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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. 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.

"I 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.

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

The 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.

Paul, 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.

"I 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.

The 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.

The 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.

Before 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.

Next 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.

The 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.

The 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.

"They 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."

As 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.

"I 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.

The 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.)

Next 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.