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Field House Farm owner Stephanie Lesnik grows organic foods, raises livestock, and offers educational programs. (Photo by Margaret McNellis/The Source | Buy This Photo)
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Stephanie Lesnik and her family have returned the circa 1720 Field House Farm property on Green Hill Road to farming. Stephanie approaches living off the land with a community mission: to refamiliarize members of the community with their food.
Twenty-plus years ago, the property was used for raising chickens and horses, but since then, interim owners had hoped to develop the land Stephanie and her family now call home.
The Lesniks had lived in Madison for seven years.
“We already had a huge garden and decided to look for space to make a farm. We kept coming back to this land,” Stephanie says. “The first thing I did was order chickens. My husband asked who was going to kill the chickens, and I said, ‘We have a few weeks to figure that out.’”
Starting a farm wasn’t as simple as ordering some chickens and figuring out how to feed a family off of them. Stephanie’s career started in nursing, so there was plenty to learn.
“Every place where we’re growing stuff was overgrown. It’s always a work-in-progress,” Stephanie says. “Trying to do things organically is a challenge.”
Using organic farming techniques has a steep learning curve, she says. It requires an annual soil analysis and is also more labor-intensive. Without chemical weed killers, for example, it takes longer to weed by hand.
“We started eating organically with our own kids. The oldest two were in 2nd grade, and we wanted to change how we were eating. We started with the perspective of not knowing about food, and tried to learn where our food was coming from,” Stephanie says.
Stephanie not only uses Field House Farm to provide for a family of six, but the farm also serves as a pathway to community education.
“I still mess up. I still learn. As an adult, that’s refreshing,” Stephanie says.
Field House Farm’s educational initiatives are rooted in that learning and the way she and her husband Greg are raising their own four children. They strive to teach their kids to minimize screen time, respect the land, not be afraid to get dirty, and find new and creative ways to solve problems.
Stephanie participates in programs like hatching ducklings and growing crops in local schools.
This year, in a Madison 2nd-grade classroom, Stephanie introduced a scientific farming experiment. She came to the kids with a hypothetical problem: the desire to grow and eat fresh radishes year round. Students had to use the scientific method and test variables like lighting, soil quality, and compost. They had to collect and present data, incorporating math and graphing skills. Students also got to tour Field House Farm.
In this STEM-meets-stems project, the “kids were so excited to participate in a lifecycle program,” Stephanie says.
Field House Farm not only teaches students in school, but out of school, too. The farm’s first summer camp was well-received.
“Kids are a blank slate,” Stephanie says. “If they demand high quality in their food, they take that back to their parents and then more people are eating organically.”
Education on the farm “empowers kids and helps them build life skills,” Stephanie says. “Sometimes we forget how capable kids are.”
The summer camp was so successful that parents wanted in, she says.
Working on Field House Farm is about “demystifying home-grown food,” Stephanie says.
From killing chickens to shearing sheep, she gives gratitude for the animal’s sacrifice, and respect for the animal—whether it’s giving its life to feed people or its wool to keep people warm.
“In one to two generations, we’ve lost skills to handle a whole bird. We try to teach people what to do with all the parts and also make food from the farm less intimidating,” Stephanie says. “Food is dirty,” and at Field House Farm, that’s okay.
Adult programs at the farm currently include monthly farm-to-table dinners featuring complementary wine pairings and desserts in the farm house or outdoors when weather allows. They also tried out the community-supported agriculture (CSA) model through which shareholders offer money in advance for farm products during the season.
“We stopped it this last year to restructure it,” she says, adding she’s still considering several options for a future CSA.
“We did farmers’ markets with chicken for a few years,” Stephanie says. “But if I’m going to be at the market, I have to pay for coverage on the farm; if I stay on the farm, I have to pay for coverage at the market.”
Paying for coverage can drive prices up, and isn’t the only concern, according to Stephanie.
“I love farmers’ markets for the community, but a lot of food can go to waste. Originally, farmers would bring their surplus to market at the end of the season; markets didn’t occur every week.”
In contrast, farm stands offer opportunity for farmers and the community alike, without worrying about waste or coverage.
“I love farm stands because people stop, look at the farm, and build a relationship with the farmer,” Stephanie says.
For her, relationships with the community have been among her favorite things about owning a farm.
“I’ve met a lot of people I never would have come across, and I feel like I have a story for every day,” Stephanie says.
The largest challenge, especially in 2018, has been the weather—it’s been a wet year. Another challenge this year has been a coyote preying on Field House Farm’s livestock.
“The nature part of working with nature can be frustrating and time-consuming, because I can’t predict what will happen,” she says. “I just have to deal with it.”
But Stephanie also likes the “element of not knowing what each day is going to hold,” she says. “I really like the learning of it.”
The most important factor for a farm’s success is its connection to the local community.
“It’s really important for people to take the time to support local farms. If they can incorporate farm visits once a week or once a month into their shopping, that will help,” Stephanie says.
For more information about Field House Farm and its programs, visit www.fieldhousefarm.net.
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