Growing Food

Things Are Changing For a Farm To Table Pioneer, Michelle Dietzler

Photo: Courtesy Dietzler Farms

When the idea of putting the name of your farmer on a menu first hit the scene, Dietzler Farms beef was one of the names everyone in Chicago liked to drop. Michelle Dietzler had gone from working as a writer on beauty and fashion in the dot com era to joining her father in launching a naturally-raised cattle business in Wisconsin, starting in 1999 with just 35 acres and nine cattle. By marketing her superior quality beef directly to restaurants and consumers at farmer’s market— and by directly we mean, hauling a carcass in a restaurant’s back door herself— she was one of the major figures in evolving Chicago’s food scene to farm to table, though she modestly credits chefs like Paul Virant and Randy Zweiban more than her own efforts with making farmer’s names like hers something diners cared about. So when we saw a tweet today that her family was selling off a parcel of land and cattle in Wisconsin, we contacted her to find out what the story was— was it over for the farmers who supply farm to table restaurants? The answer is, no— but it is an evolution for her and her family.

The first change is simply this: she had a baby (he’s eight months old now) and these days she’s happily a stay at home mom. “We sent out a letter when I got pregnant, this was, not last September but the one before [2011],” she explains. “We had started buying out west, in Wyoming, and it’s much larger parcels. We recently bought a 10,000-acre piece of property out there. And we also bought a grain elevator, and my brother decided that he likes operating a grain elevator a lot more than raising cattle.”

We asked if that meant they had shifted from cattle to grain. “No, we’re not actually raising grain. We trade it. Well, we’ve always raised our own feed for our cattle. But the last few years have been a crazy time for commodities, grain prices, cattle prices. This is a better business model for our family.” In the last year and a half they’ve transitioned out of selling to restaurants; the cattle now go to a large natural meat company who distributes to retailers. “The beef to restaurant business had plenty of demand— it was more of a personal choice for me to stop selling directly and to stay home with my son. I couldn’t find anyone who wanted to do the job that I was doing for what I was getting paid.”

Nevertheless, she says the 250-acre parcel is “a great starter farm for somebody who wants to get into the business and buy this land and do their own thing.” It’s just that personally, it’s a business she’s ready to be past. “Hauling a half carcass of beef is something I won’t miss, or driving a box truck. I’m so glad I don’t work at the farmer’s market,” she laughs. “I appreciate those people so much, but it’s just the worst business model. I remember sitting there with it pouring rain, and I’ve got a freezer full of beef and I’m thinking I’ll probably sell 250 bucks’ worth at the most today.” Then, in the background, her son giggles… and you can see her point.

Things Are Changing For a Farm To Table Pioneer, Michelle Dietzler