The place began calling to me more than twenty years ago.
We drove by a piece of land in West Bend, Wisconsin that had an original log cabin on it – built in 1847 – with the original barn still standing. It looked like a page right out of my favorite Laura Ingalls Wilder books. I was drawn to it in a really strong way, and I began taking relatives past it on drives through the countryside. The family got so used to my obsession over the years, they started calling it “Mary’s farm.” When the place became available for sale, we grappled with the question of buying it. It was ridiculous. We needed a little farm in the country like we needed a hole in the head. We live and work in the city. We had three kids either in college or on their way there soon. The notion of buying a farm was absurd. Our 18-year-old son sat us down to talk some sense into us. “It seems like a really bad time to buy a farm, Mom and Dad,” he counseled.
And yet, we couldn’t walk away from it. My husband has his own reasons for taking the plunge, but since this is my story, I’ll share that for me it was not something I could articulate at the time… I just had to be a part of this place. So we bought it. With it came all the rigors of owning a 170-year-old property; bats, crumbling foundation, faulty wiring, bats, entire colonies of chipmunks, finding tenants that would care for the place with respect, and – oh, did I mention? – bats. By the hundreds. Living in the attic and walls of the house.
And then there was getting the garden started. Besides a drought, a sizeable deer population and more rodents than I ever knew existed, one of the biggest challenges was the hard, compacted clay soil. All of the glorious topsoil that had once existed there (and all over the Midwest) was now gone due to years of poor farming practices, and what was left was hard clay subsoil that only seemed to support a healthy crop of goldenrod. Would anything grow in this garden?
As I dug in the garden, attended workshops and conferences, and read every gardening and farming book I could get my hands on, I slowly began to realize what drew me to this place so strongly. This old farm lured me in because it was a place to honor our agricultural roots and reconnect with what makes this America’s heartland. As big industrial agriculture destroys our environment and our food supply, this farm invited us to do a little healing of our own. We could make this a place where children and adults could be immersed in the natural world and explore where their food comes from. And so the Paradise Farm Education Program was born.
Paradise Farm offers something deeper than the typical “edu-tainment” field trips where children and their adult chaperones take a hay ride to a field where someone has dumped a bunch of pumpkins. Every person that comes to the farm is given some meaningful work to do that is appropriate to their age, and through a relationship built over time children develop a genuine connection to their cultural and agricultural heritage and the natural world. Children and adults who visit Paradise Farm experience gardening (planting and harvesting), cooking, fire building, composting, soil study, pond study, garden art, Civil War dancing, animal care, natural plant dyeing, honey bee care, and more. Every person who visits the farm also plays! There is plenty of time set aside for old-fashioned games and nature exploration.
Along the way, we’ve seen children who were at first hesitant to engage, not wanting to get their hands or shoes dirty, become the very ones who jump off the bus on a subsequent visit showing off their new rain boots they convinced their mom to buy so they could walk through the swamp. We’ve witnessed children who were unsure about traversing a fallen log decide to take the risk with the help of their friends. And we’ve shared in their joy as kids developed skills they didn’t know they had.
Of course, you don’t have to “buy the farm” to discover the natural world. I hope that we can share with you plenty of things we have learned in our work at Paradise Farm to help you enhance your relationship (and that of your children) to the elements of nature right outside your own back door.