Farm Tour and the Story of Our Project

This is a tour of the farm, the story of how we bought it and the work we’re doing here.

Our first view of the farm was in the late winter of 2000.  We were driving around the area with Emmet Rutchow, who is now our neighbor, looking at land with the idea of finding some to buy.  Emmet thought we might like this land because it hadn’t been actively farmed for years, and it had lots of wild plants and places.

It was a warm, snowless February, and we got permission to walk and explore the land.  Eventually Emmett convinced the owner to sell it to us.

This is Center Valley in the summer of 2000, just after we bought it.  The fields were still being rented out to a local farmer, who alternated planting corn and soybeans; this was a beans year.

Center Valley 2000

As we walked around on the land and got to know it better, we discovered many small remnants of the prairie/savanna ecosystem that had covered this part of Wisconsin before European settlement.

Here’s Big View Prairie – one of our prairie remnants, and typical of the steep bluff prairies that dot south-facing hillsides in our county.

And here’s the big view (looking south-west from the top of the prairie).

We decided that it would be fun to try to restore our piece of that ecosystem to the way it would have been before it was farmed.  We had no idea how difficult and time consuming it would be!  Mike says that it’s a 100 year project – and we’re only 10 years into it.

Before European settlement, this part of the Midwest had been prairie and savanna for about 10,000 years – since the last ice age.  The plants and animals that lived here were adapted to that ecosystem.  In the last 160 years most of that ecosystem has been lost to farming and development, and the prairie that remains has been overgrown with brush and trees.  Less than one one percent of the original tall grass prairie ecosystem in the United States still exists, and the birds and animals that need that ecosystem are disappearing.   We’re hoping that by restoring prairie and savanna on our land, we can give these creatures a better chance to survive.

We started working on it that very first year.   We planted 16 acres of Center Valley, the soybean fields, with prairie seeds.

Planted Prairies

Here’s the bean field in the summer of 2000.

We did the planting in the winter, after the beans had been harvested.

There was lots of snow that year, so we walked around on snowshoes, and threw the seeds onto the snow.  Here we are on the very first day of planting. (Mike abandoned the spoon after one or two tosses, and went to throwing out the seeds with his hands.)

It took a few years for the prairie to look like a prairie, rather than a weed field, but by the summer of 2003 it was looking pretty good.

West Center Valley 2003


This is the same view in 2011

Each year we’ve planted 15 to 20 acres of the cropped land with prairie seed.  Now all 150 acres of the cropland is gone, and the fields are lush with native plants, and full of birds and animals and butterflies.

We learned as we went along, so the later prairies are more successful.  One thing we’ve learned is that each prairie is different, and each one changes from year to year.

The largest fields are on top of the hills – some were so big that we had to divide them into sections, and plant them in successive years.  This is Western Prairie – it’s over 50 acres, so we planted it over 3 years.  This was taken after the beans were harvested, but before planting the prairie.

Here are cans full of seeds, waiting to be planted.

Western Prairie 2007

Western Prairie 2007

Western Prairie in 2008

Western Prairie 2009


Western Prairie – July 2011


Here are a few ‘before photos’ of Buffalo Ridge – another of the prairies on top of the hills.  This one is Mike in the corn.  That year it was mostly Foxtail Grass, not much corn.

We prefer planting after beans, rather than corn.  Corn has lots of stalks and debris that makes it difficult for the seeds to find their way into the soil.  So since Buffalo Ridge was scheduled for corn the year we wanted to plant, we kept it unplanted that year, mowing it often and spraying it with roundup in the fall.  This is the grassy, unplanted field the summer before it was planted.

This was a planting day – very deep snow so I planted in snowshoes.

Buffalo Ridge Prairie in the summer of 2008

Buffalo Ridge Prairie in the summer of 2009.

Buffalo Ridge Prairie in July 2009

Buffalo Ridge 2009

Buffalo Ridge July 2009


Buffalo Ridge – July 2011

To see more photos of the planted prairies, or more detailed information about them, click here.

Prairie Remnants

We also started working on the prairie remnants.  We wanted to see how much of the original vegetation still existed, and to discover methods for enlarging those areas and encouraging the natives to spread.

This is the Knife Edge Prairie in 2000 – one of the small overgrown prairie areas we found.  At this point we had mowed a path through it, but it was still mostly brush and small trees, with prairie plants growing under them.

We mowed brush and cut trees.

And in a few years the prairie plants started coming back.

This is from August 2004

October 2005

August 2007

A savanna area that we’ve worked hard on is Hidden Oaks Point.  This is the point itself – a beautiful prairie remnant.

Just to the north is a grove of Black, Hill’s and Burr Oaks, with savanna vegetation under them.  This is a view of the oaks in 2004,  before we started working.

And this is the same view after we’d cleared out the brush underneath them.

This is looking the other direction – before mowing

And after mowing

I do a lot of clearing with a clippers and a spray bottle of roundup.  I cut the stem of each bush, and touch the cut with roundup.  It’s slower than mowing, but the bushes don’t grow back, and the ground layer of plants isn’t damaged.  I feel like I’m creating instant prairie.   This is one part of Hidden Oaks Point that was restored that way.

Here it is before I did any cutting.

And here it is afterwards.

For more photos of remnants, and details of projects we’re doing to restore them, click here.

The Wetland

The wetland is another big area of the farm that we’re trying to restore.  This is a view from Sumac Prairie – one of our bluff remnants – showing Little Waumandee Creek and the wet areas surrounding it. We own about half a mile of the creek, numerous springs that feed into it, and the wide wet areas around it.

This is one of the springs, surrounded by sedge meadow.  The spring is quite deep and the water is so clear that you can see the water bubbling up from below.

The springs make narrow streams that flow into the creek.

Wet prairie remnant with Turk’s Cap Lily, Joe Pye Weed and Swamp Milkweed

The biggest problems in the wetland are two exotic invading plants:  Reed Canary Grass and Wild Parsnip.  Reed Canary Grass is a european import that’s planted as a pasture grass.  It grows so thickly that nothing else can grow near it, so it gradually chokes out all the natives nearby.  This is one patch of Reed Canary Grass.

Wild Parsnip is a fairly new invader, but it’s marching across our wetland, and it’s so tall, and produces so many seeds, that the natives don’t have a chance.  Wild Parsnip is the plant with the yellow flowers, in the foreground.  The one in the background with white flowers is a native (American Cow Parsnip), and much better behaved.

Some parts of the wetland have been drained and were planted with crops in past years.  Now the drain tile is starting to break up, and they’re developing wet spots.  Those fields are mostly “old field” vegetation – Field Brome, Reed Canary Grass, Honeysuckle, and Canada Goldenrod.

We spend a large part of every summer pulling and mowing Wild Parsnip, and spraying and mowing Reed Canary Grass.  We’ve had some success, but there’s still a long way to go.

I’ve planted the sprayed areas and some of the old fields with wet prairie seeds.  Here I am – planting wet prairie seeds.

Here are some views of the restored areas.  These are wetland sunflowers: Tall Sunflower and Cup Plant.

Tall Sunflower and Swamp Thistle

Swamp milkweed, Common Milkweed, Blue Vervain, and a Giant Swallowtail Butterfly

We built a house in Center Valley in 2004, about half a mile back from the road.   We decided not to have any yard, so the house is surrounded by woods and prairie.

So far we’ve been very encouraged by the increasing numbers of birds and insects that we’re finding both on our enlarged remnants and our planted prairies.  Here’s the list of plants and animals we’ve seen at the farm that are on the Wisconsin Natural Heritage Working List – a list of species that are rare or of concern in the state:

Gray Wolf
Pickerel Frog
Northern Leopard Frog
Eastern Hognose Snake

American Woodcock
Bald Eagle
Black-billed Cuckoo
Blue-winged Warbler
Field Sparrow
Grasshopper Sparrow
Great Blue Heron
Henslow’s Sparrow
Northern Harrier
Red-headed Woodpecker
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Vesper Sparrow
Willow Flycatcher
Wilson’s Warbler
Yellow-billed Cuckoo
Yellow-breasted Chat

Dusted Skipper
Baltimore Checkerspot
Columbine Duskywing
Cross Line Skipper
Eyed Brown
Gorgone Checkerspot
Wild Indigo Duskywing
Leonard’s Skipper
Mulberry Wing
Little Glassy Wing
Pepper and Salt Skipper

Pink-streak  (Dargida rubripennis)

Autumn Coralroot
Cream Gentian
White Camas Lily

To find out more about our various projects check out the links down the right side of the page.  There are links to photos and information about all the planted prairies, and the remnants.  I’m gradually recording information about the techniques we use in the section on restoration.  And I’ve been keeping an inventory of all the plants, animals, birds and insects that we see on the land.  I also keep a journal of what we’re doing and seeing.

I hope you enjoyed the tour!