Living the dream

For some odd reason, vending machines in this country have long been the domain of junk food, and junk food alone. These ubiquitous automated stores are nearly always filled with heavily-processed snacks that favor salt and sugar over any local or sustainable food ethic or ingredient.

But a local farm is turning that paradigm on its head, offering local, lovingly-raised, grass-fed beef from a vending machine that is open to customers 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week on the very land where the animals live out their lives. In a world where people often think eating sustainable local food requires a great deal of effort, it’s the easiest thing imaginable. The farm is located at 2792 Cave of the Mounds Road, just off Highway 18-151 and minutes from downtown Mount Horeb.

Dreamy 280 Farm Fresh Meats has found success over the years by being open to evolution and adaptation without ever compromising its commitment to local agriculture and animals. In a time when small family farms are swiftly vanishing, usurped by urban sprawl wrought by politicians and developers who are happy to make a quick buck by throwing away the region’s food independence in favor of shopping centers, subdivisions and apartment buildings, this aptly-named 280-acre operation has forged lasting connections with customers and fellow farmers alike. What started with five head of cattle more than 30 years ago, eventually grew into an award-winning beef operation that found new ways to deliver healthy local food to customers, from CSA shares and farmers markets to an on-sight farm store and the new, aforementioned vending machine.

“We bought the farm in 1989. It had been rented for like 40 years before that, and it wasn’t very long until Dennis bought five beef cows from Barneveld,” recalls owner Lisa Schlimgen. “We just couldn’t have empty pasture. Then those five became 10, 10 became 20, and now we have 150.”

“We always sold meat to family and friends, but at one point I was getting frustrated with all the inputs we were dealing with, the cost of feed and seed and all that,” she continued. “I looked at it and thought we could sell more meat.”

Around 2012, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares were becoming popular. It’s a way for local customers to essentially buy a share at the start of each season and help spread both risk and reward between farmers and buyers. While most CSA farms offered vegetables, the Schlimgens offered meat. Pretty soon, customers were showing up at all hours to pick up their shares.

“It actually became super disruptive to the farm because people were coming all the time while Dennis and I tried to work, so eventually we made a designated space where people could pick up their shares,” she explained. That space eventually grew into a tidy little farm store, which then gave way to a larger, even nicer farm store that today features a vast assortment of local meats, cheeses, beverages, desserts and much, much more. The farm evolved away from CSA shares, instead offering what they call “bundles” for customers who want them. They also spent years attending area farmers markets.

“We did a lot of farmers markets to increase our customer base, we hit it pretty hard and it really worked,” Lisa said.

One of the most important ethics shared by Lisa and Dennis Schlimgen was that they raise their three children, Julie, Patrick and Hope, to grow up on a real, working farm. They showed cattle all over the country, winning dozens of prizes, and their early years instilled in them a deep respect for the land. Patrick now runs a farm in Argyle.

“I wasn’t a soccer mom,” says Lisa. “I was a [cattle] show mom. The impetus was, we grew up on farms, and we wanted to make sure out children grew up on a farm, too.”

As much of society moves away from locally-produced food, the COVID pandemic sent many customers running back to the agricultural resources right in their own back yards. Dreamy 280 was no different, because they were able to keep people fed when the highly-centralized and industrialized food supply chain started to crack.

“It was crazy during COVID,” she explains. “A couple of the big [meat] packers shut down, so there was this meat panic, but we always had meat here and we had people coming from all over to get it. We were able to make sure everyone got some.”

It’s one of countless examples they give of how communities can benefit from family farming.

“To me, it’s about educating the public,” said Dennis. “So many people today are so removed from agriculture. They don’t know where their food comes from.”

“And pride,” he continued. “There’s pride in taking what we had and improving it.”

They say they have a special connection with the people who buy meat from their farm.

“The customers that come here, they want to know where their food comes from,” Lisa said. “They like to see the cows. And of course, there is the product. And they like supporting local and Mount Horeb is really good about that.”

The vending machine, which keeps the meat perfectly frozen and allows customers to get local food anytime they want it, is one of just two in the entire state of Wisconsin. If offers burgers, steaks, roasts, snack sticks, jerky and more.

“It’s been more popular than we expected,” Lisa said.

It’s just the latest example of how the Schlimgens are keeping the old ways alive, all while adapting and evolving.

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Mount Horeb Mail

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