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Waseda Farms: ‘Trust where your food comes from’

Multi-generational farm transitions to new owner, family vision continues

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May 14, 2024

DOOR COUNTY – Many farms in Wisconsin remain in the family for decades, sometimes even centuries.

One of those generational farms is Door County’s Waseda Farms.

Owned by the Lutsey family for three generations, the farm has a long history that dates back to the mid-20th century.

Started by the late Thomas H. Lutsey, innovation and farming have long gone hand in hand in everyday operations at Waseda Farms.

A dairy farmer by trait, who also bottled milk, Thomas was awarded numerous patents for his innovations, some of which were for forming and conveying baked confection shells.

He also developed groundbreaking concoctions in the dairy industry with automated machinery and ice cream snacks.

Thomas founded Gold Bond Ice Cream (later known as Good Humor-Breyers) in 1946 and developed such ice cream novelties as the Eskimo Pie and Paddle Pops.

For decades, Thomas and his son, Tom, worked together in the business, with Tom handling most of the business operations for Gold Bond.

The ice cream novelty business was eventually sold, and the Lutseys eventually pivoted back to their farming roots.

In 2008, Tom purchased a parcel of land in Baileys Harbor called Waseda Farms – which he said got its name from the Priests of the Sacred Heart, who owned and maintained the land.

The Lutsey family said they opted to keep the name.

Following a cancer scare, Tom said he began studying the health benefits of organic food, especially beef.

Armed with that knowledge, Tom said he, his wife, Sharon, and their sons – Matt, Jeff, Nic and Andrew – made a commitment that Waseda Farms would farm in a responsible and sustainable way, much like the priests before them had done.

With that goal in mind, the family embarked on the three-year process to become certified organic.

“Our vision was to create a certified organic, sustainable farm in Door County that would encourage the best environmental practices and humane animal treatment and provide agricultural jobs to a community we care an awful lot about,” Tom said. “And we did it. I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished and grateful for all the support we received from the community along the way.”

Waseda Farms has a cattle-handling system that allows just one person to manage the whole herd while keeping the cows stress-free. Submitted Photo

Tom’s son Matt, president of Waseda Farms, expanded the farm operation to include Waseda Farms Market, a store located right on the farm in Baileys Harbor.

In 2014, a Waseda Farms Market opened in De Pere.

In Spring 2018, Waseda Farms expanded its ability to reach customers nationwide by offering online shopping capabilities, while simultaneously enhancing its direct grocery and restaurant availability.

Meanwhile, son Jeff worked with restaurants in the area to share the benefits of organically-raised beef, pork, chicken, eggs and other produce.

Tom said the Waseda Farms and Waseda Farms Market brands became well-known among restaurant chefs and other fine markets whose customers wanted organic products and couldn’t find them elsewhere.

In keeping with their commitment to be as sustainable as possible, the Lutsey family expanded the farm’s solar capabilities, as well as invited experts to design a new cattle-handling system for them – which allows just one person to manage the whole herd while keeping the cows stress-free, and therefore, healthier.

A new chapter
Though the family enjoyed many years of success operating the farm and being good stewards of the land and animals they managed, Tom said they recently decided to sell Waseda Farms so they could pursue other interests.

“Our family has focused on this business for the last 15 years,” he said. “Now we’re each at stages in our lives where we have varied interests – (though) we will always have a kindred connection to the farmland. We’ve found another person who is passionate about growing within the organics market.”

That person is Jeff Shefchik, a native of Luxemburg who lives in De Pere with his wife and their five children.

After spending 20 years sitting behind a desk in the corporate world, Jeff Shefchik said he wanted to get back into agriculture – first purchasing a cattle ranch in Missouri and then Waseda Farms in Door County. Submitted Photo

Shefchik said he was “incredibly impressed” by what the Lutsey family had done in the creation and growth of Waseda Farms.

“The brand, the market reach, the care for their animals and the land is remarkable,” he said. “I feel very honored to be carrying Waseda Farms forward.”

A farm boy himself, Shefchik said he raised animals for the county fair and worked on his neighbor’s dairy farm.

Though as an adult, he said he went a different way – choosing to work in the corporate world.

For 20 years, Shefchik grew De Pere-based Paper Transport, a top 100 for-hire truckload carrier – serving 15 of those years as president and part-owner.

But, just as the Lutsey family wanted to pursue other interests, Shefchik said he also wanted to make a move professionally – specifically, he wanted to return to farming.

So, two years ago, after selling his majority control of Paper Transport, Shefchik returned to his first love – animals and farmland – by purchasing a 2,600-acre cattle ranch in southern Missouri that raises organic, grass-fed cattle and sells that beef directly to the consumer.

“After 20 years of sitting behind a desk, I decided I wanted to get back into agriculture,” he said. “I was interested in growing organic, really healthy food. I believe the food that we eat plays a major impact in our overall health.”

Shefchik said he met Tom Lutsey about four years ago through a mutual friend and, because they had such similar interests in organic farming, remained in contact with each other over the years.

When the Lutsey family decided to sell Waseda Farms, Shefchik said he was excited at the opportunity to buy it.

The Lutseys said they were equally excited to sell their farm to someone who shared their vision and wanted to continue it.

For both parties – it seemed like the perfect fit.

“Our friend, Jeff Shefchik, shares our vision and has the enthusiasm to build this business and help more people benefit from organic quality products,” Tom said. “We couldn’t be more pleased to have found Jeff to carry this business forward.

Tom said the Lutsey family will remain the owner and caretaker of the farm’s Door County land while Shefchik will own the Waseda Farms brand and business.

Shefchik said he bought his ranch in Missouri because he wanted a cattle operation and a large parcel of land.

When he saw this ranch was for sale, he said it seemed like the best option to meet his needs and vision.

Not ever living there, however, Shefchik said he had to put a lot of trust in the ranch’s employees.

“It was an existing operation, so the cattle, equipment and employees all came with it,” he said. “But like with taking over Waseda, and as with any business, having good employees is the first step.”

The future through new eyes
By acquiring the Waseda Farms brand and business, Shefchik said he will add his Missouri ranch as a supplier for Waseda Farm’s organic products.

“What this (purchase) will allow us to do is grow a lot more and raise a lot more meat that we can sell through the Waseda stores and outlets,” he said. “It takes a lot of land and a big farm to grow (your operation), so having the Missouri (farm) gives us a lot more product to sell.”

Over time, Shefchik said he intends to work with other partner farms that are raising organic, quality foods “that we can sell through the Waseda brand.”

Between the two farms, Shefchik said he has just under 4,000 acres – (2,600 in Missouri; 1,200-1,400 in Door County).

He said he currently only raises cattle in Missouri, but has plans for adding other animals in the future.

“As we grow the Waseda sales, we will potentially raise pigs and chickens in Missouri, as well,” he said.

Shefchik said his early plans include growing all existing Waseda Farms production and sales operations.

This, he said, will include expanding the number of animals they have in Door County.

“Tom and I both believe the Door County farm can raise more animals and the storefronts, including online, can bring more products to our loyal customers,” he said. “We also seek to cast a wider net to grow within the rapidly expanding organic foods market.”

Jeff Shefchik said he plans to grow all existing Waseda Farms operations – which includes expanding the number of animals they have in Door County. Submitted Photo

While the Bailey’s Harbor store is quite well-known, Shefchik said the De Pere location doesn’t yet have the same notoriety.

“We intend to grow that and also our online presence,” he said.

Approximately one-third of Waseda Farms products, Shefchik said, are sold directly to grocery stores and restaurants who sell them to their own customers.

Those products include Black Angus beef, Berkshire pork, chicken and tri-colored organic eggs.

Certified organic produce, Shefchik said, is also sold at the Baileys Harbor farm store.

“Over the past 15 years, Waseda Farms has built a strong brand and base business,” he said. “Now is a great time to grow this business and grow more quality and healthy food to feed our communities.”

Current customers won’t notice any changes, but Shefchik said they intend to add “a whole lot more new customers.”

“We’ll be able to start growing right away because we’ll have cattle in Missouri this year that we can (get to market) and sell that beef through Waseda,” he said.

Tom said many of the Lutsey family’s commitments to the agricultural community will remain.

“All we can say now is that the story will continue,” he said. “Some old and some new characters, but the story and vision for innovative farming and healthy food continues.”

The Lutsey family will also continue the administration of the Thomas H. Lutsey-Waseda Farms scholarship.

Matt said he, along with his mother, Sharon, will continue to manage the scholarship fund, which awards four-year, $10,000 scholarships to students pursuing an agriculture career that will benefit Wisconsin’s rural communities.

Since its inception in 1986, Matt said the scholarship fund has awarded nearly $1 million to more than 125 college students committed to advancing farming and agriculture in Northeast Wisconsin.

“We look forward to the ongoing impact this will have on Wisconsin’s farms and food production,” Tom said.

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