Michaela Farm, 3127 State Road 229, Batesville, on the northern outskirts of Oldenburg, dates back to the mid-1800s, when the Sisters of St. Francis founded a boarding school to care for area children orphaned during a cholera epidemic and needed to grow crops to feed them. Father Rudolf purchased 40 acres himself, giving the land to the Sisters.
Today the religious order owns 276 acres. Of those, 120 are rented, mostly as pastures and hay fields. That leaves about 156 acres for Michaela Farm.
Farm manager Daniel Wilds is "all over the map. My day always start with chickens, feeding them, making sure they're healthy." About 200 sex-link chickens, a cross between Rhode Island Reds and white Leghorns, came from a Fort Wayne hatchery at 16 weeks of age. "They are the heaviest producing laying birds in the world," adding 15 dozen eggs daily, usually between 8-11 a.m. Each chicken lays one egg every 26-28 hours.
He goes to the office for a short while, checking emails and "making sure we've got everything lined up for the day." Wilds helps prep produce for 37 weekly CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture) produce pickups. Most members arrive Tuesdays when Sisters help them select items. Friday pickups are labeled in coolers. According to lead gardener Victor Sarringhaus, "We've determined what people get for their shares. If they don't want something, they can leave it or exchange it for another item."
"If we have an abundance of something," they could end up selling crops at the Batesville Farmers' Market, but Michaela is not a regular vendor.
Wilds also makes food deliveries to the Motherhouse, Batesville food pantry and Izzy's at Hillcrest. "We would like to sell to more restaurants. We've sold to Margaret Mary Health in the past. We're always looking for new avenues for produce and eggs marketing."
The manager explains the pantry purchases some items. In addition, "we donate produce to them every week of the growing season."
"Anything you could imagine" fill the rest of his days – overseeing the staff, chores, mowing, weedeating, checking out the Sisters' retreat house, working with lessees, managing forest health, getting wood ready for winter, building and equipment maintenance. "Any kind of acquisition we need to make goes through me."
In addition to the farm manager and lead gardener, other staff members are farm director Sister Peg Maher, tours and volunteer coordinator Sister Carolyn Hoff and greenhouse gardener Sister Marie Nett.
Each day on the farm is different, of course, but generally Sarringhaus directs three seasonal workers on tasks. "Usually the first thing we're doing" is harvesting whatever crops are needed for that day. Early is best so lettuce and other produce don't wilt. Then the workers either plant or weed. Sarringhaus reports, "I'm always checking with the greenhouse ... watering. The bulk of my day is spent up in the gardens."
A tour of the gardens in mid-June revealed a wealth of produce: three varieties of slicing tomatoes plus a red pearl grape variety; a wheat cover crop over one area to prepare the soil for fall crops; garlic; eggplant; cabbage; mustard greens; spinach; rhubarb; kale; dill; cabbage; broccoli; potatoes; netting over beets to prevent deer from eating them; scallions; leeks; zucchini; watermelon; onions; green beans; sugar snap peas; lettuce; radishes; turnips; carrots; spicy salad mix; 5 acres of hay to sell to farmers; corn; popcorn; green and pole beans; and sunflowers.
The manager is hoping to get peach trees to produce their fruits after careful pruning. Other fruits range from pears and paw paws (North America's largest native fruit) to persimmons. That last one is "my favorite fall fruit ... sweet and cinnamony." He eats them fresh or makes pudding or cookies.
So much of their work is labor intensive: washing and grading eggs, weed management, tilling and hoeing gardens, cleaning crops.
Even with the abundance of rain and lack of sun earlier in the season, the crops are doing pretty well. "We have the benefit of being a specialty crop place ... we're not trying to carry big equipment into the fields to do planting. Planting by hand allows us a lot more flexibility than a larger scale operation," Wilds points out.
Sarringhaus adds, "Some of our crops love all this water – cabbage, broccoli, scallions, onions. Melons will do really well in weather like this." On the plus side: "We're not having to irrigate."
Wilds' greatest challenge is "making us known to the public." He is working on spreading the word about the CSA program and farm store.
Anyone may pop in at the store located just south of Michaela's historic barn. Hours year-round are 8 a.m.-dusk. People pay by cash or checks using the honor system. The inventory is constantly changing. In mid-June, lettuce, broccoli, zucchini, kohrabi, garlic scapes, eggs, dill, cilantro and spearmint, all grown there, were for sale, as well as honey from Clint Bohman, Batesville; and applesauce and cider jelly made by Doll Orchard, Oldenburg.
By early July, some of those items still were available. New produce included sugar snap peas, salad mix, kale, romaine, radishes, beets and scallions.
"We've added a lot of different herbs because my background was doing a lot of herb production," according to Sarringhaus. It helps benefit the farm during the fall and winter months because herbs can be dried and sold when it's too cold to grow other crops.
In springtime, persons arriving at just the right time may get coveted maple syrup made on the farm or black walnuts grown nearby or buy transplants ranging from melons and herbs to tomatoes.
Current items for sale are listed on the website at https://oldenburgfranciscans.org/michaela-farm/products/
What do they do in winter to prepare for spring planting? Wilds answers, "I'm constantly trying to keep soil health in the back of my mind ... One of the big pushes that really has become a modernized thing is cover crops. They've done cover crops out here for a long time ... to keep organisms in the soil that help break down organic matter. It can help keep our soils drier so we can potentially get in there sooner" to plant in the spring.
There are meetings where they hash out what to grow during the next harvest season. Wilds elaborates, "What's worked well in the past? What will be a good addition?" Quantities also are adjusted. That's easy to do because "we keep a harvest book" listing amounts, Sarringhaus says.
They order seeds, then usually Sarringhaus and Nett plant them and take care of the seedlings down in the greenhouse.
What is the goal for Michaela Farm? "Sustainability is something we've talked about for a long time. The Sisters would be thrilled if we get to the point to break even." The aim is to provide fresh produce for the Sisters and area citizens, but the manager would like to see the enterprise make more money. "It's not necessarily the driving force, but it's something we're conscientious about."
Wilds has always been interested in nature. "I grew up on a small farm near St. Maurice" with hay and hogs. After earning a wildlife biology degree at Purdue University, he worked all over the country for the National Park Service as a park biologist. "It was nice to be able to come back home. My botany experience carries over here."
Sarringhaus reports, "I've always done gardening ever since I was a kid," completing 4-H gardening and horticulture projects. "I like to see stuff start from seed and actually grow and have something people are excited about." The advantage of local produce is "people know where their food comes from and how it's grown."
Wilds savors everything about being the farm manager. "I love being down here. The Sisters treat us really well. It gives me the opportunity to really be in the agricultural field. Over the last decade and a half, there's been a movement toward smaller specialty crop farms in the U.S. I like that idea. It provides an opportunity for young people to get into agriculture who have an interest in the field," but didn't grow up on a farm.
The Sisters of St. Francis hope to raise $20,000 this year for needed farm equipment. Donations of any amount are appreciated. For more information, persons may contact Wilds at 812-933-0661. Supporters may donate by mailing tax-deductible checks made payable to Sisters of St. Francis to Farm-to-Table, P.O. Box 100, Oldenburg, IN 47036; or going to OldenburgFranciscans.org.
With such a small staff, seven groups of volunteers were welcomed in 2018 and more are invited to come now. The manager recalls, "We've had people help weed, harvest, stack wood, beautify landscaping around the barn and in the flower garden, paint fences and plant." Boy Scouts working on Eagle projects completed bridgework and added benches in the flower garden. For details, please see https://oldenburgfranciscans.org/michaela-farm/programs-and-opportunities/
Persons or groups curious about farm life may schedule 30- to 90-minute tours, which can be tailored to specific interests. There is no fee, but freewill offerings are appreciated. Please contact Sister Carolyn Hoff at 812-933-6465 or MichaelaFarm@oldenburgosf.com
The manager has dreams for the future. "I'd love to have events at the farm. The community could come out and enjoy, see and experience what we have to offer."
He says, "I love the people that I meet, and the relationships that I get to form with them. The idea that they trust the farm to supply them with fresh, local produce that they feel is a safe choice for not only themselves, but their families is a great feeling. Even though my time at Michaela has been short to date, I feel it has been a great blessing in my life."
Sarringhaus concludes Michaela Farm "is a hidden gem."
Debbie Blank can be contacted at email@example.com or 812-934-4343, Ext. 113.