To find her heart, Ashley Ahl had to return to her roots.

A third-generation partner at Northern Family Farms, a leading supplier of high-quality Christmas trees and nursery stock in Merrillan, Wis., Ahl began her career in the pits of the Chicago Board of Options Exchange.

“Nothing could be more unpredictable than trading the stock market, right?” Ahl said. “Wrong. I’ll put a west-central Wisconsin spring up against the most volatile trading day of the year.”

The question for those in such an intense environment as the stock exchange is always, “What can you do for me tomorrow?” That made Ahl ask a few questions of her own.

“There’s not a feel-good aspect to it,” she said. “It was missing that heart. That’s what I was looking for. I needed to come back to my roots.”

Along with her brother, Derek, she returned to the family business, which has flourished since 1955, and she’s never looked back.

“I enjoy farming because of the daily challenges it presents,” Ahl said. “The best-laid plan had better also include Plan B, C and D. Knowing that no two days are the same makes life at work exciting.”

The trading industry, she said, taught her something important: The key to success can be found in diversification.

“We changed our name in 2012 from Northern Christmas Trees to Northern Family Farms because it embodies our diversified revenue stream,” she said. “In addition to Christmas trees, the farm produces corn, soybeans, perennials, roses, shrubs and trees. Recently, we have initiated a project to restore a farm back to its natural state of wetlands to fulfill wetland mitigation credits for business expansion projects in the area.”

At its heart, though, is a connection to the people, not only the customers, but to the community. To prove it, Ahl is serving her first term as a Black River Area Foundation trustee, as well as coaching eighth-grade girls’ volleyball for the local club BRAVO.

“My goal as a coach is to develop fundamental skills to prepare the athletes for the rigors of high school athletics,” she said. “I expect my athletes to be responsible for their own goals and the goals of their teammates. My hope is that through the season they develop respect for the process; you don’t improve without repetitions and understanding the game down to the smallest detail.”

Ahl is also a cycling instructor at the newly constructed Lunda Community Center in Black River Falls.

“It is a paid position, but I don’t do it for the money,” she said. “I do it to cultivate friendships that revolve around a healthy lifestyle. I aim to provide consistency and build confidence in my clients. I love to see the satisfied (albeit sweaty) expressions as they leave the cycling room, knowing they have already accomplished more by 6:15 in the morning than most people do in a day.”

With such recognition and success, which caused the Rising Stars Under 40 committee to nominate Ahl, what is she most proud of in her life? The answer, it seems, lies in her roots.

“It is often recognized that third-generation businesses have a high failure rate,” she said. “I am proud to say that my brother and I are proving the third generation can succeed. Through a strong foundation provided by our grandparents and parents, we continue to build a team that is striving to improve with each passing day.”

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