much a part of our daily lives, Chaz is still firing up the pizza ovens as planned for Pizza on the Farm events, with social distancing restrictions in place. The Selfs are also offering take-out and frozen pizzas in the store.
Chaz admits Pizza on the Farm was an idea they stole from other farmers, but says it’s been one that has successfully brought the local community together on weekends, wherever the farm has been. When they began this venture a few years ago, he says each weekend they’d sell about 30 pizzas. Last year, it grew to 200 pizzas served over two nights.
All the pizza ingredients originate from a 15-mile radius of the Grassway Organics farm and they’re baked in wood-fired ovens. An on-site food truck serves as the commercial kitchen.
This year, they expanded some infrastructure and Chaz’s goal is to be able to prepare 200 pizzas a night, comfortably. He, Megan and a staff of eight part-time employees join forces each weekend to serve up hot pizzas on those nights.
“No matter how many people show up, everyone’s going to get served,” he says. “Our goal is to keep everyone happy.”
The other goal is to provide them with a fun night of farm life and entertainment. Musicians from all over come to perform. It’s a bring-your-own blanket/ chairs-type gathering that he says has been welcomed with open arms by the locals since they moved to East Troy.
Chaz says even though it can be extremely hot tending to the outside ovens in summer, this is a fun event for him and all those who attend. He shared a story of an older woman who approached him while he was baking one night, just to thank him. She was so happy because “it was the first place she’d been where no one was on their phone.”
Chaz is hopeful that 2020 will bring another year of nights on the farm, gathering under the country sky with friends, neighbors and others who enjoy live music and a good, wood-fired pizza.
A NEW BREW ON TAP
To complement their pizza offerings, this summer Grassway Organics will be offering a “homegrown” beer. Chaz says they partnered with Vennture Brew Co. and Proximity Malt, both in Milwaukee, to introduce a farmhouse ale. The beer’s ingredients combine rye grown on the farm as well as honeycomb from their beehives that was used to cultivate yeast.
“It’s called Vennture on the Farm,” Chaz says, “and this year we’re going to be selling it on tap and in cans to go. Creating this new offering for our customers has been really fun.”
The beer was brewed at the end of March, and according to Chaz, they’d like to introduce a dandelion farmhouse ale as well as a red-clover farmhouse ale, perhaps this summer.
These new offerings are just another way to use the farm’s resources and they’re excited to be able to offer local customers another product. “The most important reason we’re doing this [selling locally grown food] and why it really thrives is because of the people around us,” Chaz says. “We are truly a community-focused enterprise and the money we make here we spend in our local community. It stays here. That’s really important to us too. We wouldn’t enjoy doing this if we didn’t get to interact with our community.”
IF YOU GO:
W2716 Friemoth Rd. East Troy, WI 53120 | grasswayorganics.com, 920-894-4201
Farm Store Hours:
Thursday-Saturday 10 a.m. – 6 p.m.
Must be a cooperative member to purchase items
One-time $10 membership fee; Subsequent annual $1 membership feee
Pizza on the Farm
Most Saturdays – check their Facebook page for details