Watching the nine-member Holm family prepare dinner in their kitchen is like witnessing a graceful ballet on a crowded subway platform. The dance, fine-tuned by years of practice, takes place in a modestly sized farm kitchen, one made smaller by an 8-foot table squeezed in for the sharing of meals.
Today's performance is the annual late fall harvest feast—a collaborative effort of the six sisters, ages 11 through 19, one underfoot baby brother, and parents Mariann and Doran Holm. The fluid teamwork in the kitchen mimics that of the organic dairy farm run by the girls. Yes, the girls: Holm Girls Dairy, in Elk Mound, Wisconsin, is run by the sisters with occasional input from their parents. (Eighteen-month-old Daniel, the youngest addition to the family, is not yet a member of the human resources team, but when he is 3, he'll be able to hold the bottle used to feed a newborn calf.)
With about 70 head of cattle to manage, including 35 cows to milk, the girls are amazingly organized despite their easygoing, youthful demeanors. It's obvious that they have a higher calling: organic living. "It's become a huge part of our lives," says eldest daughter Sarah, 19, a junior at the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire. "It isn't the obsession of eating [organic], but more the enjoyment of learning how and what to eat, and why. Our family goes to great lengths to make real chicken soup, starting with raising the chicken." And with that, the raising and eating of food from the farm is deeply fulfilling.
The idea for the Holm farm got its start about 13 years ago in Newport Beach, California. At the time, Doran had a high-profile sales job covering a seven-state region that kept him on the road more often than he liked. On one rare evening at home, he was reading a bedtime story about farm life, All the Places to Love by Patricia MacLachlan, when Sarah, then 6 years old, asked, "Daddy, can we have a farm?"
The question was one that her father had often asked himself. Doran, who had worked on a dairy farm while in high school, had dreams of running a family business. A farm seemed to be the ideal option.
Seizing the inspiration, Doran contacted his father in Wisconsin and asked him to be on the lookout for farmland. And when a 100-acre farm became available, 75 miles east of St. Paul, Minnesota, Doran and Mariann bought it. Such an opportunity also seemed like divine providence: Doran's father's family had settled in that very same area after moving to America from Norway, and his company, based in Minnesota, happily transferred him back to the Midwest.
Doran's plan was to milk cows and replace the grueling road trips with family time. Mariann's plan, she says, "was just to get out of L.A." Thus the family business took root. Doran now works for Organic Valley, helping other farmers transition to organics. The family dairy is also a member of the Organic Valley Family of Farms, the nation's largest farmer-owned organic cooperative.