Happy Hunter Farms, a lot to sauce about
Gays Mills, located in Crawford County, Wisconsin, is one of the largest apple-producing areas of the state. It is home to an annual Folk festival, and recently, the award-winning Happy Hunter Farms LLC.
Ed, Melissa, and Hunter Smith, recently brought a win home to Gays Mills. The Smiths placed second at the Wisconsin State Fair in West Allis, Wisconsin this year, for their Peach Chipotle Barbeque sauce.
“It was our first time entering because we didn’t have our certified kitchen to be able to enter before. We weren’t up against just barbeque sauces, it was all sauces, hot sauces, everything. It was a big class. It gives us validation coming from people that have been doing this (judging) for 30 years (WI State Fair).”
Living on top of a ridge just outside of Gays Mills, the Smiths home boasts breathtaking views of surrounding apple orchards and sights that reach to the bluffs across the Mississippi in Iowa. It also is home base for their business that is run out of their state certified kitchen in the lower level of their home.
Happy Hunter Farms produces top quality sauces that are high fructose corn syrup free and wholesome, in addition to jams and jellies and much more.
Every story has its unique beginning, so let’s rewind a bit here.
“My goal when I got out of high school was to be a chef, but after high school, everything was locked up and I couldn’t go because the classes were all full. I was on the waiting list and worked at a factory making good money. I got a phone call one day that someone had dropped out, so I went to chef school. I attended the culinary program at MATC,” Ed said.
After graduating culinary school, Smith would have a job working as a corporate chef for an insurance company, and later as an executive chef at Lands’ End. In addition to working full-time, Smith continued to work his 140-acre farm located in Highland, Wisconsin, raising cattle, chickens, pheasants, turkeys, ducks, geese, and as Ed put it, “everything under the sun.”
Eventually, amidst the tireless dedicated hard work between kitchen and farm, Smith met Melissa. Ed, an avid outdoors-man, both in work and recreation, he was smitten to find Melissa enjoyed both as well.
Melissa, a transplant from Texas, proved to be quite the farm hand, helping with anything from taking care of the animals to the more mundane daily work on a farm.
Having spent her years growing up in Texas helping her grandmother can anything and everything, her knowledge would play an important role in their business. Melissa was not afraid of hard work and helped Ed on the farm and tend the gardens, all the while working off the farm.
“So, we were out on the farm and things would break down; something always needed to be done. The fence would break down, the neighbor’s cattle were on our property, cattle are calving or need to be tagged. Always something going on. She was up in the silo with me with the spiders and it was just nasty. The unloader broke. So, I’m trying to figure it out. She said, ‘you just go down below and I’ll watch up here’. She was on her back in the mud and said ‘this is what was wrong’. It was what I was thinking, so it was confirmed. I’m thinking to myself ‘Ain’t no woman like this that I’ve met before,’’’ Ed said with a grin. So, he and Melissa married.
While Ed gained a beautiful and hard-working farm partner, Melissa joked that she had hired Ed as her personal chef.
Now back to the gardens. These weren’t just your run of the mill small ones. We are talking gardens that boasted 4-200-foot rows of strawberries, 10 blueberry bushes, 4-60 feet rows of raspberries 1-20-foot row of blackberries, apple trees, cherry trees, red currant, rhubarb, cucumbers, various peppers, and squash just to name a few.
With a large inventory of produce to work with, the couple using Melissa’s years of canning experience, canned their products, giving it out in gift baskets for friends and family for different occasions.
Word started to spread and people would send emails or make phone calls, requesting to order their canned goods. The Smiths didn’t think that a type of business like this would be profitable, but decided to try it out. Ed said, “We started talking about this, we were doing it anyways, what was the difference if we went to a farmer’s market?”
They did a small event the end of 2012 which worked out in their favor, and then continued on to trying out sales at a Farmer’s Market in the Spring of 2013, where they sold six to eight products at a time. They explored other Farmer’s Markets around the area because selling at the Spring Green Farmer’s Market, business was growing fast. As the season progressed, they found themselves selling 15-20 products.
With their business growing the Smiths knew they needed a name. “We threw around names. She came home from work one day and said, ‘You know what, how about this? ‘Happy Hunter Farms’”, said Ed, and added, “Our little boy’s name is Hunter. We also hunt. Hunter also helps with taste testing and direct marketing at the farmers markets.”
At that time Ed and Melissa were working under the Pickle Bill, which greatly limited the amount of sales they could have. “You are only allowed to make certain food products, and you have to have certain licensing, certain labeling; a bunch of regulations just for that,” Melissa said. They were at an impasse and needed a way to grow.
Eventually they had heard about Wisconsin Innovation Kitchen in Mineral Point, a state-inspected commercial kitchen owned and operated by an organization supporting people with disabilities.
Deciding to use them to help produce their products, Innovation Kitchen would help them produce, package, label, and get their products into stores.
“Our main reason to go to them was to get some of our product into stores.” Ed stated. He continued saying, “Kent Genthe of Innovation Kitchen has been great to us. They’ve helped us out in a great way. They helped us with pricing and much more.”
With their business name in place, the next step was coming up with a logo. “My brother helped us with the logo. My brother came with a piece of paper. Our son was 5 years old at the time and he colored it. The green cow at the top is our ‘cash cow’, and our son said that needs to stay green,” Ed said with a chuckle.
Working outside of the home and trying to keep up with the farm, was starting to wear on the couple very quickly. The Smiths decided to put their house on the market. The original farm had everything they needed for their canning needs, which posed a problem, where would they continue to get their produce?
The house sold much faster than expected. They talked to their realtor who found them the perfect land for them to build their house which has 50 acres in Gays Mills, and in December of 2017 they moved in. Next step was to get new gardens in.
“We just started our crops this year and have 2-60-foot rows of strawberries, 1-60-foot row of raspberries, cucumbers for our pickles, squash and pumpkins, tomatoes, peppers, rhubarb that we brought from the old farm, blueberries, black raspberries, grape vines, and black berries.
The Smiths said that they will continue to expand their gardens each year and acknowledged that their property allows for plenty of expansion that will include a building dedicated to retail for Happy Hunter Farms’ products.
“We were still working with the things that we froze from before we moved here.” Ed said of the current operation. “If we need something, we buy it up the road. We have always used local sources if we run out of something, but they have to be trusted and reliable,” he said, and stressed that partnering with local vendors and farmers is important to them.
Their whole goal was to own a certified kitchen which they have now in the lower level of their home that is licensed by the state. “Our concentration was to do our jams and jellies. Anything time-consuming, we have the co-packer do. Anything that is in high-demand they do.” Ed said.
With the Smiths looking towards a bright future, Ed said, “Our goal is to do larger events, and not as much traveling to Farmer’s markets. We will still do them, but not as much. We got the certification for our kitchen last fall. Some places are picking up more of our product. We would like to do more niche stores that realize our product is made in small batches. Even if it is done with the co-packer, it’s to our standards. We were there, we saw them make our sauces. If they aren’t doing it the way that we want, they aren’t doing it.”
Asking about his overall feelings on this venture Ed shared, “When you are going through things, you get that frustration. Do I want to cook the rest of my life? But being in the kitchen together, working together, it gives us incentive to continue. There are times that we question if we are doing the right thing. But each little thing works out. It came out a little faster than expected because of the success.”
Melissa said, “We had to jump into things quickly. We had to make stuff for food allergies in the family. People are looking for that kind of stuff. It’s not just sensitivity, there are problems that people have. The products speak for themselves. Forget about the name and our face. It’s a great family story, but why we are doing this, it’s to bring the products to the people. We make quality at a decent price; that is our main goal right now. People want the products to be local, so we keep growing every year.”
“We make this to taste like your grandma made it, but at a lower price,” Melissa said with a smile.
In addition to their BBQ Sauces, Jams and jellies, Happy Hunter Farms also makes soups, salsas, and relishes. For a complete list of products & descriptions, check out their website HappyHunterFarms.com.
Visit them for their latest updates on Facebook.
You may buy their products direct from the Smiths through their website or at these Farmers’ Markets: Spring Green on Saturday, Mineral Point on Saturday, Cross Plains on Wednesday, Mount Horeb on Thursday.
You can also buy them at the following Stores: Metcalfe’s in West Madison & Hilldale, Oakwood Fruit Farm in Richland Center, Sunrise Orchards in Gays Mills, Dreamy 280 Farm Store in Blue Mounds, Peck’s East in Arena, Carr Valley Cheese in Fennimore, Our Front Porch in Dodgeville, and Spurgeon Winery in Highland.