Planting Peace: Family Converts Military Radar and Missile Site to Organic Farm

Paul Priester appreciates the irony that he's a pacifist, planting a berry farm on an abandoned Army missile site in Manitowoc County.

September 4, 2009 | Source: The Journal Sentinel | by Karen Herzog

Priester appreciates the irony that he’s a pacifist, planting a berry
farm on an abandoned Army missile site in Manitowoc County. Mario
Micheli admits that he and his wife became local curiosities when they
moved to a rundown acreage northwest of Algoma, bought a tractor
through Craigslist, and replaced a conventional cornfield with organic
vegetables. Both men and their families set out from Milwaukee on
goodbye-city-life adventures in recent years. Although their Green
Acres idealism has been tempered by the challenges of cultivating their
ambitions, they are beginning to reap rewards from the land – rewards
they measure by quality of life, not money in the bank.


Paul and Katherine Priester had to look past a heap of tires and a deserted trailer park to envision their berry farm.

first had to get rid of 600 tires and 15 mobile homes,” Paul Priester
said of the 14.8 acres in the Town of Two Creeks in Manitowoc County
that the couple bought in November 2007 for $36,000.

place looked like a post-apocalyptic horror film with garbage strewn
everywhere, broken windows, doors banging open. It was very creepy.”

abandoned missile site was a trailer park and tire dump before the
Priesters decided to transform it into an organic pick-your-own berry
farm a mile west of Lake Michigan.

They still live in their Washington Heights neighborhood of Milwaukee during the school year.

47, commutes to Chicago to teach psychology and counseling at North
Park University. Katherine, 49, is a systems analyst for Bon-Ton Stores
Inc., the parent company of Boston Store. Their children, Paul, 9, and
Margaret, 7, attend the French Immersion School along with their nephew
D.J., 11, who lives with them.

The family plans a permanent move to the farm in a few years, once they build a house and the fruit is in full production.

could see this was a nice piece of land,” Katherine Priester recalled.
“I had visions of building a house with indoor plumbing and a beautiful
view of the lake.” For now, whenever they visit the land, they rough it
in a trailer without indoor plumbing.

Priesters hope to capitalize on their farm’s proximity to Highway 42,
the tourist pipeline for Door County. The dwarf apple trees, cherry
trees, gooseberries, fall raspberries – and maybe the blueberry bushes
– should be producing pick-your-own fruit next year.

sandy foundation of what used to be the Army barracks is perfect for
growing blueberries, Paul Priester said. A few plum and apricot trees
are taking root. Priester plans to add hoop houses for organic
raspberries and to try growing lingonberries, blackberries, pears,
grapes and currants – possibly even ginseng.

they could plant anything, the Priesters had to recondition the land.
They planted sunflowers to help suck metal out of the soil. They intend
to raise fruit without chemicals or pesticides.

A small army of chickens patrols the property to help keep insects at bay.

year, Priester may bring in beehives and learn to be a beekeeper. A
cinderblock building that once housed military radar equipment will be
converted into a jam and jelly processing facility.

land is beginning to look like a farm. It feels like the middle of
nowhere, despite its proximity to a busy highway. Egrets call across
the flat acreage as the wind blows in from the lake less than two miles
away, and a chorus of frogs sings nearby.

kids spent the summer tooling around the farm in an Army surplus
“minimobile” and chasing after free-range chickens they started raising
as chicks in their Milwaukee basement.

get an international education (at the French Immersion School) in an
urban setting during the school year, and at the same time, they are
out here catching tree frogs and toads, learning about agriculture and
where their food comes from,” Paul Priester said. “It’s the best of
both worlds.”

a kid growing up in Bettendorf, Iowa, Priester enjoyed gardening. He
dreamed of becoming a farmer but thought the only way to achieve that
goal was to grow up on a farm, or to marry a farmer’s daughter.

Eighteen years ago, he planted a large vegetable plot at a community garden in Oak Creek.

kept wondering, ‘Is this going to be a phase I’m going through?’ ” he
recalled. “Then I became a master gardener and attended workshops at
Growing Power,” the urban farm in Milwaukee that promotes sustainable
food, the practice of farming in an ecologically responsible way.

He was hooked.

He still has the Oak Creek plot, and this year, harvested 50 pounds of gooseberries for jelly and jam.

Priesters don’t expect this to become their livelihood. But there’s a
reason they call this Happy Destiny Farm. “All along the way, an
obstacle would appear and a solution would follow,” Paul Priester said.
“It was like a destiny. We’re peaceful here.”

The farm is within a 100-mile loop of Milwaukee, to qualify it as “local” for Milwaukee-area farmers markets.

Now Priester is eager to sell what the land produces. (Watch for the Web site,, to come online soon.)

year, if all goes well, the farm will be open to pick-your-own
customers. And Priester hopes to become a vendor at Milwaukee’s Fondy
Farmers Market.