For Traci Lipps, Willow Creek Farm is a labor of love. That sounds a bit cheesy and cliché of me to say, but sitting across from her in the barn that once was a horse stable, and now hosts happily wedded couples and their families and friends, you can feel it in her voice, and see it in her eyes, as she speaks of her home and her livelihood. She took what she calls "a leap of faith" after her husband Hank died of cancer just four years ago, beginning a partnership and business venture that is still growing and evolving. She’s down to earth, yet extremely invested in what she does. As owner of the farm and co-owner of V. Picasso and The Pink Pig she is a busy woman, but it’s obvious she’s a farmer at heart.
Smile Politely: Tell me about your background, and how you found yourself running a farm?
Traci Lipps: I was born and raised on a farm in Washington State. Growing up we had sheep, cattle, and hogs. I raised the hogs for 4-H and FFA, so I’m very familiar with livestock. Then I met my husband, we got married, had kids, he became a physician at Christie, and we moved to Champaign sixteen years ago. We also knew we wanted to live in the country. Finally we bought this land and cash rented it for a few years. Then we decided to develop it. We got the pond first, then he had the barn built, then we built the house. Then he got sick in 2011 and he passed away four years ago. Fortunately he took care of me, so I had time to breathe and figure out what I wanted to do. I met Victor (Fuentes) one night through mutual friends. I told him I had a farm, but nothing came of that conversation. Then I ran into him a couple of months later when he was getting ready to open V. Picasso. He said "how would you feel about raising some meat for my restaurant?" I said okay, thinking what do I have to lose?
SP: Was that ever something you’d considered doing?
Lipps: You know when my husband was alive we’d talked about it, but it just never happened. He was busy with his practice, I was busy being a mom, and then when he got sick...your whole life changes. So when Victor asked me I was like, I’ve already lost the most important thing, what do I have to lose now. So I started doing that and it’s just grown into this business that I never dreamed that I would be doing. Then the wedding venue — one of our best friends wanted to get married out here. As I was prepping and planning for her wedding, I thought to myself that maybe this could be another business. I approached Victor and said “what do you think about turning part of the barn into an events center for weddings and things?” And here we are.
SP: Had you had any experience starting your own business?
Lipps: No. I just learned. I read a lot, and I kind of learn as I go. I just took a leap of faith. I have a very deep faith and I just believe in what I’m doing. I’m very passionate about it, and I love my livestock. It’s something I really enjoy doing. I love hosting weddings. I’ve always loved to entertain. When Hank was alive we always had parties, and I loved to do the entertaining. Him not so much, so he just went along. But for the most part, it’s very enjoyable. It gives me purpose. It gives me a reason to get up in the morning. If I didn’t have this, I don’t know what I would do.
SP: If you feel like this is too personal you don't have to answer, but do you ever find it difficult to be involved in the planning of weddings?
Lipps: Sometimes. Sometimes I get really attached to the couple, and then it is really hard. Usually I work with these couples for at least a year, if not more. So there are times I get really attached. It’s not because I’m sad…
SP: I’m sure it’s a mixed bag…
Lipps: Yeah. It’s a mixed bag of emotions.
SP: What types of things to you raise here for V. Picasso and other restaurants?
Lipps: I raise angus cattle, lamb, and Berkshire pork. I don’t keep the hogs here, I keep them on another farm, because of the smell. I have chickens, but only for eggs. I started with V. Picasso, then The Wheelhouse in St. Joe, then Victor and I opened The Pink Pig in Ogden. So the pulled pork, ribs, and ground beef come from here. And then I just started selling a little bit to Urbana Country Club as well. So I’m kind of trying to get out there more.
SP: So what does a typical day look like for you?
Lipps: Monday through Friday I have someone to help me with chores in the morning. So I don’t have to get up to do the chores. But I get up, deal with my kids, there’s always bookwork, and paperwork, and emails, and responding to brides; usually a lot of correspondence with brides. A lot of times I have tours, or I’m setting up for a wedding. I try to go out to my garden. I love playing in the dirt. But there’s always something to be done.
SP: What do you find challenging about the work?
Lipps: Just making sure I stay on track financially. To make sure I have X number of weddings each year to cover our expenses then enough to either reinvest back into the businesses or maybe we get a salary. That’s challenging to find that balance. And I tend to be a workaholic. So then even if I find a balance, I’ll think “oh I can do one more (wedding).” I have a hard time saying no to things. For the agricultural part — and I’m getting better at this — it’s meeting the supply and demand. Each restaurant is different. I’m really dealing with four different chefs and trying to figure out what each restaurant is going to need. Two of the restaurants change their menu frequently, so I’ve got to adjust my supply to meet their demands.
SP: What do you love?
Lipps: You know, I just love my animals. They’re all tame. You could go out into my cattle and pet them. Even the bulls. Just being around the animals, because it’s so unconditional. Even the chickens just come running to you. It’s just...basic. It takes you out of the rat race and makes it simple. I also love my gardens. I’m not out there as much as I’d like to be, and that part is hard for me because I have a certain way in my head that I’d like things done.
Over 400 tomato plants - you may find them in your salsa at El Toro
SP: You’ve expanded quite a bit in the last couple of years — adding The Pink Pig and The Wheelhouse, transforming Willow Creek into a legit event space, do you stop and take a breath to see how this all works out, or are you always thinking of what comes next?
Lipps: For the event space I can see it kind of leveling out — that we kind of hit a plateau. You never know when the trend (of getting married in a space like Willow Creek) is going to drop off, so I’ve kind of prepared myself for that. On the agricultural side, I would really love to have a CSA where people come and get their vegetables and meat from me. That is my long-term goal. Last year I did a water line to my garden, and I’m just being smarter about the plot I have picked out for my garden and making the best use of my space.
The silo bar
The bee hives - a passion of her husband's that Lipps has continued.
Willow Creek Farm is a lovely property that has made its mark on the community in just it’s few years of existence, surely due to Lipps’ willingness to open her home to others. I look forward to seeing how it’s reach extends in the coming years.
If you’re interested in experiencing the farm, but you aren’t planning a wedding, there’s a Dinner on the Farm happening this Friday, August 24th, at 6:30 p.m. You’ll get a tour of the farm, and then enjoy a five-course dinner — with wine pairings — prepared by Chef Leaf from V. Picasso. Tickets are available here.
Photo of Traci Lipps from Willow Creek Farm Facebook page. All others by Julie McClure.