At the end of the long gravel road at 4382 Hickory Rd., in West Bend, Wis., is a 36-acre utopia that is home to wildflowers, winding nature trails, ponds, a registered bird habitat, and 100 varieties of organic vegetables. A place like this is often only dreamt about. For Mary Ann Ihm, it’s a dream that became a reality and a place she has rightly named Wellspring – a certified-organic produce farm and a not-for-profit education and retreat center.
Founded on March 1, 1982 by Ihm, a former educator, she wanted to create a learning environment that would “help people live in harmony with themselves and the earth.” She started out small, holding workshops and working out of a community garden in Milwaukee. But Ihm, who grew up on a farm, had a bigger vision for Wellspring. She wanted land where she could create a farm and a retreat center. Her dream would come true fives years later in 1987, but it involved a lot of heartbreak and some divine intervention.
Mary Ann’s number one supporter and husband, Wayne, passed away from cancer. Just a week after Wayne’s funeral, Mary Ann was given an ad for a property in West Bend. The description called to her, and upon visiting the land, she fell in love. She knew it was the perfect fit for what she wanted to accomplish with Wellspring. One problem: she didn’t have the money to pay for it. She thought her dreams were dashed, that is, until a surprise came in the mail later that same week. Unbeknownst to Mary Ann, Wayne had a life insurance policy and she received a check for the exact amount of the property’s down payment. Wellspring purchased the property and moved Wellspring to West Bend in the spring of 1988, forming what is the longest running CSA in Wisconsin. It’s here where she and all the faithful employees work hard at educating and informing the public about wellness and healthy food choices.
Introduction to Farming: 101
Wellspring is located on 36 acres of property, but only grows on six. So, to feed the farm’s 110-member CSA and restaurant customers, they really have to get creative and make great use of the available growing space.
As a result, the farm incorporated permaculture into the design of the field where vegetables are planted in a curve pattern that mimics the natural flow of the land. Farm manager Alissa Moore says this method helps to mitigate erosion during heavy rains in what is a fairly steep slope.
The farm also takes advantage of growing in multiple hoop houses. This helps the farm get an early start on seedlings in the spring and extends the growing season beyond the typical fall harvest time.
Moore oversees the farm’s 40 different types of crops and 100 different varieties. At the same time, she also is mentoring the farm’s interns. In fact, she estimates that 90 percent of her job is devoted to taking the interns under her wing.
“We all work together side by side each day,” she says. “Most of them have never farmed before, so they are learning what it means to be involved in day-to-day activities at an organic farm.”
Interns live and work on the farm from March until October. Each year a new batch of interns come in, while some have the opportunity to stay for two growing seasons. Activities on the farm vary from month to month. In April and May, Moore is teaching the interns how to seed and plant. In May and June, planting, weeding, and harvesting. In July and August the planting comes to an end but weeding continues and most of their time is spent on proper harvesting techniques. In September, harvesting is still going strong and weeding begins for the fall crops. Infrastructure for the different crops is also taken down at this time. In October they continue to harvest the hardiest crops, and prepare the farm for the winter.
Wellspring’s mission is to not only grow organic food but to also help teach the public the importance of growing, eating, and living sustainably. Francie Szostak, the educational coordinator at Wellspring, says many educational opportunities are available throughout the year.
Wellspring offers a host of home gardening courses that teach novices how to plan a home garden. Everything from caring for the soil, preparing garden beds for transplanting, the basics on companion planting, maintenance (weeding, mulching, natural pest control), harvesting, and food preservation techniques.
“We teach people things like with a carrot, how do you know when to pull it out of the ground. Or broccoli, do you just rip it off or remove it from the stem,” says Szostak.
Wellspring also offers seasonal cooking classes where each month a different vegetable that is ready to be harvested is selected and featured from the garden. Each class is led by Chef K.C. Thorson who develops and demonstrates four healthy recipes. In 2012 classes focused on salad turnip and radishes, chicory bitter greens/Asian greens, culinary herbs, beets, root veggies, brussel sprouts, and Thanksgiving dishes.
Workshops are also offered regularly throughout the year. In 2012 the farm hosted workshops on wild edibles, foraging for mushrooms, native pollinators, gluten-free cooking, and a cheesemaking workshop.
Groups that visit the farm for a workshop also can take advantage of Wellspring’s bed and breakfast, which is among the top Travel Green Wisconsin Certified Businesses.
Teaching Youth/Farm to School
The farm is also very big on educating youth. As a result, the farm encourages K-12 schools and community groups (adult groups, too) to schedule a field trip to experience life on an organic farm. Szostak says that children experience farm life and connect with how food is grown through hands-on lessons and activities, and each visit is tailored to students’ ages, learning levels and classroom goals.
Farm field trips typically last two hours and include a farm tour, gardening activity, a picnic lunch, and a snack that is harvested from the gardens. Szostak says kids that visit the farm more often than not are not afraid of vegetables like most people want to believe.
“They come out here and when they’re in the dirt, using their hands, growing it themselves, they are so excited to taste it,” she says. “Even little kids that are 2 and 3 that came out here, I had some beets to try and they said ‘no,’ but then they popped one in their mouth and their faces just lit up. Kids really aren’t afraid of vegetables.”
Wellspring also has a program on the farm called Agricorps that teaches youth ages 12-17 best business practices using sustainable agriculture. In this program, youth participate in six weekday instruction sessions and two weekend sessions during the summer months, says Szostak.
“They come out, pick a plant that they tend to all season long, and they learn the things that go into growing organically, like pest control, weeding, as well as the business marketing side of farming,” she says. “So they have to plan their garden, plan out the costs, learn about marketing skills, decide where they’re going to sell their product and then after all that they go to the Wauwatosa Farmers’ Market and they get to sell the produce that they’ve grown all season.”
In 2012 the youth planted eggplant, squash, tomatoes and peppers. The proceeds they received from their sales at the Wauwatosa Farmers’ Market were then donated to the charity of their choice.
In 2013 Szostak’s hope is to expand the farm’s reach and incorporate some youth from the inner city and teach them the self reliant skills of growing their own food and marketing skills.
Besides teaching classes on the farm, Wellspring also visits select schools with a “Farm to School” program. In 2012 Wellspring began partnering with Grafton and Kewaskum schools where they started sampling fresh organic produce in the lunchroom.
“They get to each sample one and if they like the dish that the chef created using that produce, they all get a vote, and then it will be on the lunch line the next week,” says Szostak. “It’s really involving them instead of just shoving some veggies at them and saying ‘eat this.’”
Where to Buy
Wellspring offers a CSA for 20 months that begins in the first week of June through the third week of October. The farm offers three different share sizes: Full, half, and community. The full share is delivered weekly while the half share is every other week.
Members who want to receive a discounted price on a full share and get their hands dirty at the same time, can choose to do a community share and commit to work two four-hour shifts on the farm during the season.
New in 2012 is the addition of a winter share that will be three larger shares that are distributed two weeks apart in November in December.
Wellspring holds farm festivals for its shareholders and families throughout the season, including: an Earth Day Celebration, Herb Sale, the Taste of Wellspring, and Agri-Culture Fest.
Wellspring sets up shop every Saturday during the growing season at the Wauwatosa Farmers’ Market and every other Saturday at the Fox Point Farmers’ Market. A popular item among the market-goers is the farm’s lettuce mix. Wellspring’s produce is also found regularly on the menus of Milwaukee restaurants La Merenda and Allium.
As a non-profit, Wellspring relies on donations. If you are interested in donating to Wellspring, visit http://www.wellspringinc.org/Main/Donate