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With a new site, Clare Gardens can provide more food for senior living centers

Clare Gardens started out as a project of the Milwaukee Catholic Home in 2015, growing produce on six acres of land rented from the Franciscan Friars in Burlington. It became food shares provided to senior living communities in the area. Today, it has grown to provide food for residents at Milwaukee Catholic Home, St. John’s on the Lake and Clement Manor in Greenfield. Plans are in the works with School Sisters of Notre Dame and Mount Mary to add Trinity Woods, an intergenerational housing project set to open this fall.

Growing and giving are day-to-day endeavors. The mission of feeding others, both physically and spiritually, really started to grow when Dave Fulcher of the Milwaukee Catholic Home met Joe Meyer, founder of Laudato Si’ Project and the new Catholic Ecology Center, W1468 County Road NN, Neosho, in Dodge County. Meyer is also a science teacher at Marquette University High School.

“About five years ago, I did come back from a retreat and said, ‘I’m going to start an organization.’ I didn’t know anything about nonprofits,” said Meyer. “That became talking with friends who became board members, and that became Laudato Si’ Project, inspired by Pope Francis.”

He met Fulcher at a Catholic men’s group.

“We have some mutual connections at Marquette (high school). I’m a teacher, his son goes there, but the connection was really this thing called Clare Gardens.”

Fulcher talked about how the organic gardening project fed a need within senior living facilities. Meyer saw the commonalities in their goals, and a possibility to work together. They kept in touch, and as Meyer expanded his vision for the Catholic Ecology Center, it became clear they should look for land that suited both.

“The vision for Clare Gardens is not only growing food in a sustainable way, in a business model that makes sense for the senior living homes, but it is also something more, it is a ministry that has aspects of education,” said Meyer. “As Laudato Si’ Project running the Catholic Ecology Center, we at best could do representative gardening. What is so cool here is they are able to do real organic economic gardening feeding people in a sustainable way.”

A natural approach

After two years of fundraising, the official purchase of former Girl Scout Camp Winding River closed on March 8. The newly created Catholic Ecology Center officially launched with a goal of fostering a “stewardship ethic through hands-on encounters with the natural world.”

That includes a 99-year lease and 18 acres for Clare Gardens. Compost using food scraps from some of the senior living facilities, hens and beehives are all part of the new space. You’ll also find picnic areas, hiking trails and a children’s education area focused on Wisconsin wildlife and nature.

The Catholic Ecology Center purchase of former Girl Scout Camp Winding River was made possible with the injection molding company

“For us, the Catholic Ecology Center is more than just nature. It is this beautiful integration of all parts of humanity, mind body, spirit.”

Sussex IM, which will use some of its land purchase to implement Camp SIM as an employee meeting, retreat and leisure location.

At the Catholic Ecology Center, a classroom is devoted to teaching about pond life and fish, butterflies, insects and wildlife. Solomon the salamander, snakes, toads and walking sticks are popular residents of the space, as well as the fish and honeybees. Catholic Ecology Center also hosted its first camp for kids this summer.

“For us, the Catholic Ecology Center is more than just nature,” said Meyer, who has also taught in national parks. “It is this beautiful integration of all parts of humanity, mind body, spirit. Human ecology is more than going for a walk in the woods. It is caring for one another. How we care for the land, how we feed the land, ourselves, is part of that.”

Moving to new space

An integral part of it all is Anna Metscher, farm manager at Clare Gardens. Metscher studied agriculture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and earned a degree in soil science.

This year, the gardens and food production for Clare Gardens are still in Burlington. Metscher spent the winter visiting the new site, planning seed purchases and equipment well before the purchase was finalized. She studied aerial images to plan gardens and soil amendments. This spring, tapping trees for maple syrup was one of the first events held at the center.

“This long-term lease means we can have a fruit orchard, and because we’re starting from ground zero we have the varieties we want,” Metscher said. “We got input from the chefs. They want baking apples and eating apples. We already have bees out there, and it is not just apples, it is pears, peaches, cherries.

“Yes, of course we are getting a crop out of it, but we also want to have a more holistic approach to how people interact with food and creation.”

“That care for creation part of our faith, that is an exciting part of this for us,” said Meyer. “We were typically doing more land restoration as part of that. This is more a tangible part of giving back. It is not only how we are growing food, but that we are growing food for people at senior living and care facilities.”

Making those connections has been a highlight for Meyer as he begins building programming.

“The MU High School seniors do a week of service work, and with COVID, there was a lot of difficulty finding places,” Meyer said. “We had this property. It was God’s providence. What a beautiful thing to have 50 boys out on the land, planting 100 foot rows of rhubarb, fruit trees, the very work we need to do to bring our message.”

“Probably one of the highlights of my 11 years at Marquette was that week.”

Throughout this all, Metscher is still growing in Burlington for now, and delivering food to the Milwaukee-area senior facilities twice per week from the first week in May through Thanksgiving.

“Not all kitchens are set up to take in fresh food,” Metscher noted. “Clement Manor and St. John’s have been with us since the beginning, and it is really the combination of the CEO is on board but also having the kitchen manager and staff on board makes it possible.”

Chefs have learned to get creative and make the most of seasonal produce, jarring salsa or pasta sauce, or freezing green beans to have later in winter.

“Having a more intimate knowledge of our food and where it is grown is important,” Fulcher said. “We take our residents to the farm. We have farm-to-table lunches. People learn about how and why we grow the food, how composting the food scraps feeds the Earth.”

He continued: “I think about the simplicity of hosting bee hives. It is not simple. It is science, and the professionals in our community make that a reality. I think our residents have appreciated the opportunity to learn more about these pieces of the food chain, and having fresh greens, strawberries, beans and peas on the menu, that’s a big deal.”

So what does he see in the future for Clare Gardens and programs like it?

“I think you’re seeing more and more communities nationally that have land available planting larger garden plots to offer the same experiences we are offering, bringing food direct to communities,” said Fulcher. “The impact is growing.”

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