Posts Categorized: Entrepreneurs

Go Ahead: Have a Cow

By Aryn Henning Nichols
Originally published in the Oct/Nov issue of Inspire(d) Magazine, updated Aug. 2014

Have you spotted the new cow mural on the Oneota Cow-op? (The puns have been udderly ridiculous here in Decorah…) Her name is Irene and she was painted by Waukon artist Valerie Miller. We got to interview her back in 2010, so here’s a little #tbt!

ValerieMillerworking

“How now?” probably wouldn’t be the question artist Valerie Miller asks the Brown Cow, if given the chance. More likely it would be, “Could you please hold still?”

You see, Valerie paints cows – brown and every kind in between. She carefully captures their expressive eyes, subtle body language, and sometimes not-so-subtle attitudes and pairs them with bright, barren backgrounds in a pop-art-meets-the-farm sort of style.

So, of course, it makes perfect sense that she and her husband, artist and furniture designer Josh Miller (J.L.Miller Company), would call Waukon home. For Valerie, home again.

Although it was Josh’s idea to move back to the area to start their gallery,  (Steel Cow), in Northeast Iowa, Valerie was equally excited – and not just for of the abundance of cows.

“It is nice here – it is a beautiful, quaint, small, Midwestern area that has more subjects than I can ever paint – plus it’s home,” she says. “It feels good to be surrounded by friends and family.”

After pondering various locales to plant roots, and a 3-day trial run in Montana, coming back to Waukon was – to quote Goldilocks – just right.

“There isn’t the quantity or variety of the big cultural activities here you find in larger cities such as museums, art galleries, theater, etc. but on the other hand we are in the middle of the country and it is easy to go anywhere from here. People like to talk about others, but at the same time if something important is being spread, it spreads quickly and we are proven time and time again we have an enormous support system here in Northeast Iowa. It is cold, but we get to wear our favorite sweaters and scarves,” she says, going on. “For me, a huge pro is being able to see my family on a daily and weekly basis – oh and there are a lot of cows.”

(Have we mentioned she likes cows?)

Valerie’s history in Northeast Iowa is long – she and Josh even set up their studio and business in the building Valerie’s great-great-grandfather built as a furniture store way back in 1925. Plus, it is where her passions were first fostered.

ecow mural 20082

“I have always been interested in art and painting,” she says. “Ever since I was a little girl I was enamored with animals and I dreamed of being a painter.”

It’s safe to say Valerie Miller is officially a painter. Through talent, hard work, and business savvy, the little girl’s dream has become a grown-up reality.

“I am very fortunate that I am able to share my artwork with others and I hope it can help them lighten their day and bring smiles to their faces through the images I paint.”

QUEENIEMiniMooCanvasPrintWinArtMany of those images are of Queenie, Valerie’s favorite cow. So what makes her so special?

“First of all, she is beautiful! I have painted her over and over again – so many times in fact that I keep having to give my paintings of her different names of so I don’t have 20 paintings named Queenie,” Valerie says. “I also like what she represents – she is –was –from a small local family farm and was the matriarch of their herd. She kept her head high – for a cow anyway – and did a fantastic job leading all the cows in her herd in their daily activities.”

Despite branching out in animal varieties (dogs and other pets in the past, plus a horse may have been spotted on a wet studio canvas recently), Valerie doesn’t paint people. And no matter what, cows will continue to hold top billing.

“I feel like I still have thousands of cows left in me to paint,” she says.

The upcoming Northeast Iowa Studio Tour running from October 3–5 (2014) is a great chance to check out Valerie and Josh’s work and gallery at 15 Allamakee Street in Downtown Waukon.

“If any of you readers do get a chance to go on the Studio Tour – you should. We would love to see you in Waukon, of course, but all the artists have been working very hard throughout the year and this is an important weekend for the participants,” Valerie says. “A must-see stop is Nate and Hallie Evans from Allamakee Wood-Fired Pottery. They make amazing pottery, Nate is now offering glass pieces – which are brand-new and pretty cool – and their place has a special feeling all it’s own.”

The Millers are grateful to have friends like the Evans right here in the region, and that activities like the Northeast Iowa Studio Tour happen, along with many other arts initiatives.

“When I was a kid, there wasn’t as many art things as there are now and this is great for everyone,” Valerie says. “The more art, the better our lives.”

———–

Aryn Henning Nichols used to be a bit afraid of cows when she was little, but she’s since recovered. I mean…who’s ever heard of a human-eating cow? That’s right: No one.

Did you know? Supporting other artists is important to the Miller duo, as well as supporting the environment. They are part of an alliance of businesses that collectively give 1% of their annual sales to support a fitting natural environment organization, such as Seed Savers Exchange, which received support this year. And YOU can support their endeavors by “Having a Cow.” Learn more at steelcow.com

Kick It Up With Kickapoo Coffee

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By Aryn Henning Nichols
Originally published in the Feb/March 2010 Inspire(d) Magazine

The room is literally abuzz. If caffeine were palpable, you could carve your initials in the air at Kickapoo Coffee headquarters in Viroqua, Wisconsin. Cups line a shelf, half-filled, grounds stuck to the lip after a morning cupping session.

Caleb Nicholes and TJ Semanchin, co-owners of Kickapoo Coffee along with Denise Semanchin, are busy tasting espresso. A basket (or gruppa) of ground espresso beans is thrust under my nose, “Smell like blueberries?” Caleb asks. He moves on like a mad scientist, working quickly and making plenty of noise as he grinds, whirs, and thwacks the various tools it takes to make the perfect cup of coffee. Oh, that elusive perfect cup.

 

“We totally geek out on coffee,” says TJ. “The other day we used the same type of beans, brewed the same way, but with three different kinds of water. And the coffees were all completely different from each other.”

Therein lies the most difficult aspect of the Kickapoo crew’s – and any other coffee roasters’ – trade. The bean is merely an ingredient to be properly prepared, like asparagus or sweet corn. It’s sometimes compared to the nuances of wine grapes: the origin of the bean, growing and cultivation practices, and ways it’s dried, stored, and roasted are all of utmost importance. Every coffee-producing region makes a different tasting bean and every roaster processes it in its own unique way. But the finished product, the cup, is not up to any of this. It’s up to the barista or the mere at-home-coffee-drinker to heat the (right) water correctly, grind the beans to the perfect consistency, and steep it not too long, but not too short. It’s not bottled and corked with an “open on” plan.

“You send the coffee out and trust that the consumer will prepare it properly,” TJ says. “There are so many variables.”

But Kickapoo closely controls the variables on their end to help you start with the very best ingredient. That begins for these roasters with a melding of Fair Trade AND great-tasting beans. And they’re quick to note these things are not always synonymous, although they’re striving to make it more so.

“The Fair Trade price is just the floor – it only covers the cost of farming,” TJ explains. “We want to do better than that, treat the farmers better, and we want to help them learn that if they put a little more work into the quality of their beans it will really pay off.”

They became owner-members of Cooperative Coffees to help further this cause. A fair trade importing business owned by 23 like-minded roasters, Cooperative Coffees sets the bar higher for the fair trade world. According to the Kickapoo website, the Coop’s pricing minimum is 10 cents above fair trade standards at $1.61. (“A price that in practice we routinely exceed,” Kickapoo says.) They also offer farmer-partners pre-harvest financing. Kickapoo imports more than 80 percent of their coffees through this avenue.

As Kickapoo and the other Cooperative Coffee partners grow in popularity, it’s the hope that consumers will realize these beans are not just good politics, but are the best-tasting as well.

“It’s about getting those two things to combine and cross. It’s at the core of what we do,” TJ says. “And we do it for our own sake too – we love to drink a good cup of coffee.”

This commitment has helped get their business buzzing (pun intended). Kickapoo Coffee was named 2010 Micro Roaster of the Year by Portland-based magazine, Roast, and has received favorable nods from Consumer Reports and Coffee Review. In just over four years since their first roast in November of 2005, they’ve grown Kickapoo to produce 1700 pounds of coffee each week – and last year they even saw a profit: no small feat for any new business. It seemed that fate led them all to the tiny Wisconsin town of 4,400 people.

With Organic Valley headquartered in La Farge, Wisconsin, just 15 miles from Viroqua, many locals were knowledgeable about what they put in their bodies and where it came from. TJ, originally from Buffalo, New York, came to know Viroqua through his work with Minneapolis-based roaster Peace Coffee, where he pushed for social change in the industry for years, spurred on by his travels in Latin America that focused on sustainable development. He was convinced that fair trade, organic coffee farming could change the face of rural Latin America. When he and his wife, Denise, were planning on expanding their family, they also planned on a move.

“I didn’t see myself in a city long term. Viroqua was on the radar for a long time,” says TJ. “It’s a hotbed for organic farming. We planned to move here and start our own roastery.”

Unfortunately – or so it seemed – someone had “beaten them to the punch.”

Caleb had begun Kickapoo Coffee with his sister, Haley Ashley, after having roasted coffee at home for the past five years. Originally from the West Coast – Oregon and then Idaho – Caleb has spent most of his life dedicated to food and drink, including three years as a boutique European wine importer. This work took him all over Europe, but it was family that brought him to Southwest Wisconsin.

When TJ decided to introduce himself to the new Kickapoo Coffee roasters, it appeared Caleb’s talented palette was a perfect match for TJ’s years of experience.

“I knew right away we could work well together, so I asked if they wanted to join forces,” TJ says. It turned out there was nothing unfortunate about the combined Kickapoo team. They all bring various talents to the table: Caleb is the head roaster, in charge of roast profiles. Denise, currently taking a leave to be a stay-at-home-mom, maintains marketing and outreach. Hallie is the office manager, doing much of the business-end/paperwork-side of things, and TJ is a self-proclaimed “Jack of All Trades,” being able to pinch hit in any of the positions should it be needed.

“No one’s really sure what exactly I do around here,” he says, joking.

The roastery is housed in Viroqua’s old train depot, a formerly vacant historic building that Kickapoo restored. The restoration process, like their business, was focused on sustainability. They reclaimed studs, salvaged trim and wainscoting, installed efficient heating and recycled insulation, and sourced local carpenters for their custom storage bins and cabinets.

The result is a bright, warm space that has a comforting feel and retro appeal. The vintage 1930s German roaster (that even runs on handmade Amish belts!) and complementary mint-green vintage canner help this aesthetic along, and the sustainable good looks continue with their packaging: reusable, recyclable steel cans containing 80 percent post-consumer recycled steel that bear the artwork of Viroqua-based woodcut artist. And their one and five-pound coffee bags are biodegradable.

(UPDATE: Kickapoo has moved on up! Their new (and gorgeous) headquarters are located at 1201 N. Main St., Suite 10, Viroqua. They host public cupping events regularly, so like them on Facebook to get the next one on your calendar!)

Although they ship coffee all over the county, they’ve also gained local popularity. The bulk of their beans is hand-delivered or shipped within a 200-mile radius.

These smart business practices don’t stop with their roastery; they also strive for a sustainable home life, working just four-day weeks so they can spend time with family.

“It’s kept us really efficient,” TJ says. “I don’t think we’d get any more work done even if we spread it out over five-days.”

Of course, it makes sense. Family values fit right in with the laudable vision that has made Kickapoo Coffee what it is.

“We’ve been very clear about what we set out to do,” says TJ. “Having and staying true to that vision makes it easy to make decisions in our business. We know what the right thing to do is before the question is even asked.”

Find lots of great information about coffee, Fair Trade, Kickapoo and more at www.kickapoocoffee.com

Aryn Henning Nichols spent many mornings attempting to achieve the perfect cup of coffee after this interview. She was successful about half the time. Must be something in the water…

Where to get Kickapoo Coffee in the Driftless Region:
Decorah: Oneota Community Co-op, Magpie Coffeehouse
Winona: Mugby Junction Café, Bluff Country Co-op
La Crosse: Pearl Street, People’s Food Co-op, Root Note, Sip & Surf
Viroqua: Chilito Lindo, Driftless Fair Traders, Harmony Valley Farm CSA, OZone, Viroqua Family Market, Viroqua Food Co-op

Below is a run-down on the best brewing and storing practices, directly from the coffee masters themselves (see more info at www.kickapoocoffee.com).

Brewing is a critical aspect of making great coffee. It is extremely important to follow a few basic guidelines related to water quality, temperature, equipment and grinding. Below is a list of general coffee brewing principles. For more specific brewing recommendations, please click on one of the brewing icons.

WATER
Excellent coffee requires excellent water ­– there’s no way around it. Do not use distilled water; instead use filtered water, spring water, or Artesian well water. Minerals are important for coffee flavor so reverse osmosis water, while filtered, will not yield optimum results.

TEMPERATURE
Coffee tastes best when brewed between 195 and 205 degrees Fahrenheit. Most drip coffee makers don’t quite hit this temperature. You can achieve this range on your stove by bringing water to a boil and letting it rest for a minute or two. Do not use boiling water – it will cook the nuances out of the beans.

 GRIND
For best results, we recommend a burr grinder because it produces a much more consistent grind (though a blade grinder is still preferable to pre-ground coffee). As a general rule, coffee should be ground finer for quick extractions like espresso, medium for the auto-drip method and coarser for slower extractions like the French press. Measure your coffee first before putting it into the grinder and only grind as much as you need per brew. Once the coffee is ground, its flavor will immediately begin to deteriorate.

 STRENGTH
A general rule of thumb is 2 rounded tablespoons, or 8 to 10 grams, per 6 ounces of water. If you like a weaker or stronger cup, adjust the amount of coffee you use, not the grind of your coffee. A grind that is too fine under a long extraction period will taste bitter and over-extracted, while a grind that is too coarse will taste weak and diluted. Remember that the full expression of the coffee will become most evident as the coffee reaches lukewarm temps, so drink slowly and appreciate your brew as it cools off. If it is too strong, or too weak, this is when you will taste it most.

 STORAGE
Coffee should be stored in a dark, cool, dry place (like a kitchen cupboard). Our coffee cans are ideal storage vessels so feel free to use them throughout the season. The only time storing coffee in a freezer is appropriate is when you have more than a few weeks’ supply. If you do use the freezer make sure to put the coffee in an airtight container.

The Inspiration for Inspire(d)

In the spring of 2003, my sister was getting activated to go to the Iraq War. I was a senior in college at the picturesque University of Iowa, living with three messy boys, taking photojournalism and online media, and sort of taking it easy. In February of that year, I had already gone to Waterloo where Devon lived with her son and boyfriend – the boyfriend had already gotten activated and was in Iraq and my task was to help my sister pack up her then nine-year-old son and put him on a plane to go live with my parents (who at that time were in Alabama…long story).

Together we packed his things into a brand new suitcase and went on to pack the house, “I may as well rent while I’m gone – I don’t need the house sitting empty,” she said. So in a couple of months, after her Army reserves unit had finished preparation for more than a year in the hot, dry desert, it was time to go to Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri to actually see her off on her very last weekend in country. But I couldn’t get in the car. I couldn’t make myself get out of my bed and drive down there to say goodbye. I was sad that she had to go. That her son had to live without either parental figures. And I was mad at myself for not going.

For weeks – maybe months – there was a pair of books sitting in our kitchen. One, The Journey is the Destination, was a compilation of journals and artwork by Dan Eldon, a photojournalist who had been stoned to death in Somalia in 1993. The other was his biography, The Art of Life, written by Jennifer New, an Iowa City author. That weekend, I poured over the journals and read the entire biography. When the story reached the point where Dan died, I cried. And I went online to learn more. I felt like someone had lit me on fire. I was inspired. Now, I am no slouch of a gal – I’ve always done well in school, have been involved in lots of activities and have been fairly outgoing. But I don’t remember ever feeling this overwhelming desire to go out and ACTUALLY DO something with my self and my life like I did that weekend. Dan was someone like me. He didn’t know what he was doing all the time. He didn’t know what direction he always wanted to take. Yet he still did good things for himself, the people around him, and the world. I wanted to affect change in this way – this way that seemed more possible than any other way before.

My plans were already set for the next six months – I was headed to Toronto for an exchange program/magazine internship. When I returned, I had a better idea of how I wanted to change the world.  My aunt picked me up from the Amtrak station north of Chicago and I told her “I want to start a magazine about inspiration. I want it to be easier for people to find stories that sparks something in them as Dan’s story sparked with me. I want to help people inspire other people.” She liked this idea. So did I. I just didn’t have any idea how I was going to accomplish it. Start a magazine? C’mon.

I figured if I was going to change the world, I should learn a little more about it. So after graduation I looked into ways to travel, researching the Peace Corp, the possibility of working on a cruise ship, being an au pair, or teaching English in another country. Luckily, with a little help from a friend (thanks, Ted), a teaching job in China fell in my lap. I hadn’t thought about China before, but okay. I jumped up and down excitedly. Let’s go.

It changed my life, as I think international travel tends to do. I will always think fondly of my year traveling around China and Southeast Asia, and in some ways I think it helped me understand Dan’s story a little better – someone with a mom from Iowa and a dad from London, born in Britain and raised in Africa most definitely had a unique perspective on the people of this world. I hoped I had gotten even an 1/8th of this perspective in my travels. When I returned to the US, it was time to figure things out again. I remembered my plan to start a magazine, but it didn’t seem realistic. I applied for jobs and began waitressing and working at the local newspaper in the town my parents now lived, Decorah, just 12 miles from where I grew up. Then, with a little help from an editor (thanks, Rick), my soul mate fell in my lap. (That story will have to come in a later blog).

Meeting Benji changed my life, as I suppose meeting your soul mate tends to do. I told him my idea about a magazine on our first date, and he said something so simple yet so perfect. “Let’s do it.” Just more than one year later, we got married. One month after that, the first issue of Inspire(d) Magazine rolled off the press.

The plan was still the same – tell stories of real people who are affecting change in some way – but the scope was modified slightly and perfectly. Instead of the massive task of inspiring the world, the nation, or even the state, we wanted to inspire our neighbors. These people wouldn’t be just “real,”  they would be relatable: Your friends, family, co-workers. And if they can do something good in this world, why can’t you?

Seven years later, we’ve hopefully Inspire(d) some folks. Some folks have definitely inspire(d) us. And we have big plans for this world. Let’s change it!

XO,
Aryn