On August 20, Emily Steinwehe and Madelon Wise from Wisconsin Food Forests went on a road trip to the Blanchardville area in Wisconsin’s Driftless Area to visit The Little Red Home(Stead). Emily had been on a bus tour with the Soil Sisters, an organization of women farmers in and around the farming communities of Monroe, New Glarus, Blanchardville, and Brodhead, Wisconsin, who promote soil health and recognize the work of women on farms.
Soil Sisters celebrates women farmers, who are among the fastest growing segment of farmers today. The number of women-owned farms tripled over the past three decades, from 5 percent in 1978 to 14 percent in 2012. And just as importantly, Soil Sisters pay homage to the soil and work together to promote the importance of healthy soil.
Emily returned to Madison from the Soil Sisters’ tour of women’s farms excited about “Bethany, who has a food forest on her farm!” We wanted to check it out, and thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to commune with another woman who shares our excitement with plants, soil, and our relationship with the land.
Bethany Edmond Storm and her husband, Tim Emond, left the Chicago suburbs in 2014 after months of planning the design of their farmhouse.
In 2015, the couple installed the first food forest plants on their 5 acres. This food forest comprises perennial food crops (fruit-bearing trees and shrubs) mixed in beds with herbs and groundcovers.
When Bethany began designing and planting her fruit island, she was not yet aware of the concept of a food forest, but she used her degree in Environmental Biology and her intuition to design a food forest that mimics a natural forest with an herbaceous layer of mints, strawberries, and lavender as ground cover beneath the fruiting shrubs and trees. Among the herbaceous layer of her food forest, Bethany has dynamic accumulators (plants with long taproots that bring minerals up from the soil): horseradish and comfrey. The native prairie plants scattered around the farm serve the same purpose of bringing minerals up from the soil, along with attracting pollinators and being bright and beautiful.
Since beginning her food forest, Bethany has attended various conferences where she learned about food forests (other terms are agroforestry, edible landscaping, permaculture, perennial polyculture). She learned that there was a name for and a science and philosophy around what she had intuitively created by observing and mimicking what naturally occurs in forests. We were honored that Bethany was so affirming and positive about our plans with Wisconsin Food Forests. We thank Bethany for taking the time out of her busy day to show us her food forest and to discuss plants and their synergistic relationship with two other plant geeks.
I was impressed with the unique quality of the guilds Bethany created. These photos show include Peach, Apple, and Asian Pear fruit trees, with a shrub layer of Aronia, Currants, Elderberry, Honeyberry, Red Raspberry (which bear twice a year), Thornless Blackberry, Blueberry, and Lingonberry. The last two require special care, so are in an area closer to the house where Bethany can keep an eye on them.
Lifestock are an integral part of the Homestead’s design. Bethany says, “Depending on the time of year, you will find donkeys, chickens, ducks, sheep, goats and pigs sharing the land with the family. The animals serve many purposes. Some are great at pest control, some are good waste processors, many provide a food source, and all are good for the soul and for the soil.” An example of the integration of livestock with the plants is Bethany’s thornless blackberries, which don’t like to be cut back. The blackberries are in a patch, and when they do need a trim, she clips them and feeds them to her goats.
On the hilltops of the Driftless Area, the landscape is karst rock and shallow soil. Karst topography is a type of landscape that forms when water dissolves and erodes soft rock (like limestone) and leaves landscapes behind such as caves, surface sinkholes, and tall, steep rock cliffs. The rock itself may be worn away from the surface by rainwater, or it may be eroded from the inside. Thinking about this, one can surmise why this landscape could be challenging for a farmer. Bethany noted that the karst landscape contains deep fissures under the soil, which presents a challenge for water retention.
Therefore, soil preparation and amendment for Bethany’s food forest is a long-term project. Bethany lightly tilled the soil and placed pigs on some parts of her property to prepare the soil for planting. She brought in semi-truck loads of wood chips from the City of Madison—17 tons (about 65 yards of mulch) at a time! With the help of a small tractor, Bethany repeated this process 6 or 7 times.
The paths between fruit islands were initially wood chips but the mint and raspberries kept creeping in so now the paths are mowed clover and grass. The mint still needs to be cut back occasionally.
Bethany’s front yard is an explosion of color with many heirloom and native flowers for pollinators (and beauty!).
When we asked Bethany the question of what do you do with all the fruit, she said, “I freeze and can the fruit. Occasionally I will dry some. It all depends on the timing.” She uses the elderberry to make a syrup to give the family to stave off colds and flu. “We take a couple of tablespoons at a time a few times a day.” Likewise, Bethany says, “I make an all purpose, Neosporin-type salve from comfrey and I use the oil in lotions.”
Using the harvest from her land to enhance her family’s health is but one more example of the full circle benefits of food forests. The mother of two children, Bethany designed her food forest to serve generations to come.