Sisters Tackle Farming Naturally

Note: This piece is roughly 15 years old. I wrote it for one of the first issues of Organic Farming Magazine, a publication which no longer exists. I see it as the kind of story I’ll be telling at each of the parishes I visit.

First-time visitors to the small Southeastern Indiana town of Oldenburg must wonder if somewhere along the way, a historically wrong turn has been made. The first thing that catches the eye, before beginning the descent into the tiny village, is the trio of Old World spires that peek over the treetops. Down below beckon the brick streets and sidewalks, their glorious red patterns mocking the dull gray pavement left behind. And a glance at the street signs noting the intersection of Maulbeerfeiger Strasse and Wasserstrasse will render the conclusion a traveler has not just been transported back in time, but across the ocean as well.

In this setting, the farm at the other end of town, the one operated by four Franciscan nuns, seems perfectly natural.

Which, in fact, it is. For more than 150 years, the Sisters of St. Francis have owned and farmed this Franklin County land. Yet it’s been only over the last 15 years that the sisters have found the ideal way to employ the land in a way that embodies the spirit of their patron saint, St. Francis of Assisi.

In the 1990s, Michaela Farm was converted to an organic operation, producing only naturally grown crops and grass-fed livestock. To the sisters, the choice to grow organic foods fits perfectly with their mission to nurture sustainable relationships among land, plants, animals and humans.

“It has to do with care for the earth and a kinship with all of creation,” Sister Ann Marie Quinn said.

That care is being tackled on several fronts at the farm. Besides traditional food production, the sisters also strive to educate the community on environmental issues and practices that can be implemented at home.

Their work also includes fostering spirituality through communing with the natural environment.

Each of the sisters working at Michaela Farm has a specific responsibility toward meeting that mission. Sister Ann Marie develops educational and spiritual programs; Sister Marie Nett tends the gardens; Sister Carolyn Hoff oversees the grounds and buildings; and retired Sister Claire Whelan manages the farm’s Share The Bounty program.

All of these women were employed in Catholic schools throughout Central and Southeastern Indiana and Southwestern Ohio before opting for a life on the farm. To Sister Carolyn, the decision was easy. “I am a city girl, but my heart is here. I’ve always loved working outside,” she said.

The Oldenburg Franciscans were founded in 1851. Three years later the order was given its first 40 acres of farmland. The sister for whom the farm is named, Michaela Lindemann, was the land’s first caretaker.

The farm grew steadily through the years, eventually reaching 500 acres of grounds on the eastern edge of Oldenburg.

Through most of the first 125 years, the land was tended by area farmers. But that practice gradually slowed—the apple orchard was sold, the dairy cow operation phased out—until the mid-1980s, when the entire farm operation was shuttered.

At that point, the sisters contacted Rev. Al Fritsch to perform an audit of the land. It was Father Fritsch who proposed turning the land into an organic farm, one that would become an “educational, environmental and spiritual center,” said Sister Carolyn.

Michaela Farm today encompasses 300 acres, with 100 acres devoted to woodlands, 100 to pastures and gardens, and 100 more to fallow grounds and buildings.

The buildings include the enormous brick barn, the largest all-brick farm building in Indiana, and possibly the country, Sister Carolyn said. The L-shaped building, approaching its 100th birthday, is more than 13,000 square feet. A second barn houses three late-model tractors, one of the only concessions to the 21st century available on the grounds. You will find no half-empty bags of fertilizer here—it’s composting all the way.

Visitors to the farm are most attracted to the Labyrinth, the Old English herb garden filled with aromatic and culinary herbs. Standing sentry at the center of the garden is a statue of St. Fiacre, patron saint of gardeners.

Four vegetable gardens are tended by Sister Marie, who grows a variety of plants. Asparagus, rhubarb and lettuce were ready to be harvested in late May, while strawberry picking season, a favorite for the retired nuns living in the nearby Motherhouse, was just around the corner.

The sisters also raise beefalo, a beast that’s three-eighths bison and five-eighths cow. Beefalo require less food than a traditional beef cow, while producing a leaner, healthier meat, Sister Carolyn said.

Much of the food grown and produced here goes directly to the Motherhouse, the retirement center that houses 125 nuns. Other food is sold to the community or packaged as part of the sisters’ “Share the Bounty” program.

Looking forward, Sister Ann Marie hopes to supply a greater percentage of the food for the Motherhouse (it currently provides about 20 percent of the center’s food supply), plus more to the community at large. To that end, the sisters helped launch a community-wide Supported Agriculture Program, “networking with other local farmers that have a similar vision,” she said.

Objectives include the completion of a local green market, where other organic farmers in the area can peddle their products and make consumers “aware of what practices are used and become more conscious of where food is coming from,” Sister Ann Marie said. Additionally, the sisters are leading the effort to form an organic cooperative, a “local avenue for wholesaling and retailing foods.”

In years past, the sisters employed several lay people to assist with the farm’s operations. But budget constraints demanded the release of most of the hired help, with only two recent high school graduates employed this past summer.

To Batesville’s Brady Hornberger, work at Michaela Farm simply offers a steady paycheck and the opportunity to remain outdoors.

But for Lindsey Jackson of Milan, the farm’s mission dovetails perfectly with hers.

Jackson wants to attend the North American Institute of Medical Herbalism in Boulder, Colo., so a stint at Michaela Farm is the perfect kind of resumé filler.

“I’m interested in natural healing, so I figured this would be an awesome experience,” Jackson said while hacking away at weeds with a foot-long sickle. “I try to eat as organic as possible— a lot of water, definitely no pop and no caffeine except the herbal teas I make.

“What’s better than stuff that comes from the earth?” she asked.

You will find no affirmative answer to that question from her employers, who are committed to preserving and growing Michaela Farm in its natural state. By doing so, Sister Ann Marie says, they “honor farming as a profession that brings life to the whole community.”

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