As she was growing up, Pat Laing’s family had a backyard garden in Cortland, New York, but she doesn’t
considered herself a farmer.
Now, at age 88 and a resident of the Milwaukee Catholic Home, she’s taking a new interest in living off the land.
In June 2014, the Milwaukee Catholic Home took partial control of land owned by the Franciscans of the Assumption BVM Province in Burlington, in exchange for assisting four aging friars living at the Milwaukee Catholic Home.
“We sat down with (the Franciscans) to talk about ways we can work together where each of our needs could be looked at and addressed,” Mike Brauer, mission advancement officer, said. “We realized our ambitions to provide organically grown vegetables for our residents could be met through a collaboration with them.”
The partnership included renovating several unused buildings at their Burlington monastery, located on several hundred acres, five of which were used for farming.
“I liken it to building a bridge as we’re crossing it,” Brauer said. “It’s not reckless but it’s saying we didn’t have the blueprint when we started.”
Dave Fulcher, CEO of the Milwaukee Catholic Home and member of St. Sebastian Parish, Milwaukee, had wanted to grow organic produce for quite some time and saw this partnership as an opportunity.
“If we can get closer to the (food) source, it’s always better,” Fulcher said. “It strengthens our partnership with the Franciscan friars … it was about the opportunity to do this together in ministry.”
Chris Reinheimer, director of hospitality at Milwaukee Catholic Home, said this partnership grew from his own persistence.
“I used to bug Dave about if we could turn our courtyard into a garden and grow our own produce,” Reinheimer said. “I kind of planted that seed several times, jokingly.”
The first big problem was finding someone who would farm the land fulltime. It happened that when Fulcher was speaking to the friars about the partnership, he met AJ Weis, who grew up five miles south of the land in Burlington and was back home looking to “reunite with the family farm.”
Weis remembers the monastery as a place with a lot of activity, e.g., outdoor Masses, car shows, weddings and other events.
“We went to Sunday Masses there year round,” Weis said.
They called the farm Clare Gardens and over the last year, have grown tomatoes, eggplant, sweet corn, lettuce, kale and many other vegetables.
The first year was a major learning experience.
“It was tough because it (the land) was kind of unmanaged. It was nothing but a weed pot when we got our hands on it; they didn’t even mull it,” said Weis, who has been hired fulltime by Milwaukee Catholic Home to farm the property. “But we made it happen. We found a way.”
Weis, a member of St. Mary Immaculate Conception Parish, Burlington, said he’s been pleasantly surprised at their first-year efforts.
“It’s just wonderful to be able to get involved in the farm-to-table market with the Milwaukee Catholic Home, knowing that my produce is going straight to the source where it’s valuable and utilized,” Weis said. “The first year is always going to be the toughest.”
During this past year, the kitchen staff prepared meals for the nearly 300 residents using vegetables “From Clare Gardens,” as the home’s menus notes.
Reinheimer said the food is nutritional and cost effective.
“We harvest it on a Monday; we bring it here Tuesday,” Reinheimer said. “For our budget, there’s no way we could’ve bought organic and local 100 percent. It’s just too expensive.”
The residents of the Milwaukee Catholic Home weren’t so optimistic about the partnership.
“There were so many people that were skeptics, residents included,” Reinheimer said. “To see these skeptics and then you get them down there to see it (the farm) and they’re like, ‘Wow, that is something pretty darn impressive.’”
According to Laing, the food at the home wasn’t terrible but it was lacking in substance.
“It was well prepared and well flavored but it was canned beans, canned tomatoes,” Laing said, noting the fresher food adds to their dining experience. “They just tasted much better than the kind we could get at the store.”
The Milwaukee Catholic Home organized a bus trip to take residents to Clare Gardens to experience the farm for themselves.
“We were walking through and I picked a warm tomato and got to eat it right there,” Laing said. “I just stood thereand ate it in the garden. That was the experience for me. It was wonderful.”
While the food was being harvested, Milwaukee Catholic Home administrators quickly realized they had more food than they could consume. About 18,000 pounds worth of food had been grown and harvested since spring 2015, so the home, through help of a volunteer, connected with the Riverwest Food Pantry to provide fresh produce for them.
“The food bank, while they appreciate getting 100 pounds of peppers, they might not have planned for that,” Fulcher said, adding next year they hope to offer more of what the pantry needs. “We want to work with them more intentionally around what kind of produce makes sense for you and actually grow that. And it’s not excess.”
Reinheimer said giving food to the Riverwest Food Pantry helps in their mission to serve others.
“You’re trying to help people who need the help but also want to help themselves,” Reinheimer said.
Laing said sharing with the food pantry makes the relationship with Clare Gardens that much more special.
“It’s an opportunity to share with people who can’t buy the best foods,” Laing said. “It’s a way of giving back. It’s a way of sharing. Those who have enough are happy to share with those who don’t.”
Weis anticipates hiring two more workers next year to help with Clare Gardens and he has plans for improvement.
“I think we can just do better,” Weis said. “Getting produce a little more kitchen ready. Finding more outlets for our overflow.”
The process of planting, harvesting and getting food from a farm is something Weis has been looking forward to for a while. So far it’s been better than he expected.
“It’s definitely a good dream,” Weis said. “You know what’s great about dreaming is actually seeing it come to fruition and becoming real.”