from the good earth
Prairie Winds Nature Farm
Sustainability strategy pays off in Lakeville
BY LISA HARRIS
PHOTOGRAPHY BY DAVID JOHNSON
Charlotte Wolfe owns and operates Prairie Winds Nature Farm, a working educational and demonstration farm in Lakeville, Indiana. She and her husband purchased their 85 acres in 1992 from a corn and soybean farmer who claimed that the wet fields “were giving him trouble.” What one farmer considered a burden, another saw as a diamond in the rough.
“We ended up with a prairie and restored a wetland with a small portion of woods, so there are different biomes,” she said. (Biomes are geographic areas defined by the plants and animals that live there.) For Wolfe, the farm was an opportunity to cultivate a place where the community could connect with the land, be fed and benefit from a healthier environment.
Resilience of Sustainable Landscapes
At Prairie Winds, vegetables, fruit and livestock are raised on 20 acres. Half of those acres are native prairie for livestock grazing and the other half have been intensively grazed to replenish organic matter and rebuild healthy soils. The remaining 65 acres are dedicated to restoring wetland, prairie and woodland habitats.
This ecological diversity supports the farm’s health. Wetlands filter and store water, woodlands and fields provide resources for local wildlife, and prairie habitat—the most endangered ecosystem in North America—is preserved.
Recently, the prairie’s capacity to survive dry spells paid off. Last year, 36 counties in Indiana were designated as natural disaster areas because of extreme drought conditions. The drought caused many crop losses, but because prairie grasses are more resilient and their structural design holds more moisture in the soil, the prairie grasses provided a source of hay for the farm’s animals.
Heritage Breeds—Banking on Diversity
Over time, farmers have bred animals to adapt to their local environments and climates. Heritage breeds of cattle, such as the American Milking Devon raised at Prairie Winds, were bred for high-quality beef, milk and farm labor. They are well suited for grass-based grazing and can thrive on less-than-ideal forage. Wolfe appreciates their dual potential for milk and beef production. Since the farm is small and was created to be a sustainable enterprise, it makes sense to raise animals that thrive on the existing grazing pasture and that live without the comforts—or expense—of enclosed barn space.
Two large and imposing turkeys followed us around the day of my visit, escapees from Thanksgiving dinner. Wolfe noted, “One is a Black Spanish I was trying to promote as a breed; the other one is half Royal Tom and half Naragansett. I would like to raise Black Spanish, because they’re really resistant to parasites.” Heritage turkeys, like cattle, are also good for range-based farms, in part due to higher disease resistance that allows them to thrive in a foraging environment.
There are also heritage-breed sheep on the farm. “Cotswold sheep are very good on pasture,” according to Wolfe. They are also efficient grazers, easy to work with, produce wool fiber and meat and the ewes make good mothers. Again, good qualities for sustainable farming practices.
Feeding the Neighbors
Prairie Winds Farm fed 10 families this past year through a community-supported agriculture (CSA) harvest subscription program with a variety of vegetables, fruit crops and eggs. Their no-till mulching system of planting the seeds with minimal disturbance rather than plowing encourages soil improvement. Adding soaker hoses and drip irrigation made one of the gardens more productive during the drought.
Sharing Life’s Lessons
All of these labors of love culminate in opportunities for community education. Wolfe envisions making farms accessible to schools, taking inspiration from the work of Theri Niemier of Bertrand Farms in Niles, Michigan. Both farms regularly host school groups and Prairie Winds gives kids the opportunity to work with animals and explore different habitats.
“I really like the idea of having learning farms 30 minutes apart and closer than 30 minutes from schools,” said Wolfe. “How can we reform the educational system so that visiting a learning farm once a week during the school year is part of the curriculum, rather than just an ‘extra’ field trip that doesn’t meet state standards?”
Lisa Harris is a free-range chef, freelance writer and educator who loves to share her passion for local, seasonal and sustainable foods. She recently moved back to South Bend to be near her family after spending 15 years in Vermont.