Wellspring: farm hostel, retreat center, CSA

When I met Jeff Schreiber, he was taking a break from the vegetable harvest to prepare lunch for his work crew. That meant roasting Brussels sprouts and simmering a pot of carrot-ginger soup. For dessert: sweet potato pie. To drink: tap water.

Simple, nourishing and down-home. This is the vibe that permeates Wellspring, an organic farm and retreat center in Washington County, one of two Hostelling International locations in Wisconsin. (The other is in downtown Madison.)

As farm manager Jeff chopped and stirred, a sleek cat named Midnight bounced onto my lap, licked my chin and considered wrapping himself around my neck. A little later, it was a rooster and his harem that played host, following me on these 35 acres, five of which are certified organic.

In the upper level of the retreat center, a former barn, are a dozen twin beds and little else. Would-be yoga teachers gathered here for training recently. At ground level are living quarters for Wellspring staff, plus up to three interns whose seven-month visits emphasize hands-on ag education.

Inside a cottage-like guest house, which is the hostel, are seven more twin beds in one room, plus a bathroom. Two pleasant bedrooms inside of the farmhouse are rented as bed-and-breakfast accommodations.

So there’s room for a crowd on these grounds, which are a harmonious mix of ripening vegetables, golden-hued tallgrasses, greenhouses and woods. More than a mile away is the closest town, Newburg, population 1,200.

Nature lovers gravitate to Wellspring to learn and work. Founder Mary Ann Ihm says the organic farming began there in 1988 and used to attract many visitors from outside the U.S. The terrorism of 9/11 changed this.

“On 9/11, we had visitors from Pakistan, Korea and Hawaii,” Mary Ann says. Predecessors included “a group of Slovakian women who took a cab from Milwaukee, to stay and pick strawberries with us.”

She believes people from outside the U.S. “no longer feel welcome in our country,” but hopes that programs such as Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms will help change this attitude. Farmers in the international WWOOF network provide meals, lodging and education about sustainable agriculture in exchange for daily help with farm chores and projects.

Participants have included Adrian Lee of Eau Claire, who recently completed a Wellspring internship and intends to pursue a career that involves agriculture. Mary Ann says other interns have started their own farms, joined the Peace Corps or pursued ecological work.

“A lot of farms have given up on interns because of bad experiences – some think they’re here just to get a suntan,” she notes.

“We’ve gotten smarter about who we accept – these people have to want a career in sustainable agriculture. The garden is like a baby who needs to be tended every day, and everybody needs to understand and appreciate this.”

She grew up on a Lancaster farm during an era when “everybody was an organic farmer,” before the advent of chemical pesticides and fertilizers after World War II. Her father declined to use these commercial products on his land.

Besides internships, Wellspring offers classes in small-scale gardening, food preservation and cooking. Some last part of one day. Others involve the full growing season, garden planning to harvesting, with the staff of four acting as mentors along the way.

Wellspring grew 50 kinds of vegetables (including 30 types of heirloom tomatoes) this year. The harvest was sold as 110 weekly community supported agriculture (CSA) shares and at farmers markets in West Bend, Cedarburg. Some CSA customers paid for all or a part of their food by working on the farm up to four hours per week, so organic food has been accessible to all income levels – at least through the growing season, which is about to end for the year.

Wellspring is adjacent to Riveredge Nature Center, a 370-acre refuge that skirts the Milwaukee River. The center’s 10 miles of hiking trails are used for cross-country skiing during winter.

Jeff leads permaculture classes (which teach ag practices that mimic the rhythms of the natural world) at Riveredge, and the nonprofit enterprises are natural partners in other ways. Together, they represent the deepening development of a community that engages average families as well as ecological experts.

Wellspring, 4382 Hickory Rd., West Bend, is one-half hour north of downtown Milwaukee. For more: www.wellspringinc.org, 262-675-6755. Overnight rates are $30-70, and slightly more if all meals are included.

Visitors to Wellspring are welcome, but only by appointment. Applications for internships during 2010 are now being accepted.

The hostel will be closed Dec. 1 to March 1 because its founder will be in India, working on the Navdanya farms of Vandana Shiva, a pioneer in her country’s organic farm movement.

Wellspring is one of about 20 organic farms in Wisconsin that are a part of the WWOOF-USA network. For more: www.wwoofinternational.org, www.wwoofusa.org, 831-425-3276.

Programs at Riveredge Nature Center, 4458 W. Hawthorne Dr., Newburg, include making bird treats, Nov. 7; tap water ethics, Nov. 12; the film “Rachel Carson: Sense of Wonder,” Nov. 19, and animal tracking, Dec. 12.

For more: www.riveredgenaturecenter.org, 800-287-8098.

Hosteling International celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. The movement to provide travelers with a global network of inexpensive, shared housing began in Germany.

For more: www.hihostels.com, www.hiusa.org, 301-495-1240.

For more about the Madison hostel, 141 S. Butler St.: www.madisonhostel.org, 608-441-0144. One of the world’s largest hostels is a 500-bed facility in downtown Chicago, and rates include continental breakfast. For more about the J. Ira and Nicki Harris Family Hostel, 24 E. Congress Parkway: www.hichicago.org, 312-360-0300.

Click here to read about my stay at this Chicago hostel.