In partnership with the Franciscan Friars of the Assumption BVM Province, Milwaukee Catholic Home recently launched the Clare Gardens initiative, the development of a 5 acre segment of the Franciscans’ Burlington property into a “farm to table” program. Fruits, vegetables and flowers will be grown using organic practices, making fresh, local produce available to our residents and engaging both partnering organizations in a meaningful shared project.
A.J. Weis, who recently joined our team to head up this new initiative, shares a little about his background and his long-term vision for Clare Gardens.
What is your background & experience in agriculture?
I was born & raised on a family farm just outside Burlington, WI. The family business has been active in this region for four generations and has been predominately comprised of row crops, dairy and beef cattle with some experience in poultry, hogs, & home garden vegetables. I attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison and earned a bachelor of science degree in agriculture majoring in animal science. After graduation, I obtained a position with the University of the Virgin Islands Agricultural Experiment Station. My duties included managing research farms focused on germ plasm study of livestock breeds originating on the island of St. Croix. I spent the majority of my professional career at UVI before returning home to the Burlington farm in August 2013. My vision was to move the family business toward smaller local vegetable production agriculture.
What drew you to MCH and the Clare Gardens project?
I have a deep personal history with the St. Francis Monastery, the site of MCH’s Clare Gardens project. My earliest memories of my family taking me to Sunday mass include the summertime at the Franciscans’ outdoor pavilion or inside the main church building during other months of the year. I also attended with my folks the many Friary arts & crafts events and my older brother ran some of his high school cross-country competitions on the campus. I remember walking the outdoor stations of the cross and the majesty of the garden grotto. Godmother Aunt Lori & Uncle Tom had their wedding pictures taken on the grounds in which I stood up as the ring bearer. My high school graduation took place in that same pavilion and Grandma & Grandpa Bell spent their twilight years living in the Francis Meadows apartments. So when I met Dave & Chris and they shared with me their vision of building a vegetable & decorative garden on site, I was completely magnetized. I share the vision of being involved in local agriculture and how it relates to community involvement creating an experiential atmosphere. Spiritually and professionally I feel I am in the right place to accomplish these collective goals and inject life into a place that means so much to me and could potentially be significant to the greater Milwaukee area community.
What will the next few months bring as the project is launched?
The initial work began last fall, when the earth was moldboard & chisel plowed. Since the beginning of the year an old bathhouse has begun its transition into a pack shed with electrical and plumbing crews working with me to accomplish that change. A well has also been dug on site to supply necessary water and a lot of planning,mapping, and networking has been taking place.
The next few months’ activities include soil preparation: manure spreading, discing & rototilling to create a seed bed for vegetable, cut flower, and other decorative plantings. Efforts have already begun to start seedlings in a neighboring greenhouse for transplanting later in the spring. We hope to move in a group of bee hives to become our resident pollinators. Drip irrigation systems will be put in place to conservatively use water resources and promote efficient plant growth. Composting sites will be chosen, built, and churned to spread as mulch throughout the year. Fence structures will be put in place to protect the vegetable crops from those ‘oh-so-curious’ creatures from the nearby woods. Then throughout the summer there will be some weeding to do! We hope to gain the support of communities through volunteer involvement.
What do you envision the impact of the project will be on MCH and its residents?
The genuine hopes are that this project will add value to the services that MCH already provides, both as an experience in the gardens as a physical place and in the produce that will be harvested. I believe there is value in relationships: between the land & the farmer, farmer and the chef, chef and the consumer, consumer and the farmer, and so on. This project does all that! In general, I feel the local agriculture movement that people are talking about is popular for a simple reason: fresher is better! Higher quality nutrition can be achieved from consuming food products that are grown locally in a sustainable, organic fashion. And how wonderful if that meal can be shared on a table with some beautiful cut flowers as it’s centerpiece. It is that picture I hold in my mind that keeps me motivated to see this project realize it’s full potential and come to fruition.