It is John and Dorothy Priske’s 35th wedding anniversary, and they choose to spend a part of the day with me, driving around their farm near Fall River in Columbia County, trying to explain what makes all the work worth it.
Their truck bounces down a long swath of newly cut pasture, then veers through a sea of tall grassland that almost reaches the vehicle’s windows. It is hard to know where the pasture ends and 60 acres of restored prairie/wetlands begin.
When John shuts off the motor, all we hear is a happy chorus of twitterings, which is the point of our little trip. “Meadowlarks and bobolinks – we see a lot of them,” he says. “It wasn’t that way before,” when the Priskes farmed 900 hogs and grew corn.
A diet of 90 percent corn fattened the animals for market quickly, and insecticides followed the corn planters, to keep the crop free of pests and natural diseases. It was an efficient operation, but around 2000, the Priskes decided it wasn’t enough to satisfy their soul.
They wondered about their two farm dogs that died of cancer, six months apart from each other. They took a trip to New Zealand, amazed at the quality of meat from animals that were grass-fed and brought to maturity slowly.
So when the Priskes returned to Wisconsin, they devised a plan to duplicate this type of farming, slowly transforming cornfields into a nutritious mix of tall-growing grasses.
The 280 acres of Fountain Prairie Inn & Farms today includes lush pastures for about 300 head of Highland cattle, a heritage breed – one that has not been manipulated genetically through generations. Chefs at restaurants from Sheboygan to Madison, Brookfield to Wisconsin Dells serve the dry-aged beef from this farm.
“The Highland is a show stopper,” adds Dorothy Priske, because of its reddish brown coat, long hair and long horns. Visitors like the looks of the cattle, so the animals are a draw for Dorothy’s farmstead bed and breakfast.
The five guest rooms in her 1899 Victorian farmhouse are quiet and lovely, typically decorated with quilts and wallpaper from the era. Only the Suite Times has a private bath, which contains a two-person whirlpool, but having a slew of modern amenities is not the point when staying here.
It delights the proprietors when they are able to reconnect people with the land, and enhance their understanding of how food gets to the table. They are evangelists for the Slow Food movement, which is all about returning to the way food used to be raised and prepared, in response to corporate food production practices.
“Are we really farmers or environmental activists,” John asks, rhetorically. “I guess we’re both.” To some neighbors, they also were odd, as it “What happened – you used to be good corn farmers?”
The transition has been a huge step for the Priskes, who are not flashy risk takers but accustomed to challenges. “When you’re out on the deep end, there aren’t a lot of people with you,” John notes.
They were raised on Wisconsin farms, and John long ago sold melons at the Merrimac Ferry boarding point; “that’s how I bought my clothes for school in the seventh and eighth grades.”
“We were self-sufficient and dirt poor,” he says, of the eight siblings in his family, “but we always ate well” and knew the taste of good food.
Some people consider July 7 – that’s 07/07/07 – to be the perfect date for doing something great, as in life-changing. Tory Miller of Madison is no exception.
The chef and co-owner of L’Etoile, one of Wisconsin’s finest restaurants, will marry Liliane Calfee that day at Fountain Prairie Inn.
“It was our first choice,” Tory says, describing the Priskes as “like family to us” and the setting as “picturesque and peaceful – a perfect choice” for their wedding, or “just to hang out on a Sunday afternoon.”
Dorothy notes that Tory’s predecessor, Odessa Piper, was the farm’s first restaurant customer. “Our intent wasn’t to sell so heavily to restaurants, but Odessa bought some short ribs, then shanks. She liked our method of dry aging” and word got around to other restaurateurs.
Both Odessa and Tory have accepted invitations to cook at the James Beard House in Manhattan, and Odessa was won James Beard awards, which chefs describe as the equivalent to winning an Oscar in the culinary world.
Fountain Prairie Inn & Farms is at W1901 Hwy. 16, at the intersection with Highway 146 in Columbia County. For more: www.fountainprairie.com, 920-484-3618.
Tory and his sister, Traci Miller, operate L’Etoile and the more casual Café Soleil at 25 N. Pinckney St., on the Capital Square in downtown Madison. L’Etoile routinely fills its menu with local ingredients and lists the producers on its menu. For more: www.letoile-restaurant.com, 608-251-0500.
Another 07/07/07 note: House of Embers Restaurant, Lake Delton, is offering a seven-course dinner for two as the top prize in its “Lucky Break” contest.
So submit an essay about your luckiest break. The deadline is July 7. Length should not exceed 170 words. Entries go to email@example.com or via snail mail to: Lucky Break Contest, House of Embers, Hwy. 12, Lake Delton, WI 53940.
The winner will dine in the romantic Omar Shariff Room, which is just big enough for two people.
House of Embers in February began getting July 7 dining reservations. For more about the restaurant: www.houseofembers.com, 608-253-6411.