The Sheboygan Falls area comes together to create a space for growing, cooking, dining, learning—and getting some fresh air.
In the mid-20th century, milkmen from the Miley dairy would stop at most homes in the area around Sheboygan Falls, dropping off glass bottles of milk and farm fresh eggs so everyone in town had the makings of a healthy breakfast.
These days, the old Miley family farm on the edge of town has been reborn as the Nourish Farms, and it’s still bringing people together over healthy, local food. On a given day, you might find children from the elementary school next door learning about pollinators in the garden or the preschoolers from the 4K program using “puppy knives” as they learn to cut up fruit.
Once a month, Nourish hosts a community dinner in the renovated hayloft, which has become an event space that can host 200 people. In October, people came together over pizzas cooked in a wood-fired pizza oven, set outside the barn amid raised beds of Swiss chard and herbs.
Ryan Laswell, Nourish executive director, says the farm serves many roles – from educating small children about healthy food choices to training high schoolers for culinary careers. But he thinks an important purpose is serving as a community gathering spot.
“We’ve forgotten how to be civil to each other, and how to come together to share a meal,’’ he said. “I know there are people who hold divergent views who sit down and eat together here every month.”
In December, Nourish Farm will have a community “Pizza with a Purpose” event on Dec. 1 with a program from the Lakeshore Technical College culinary program. The December community meal “Celebrating World Holidays” is set for Dec. 7. It includes brisket, latkes, collard greens, sweet potato pie, saffron buns and a Christmas cookie decorating station.
On Dec. 13 and 14 there are holiday cooking classes for adults and children.
Laswell says support for the Nourish farm has been nonpartisan. While the Obama administration started the “farm to school” food program, Nourish received US Department of Agriculture grants during the Trump and Biden administrations.
“The USDA Grant Funding in our Farm to School area started under Obama, funding doubled under Trump, and has now nearly doubled from Trump to Biden Administrations,’’ Laswell said.
Before all that, however, the barn had to be saved and renovated into what is now the Good Food Education Center. When Laswell first saw the old Miley barn, its windows were broken and its former milking parlor filled with old manure. There was talk of bulldozing the barn to create more athletic fields for the Sheboygan Falls middle and elementary schools, which adjoin the property.
But local couple Richard and Kristin Bemis, of the plastics company that bears the family name, did not want to see the landmark barn torn down. They funded a renovation program that jacked up the old barn onto a new foundation, and spent millions renovating it. In 2018, they gifted it to the nonprofit.
From there, about 20 local businesses contributed to a capital campaign to build the teaching kitchen, the hoop house, and buy a tractor for the 13-acre farm. Nourish Farms opened to the public in 2021, and has grown dramatically since then.
In 2021, Nourish had 30,000 public engagements, which counts people who were either eating, growing, cooking, sharing, or celebrating good food.
“It’s grown over 500 percent,’’ Laswell said. “It’s growing so fast it’s hard to keep track of what’s happening.”
Christina Singh, CEO of the Boys & Girls Club of Sheboygan, says Nourish fits in perfectly with her organization’s goals of teaching healthy living. While the children in the Sheboygan Falls after-school program can walk over, Nourish brings its show on the road to the other six locations, including a teen club at the Sheboygan YMCA.
“There are a lot of our teens who are hungry because they don’t have reliable access to food,’’ Singh said. The Nourish program teaches them some healthy snacks they can cook themselves out of minimal ingredients that they may have at home.
Smaller children, Singh said, benefit from being introduced to new foods.
“They’ll say they don’t like zucchini, but when you let them spiralize it into ‘zoodles’ and they cook a fresh tomato sauce to serve with it, suddenly they have a new favorite,” she said.
Principal Lynn Bub of Sheboygan Falls Elementary School (SFES) said that teachers are developing a Nourish farm curriculum for science classes.
“It will be targeted at specific times in their elementary education so that each student passing through SFES would experience the entire program,’’ she said.
Sheboygan Falls Superintendent Zach Pethan first experienced the school as an elementary principal. He said the fresh air work on the farm worked wonders on children who were too over-stimulated to do well sitting in a classroom.
“I’d pull them out of class and say, ‘Hey, I have some important work for you to do,’ ’’ he recalled. “When they would get outside and get dirt under their fingernails, it’s like you flipped a switch and all their behavior improved.”
The children, Pethan said, took pride in their garden work, and said, “these are kids who aren’t used to getting good feedback about their work.”
In addition to inviting the community to the farm, Nourish does outreach to area businesses, such as its “lunch and learn” programs on well-being, which it delivered to Kohler Co. employees. Other companies work with Nourish for team-building activities, such as cooking classes or volunteering to work with youth groups.
Such involvements would have likely pleased former farm owners Al and Marjorie Wiley, Laswell said.
The Mileys were well-known in the community. Besides delivering milk, they hosted international students interested in the Wisconsin dairy industry. Marjorie Miley was a Cordon Bleu-trained chef and once appeared on the Betty Crocker Magazine of the Air national radio broadcast to promote Wisconsin cheese. Her poem about bread is set into a ceramic tile on the outdoor pizza oven:
Bread is the warm sun of summer, the dew of early morning, the rich earth.
It is the warm rain brought in by the east wind, the west wind, the south wind and the north wind falling on a field of golden wheat.
Bread is as old as man. It is elemental.
It is essential, for a grain of wheat holds all life in its seed.
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