Mother Earth Living

Natural Home Earth Mover Award: Julie Downer Henley

Natural Home salutes Julie Downer Henley, who saved prime Wisconsin farmland from overdevelopment—and created an organic haven for kids to boot.
By Jennifer Wilson
July/August 2003
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Photo by Randy Erickson

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When she saw the For Sale sign, Julie Downer Henley worried about what would happen to the farm in the valley across the way. She fretted over the disappearing heritage and agricultural roots in her hometown of Onalaska, Wisconsin. And when she heard a developer was buying it for another high-density subdivision, she was crushed.

Around this time, Henley saw construction workers breaking up cement while she was out walking. She asked them to dump the load at her house rather than a landfill. “They looked at me like I was a nutcase,” she chuckles.

But Henley figured she could find a use for the rubble, and as she stood scratching her head over the ten-foot mounds in her driveway, a curious band of bike-riding boys pulled up. “Do you guys want to help build some stuff?” she offered.

The adolescents soon returned—most wearing garden gloves, ready to help. They spent three days moving dirt, rolling wheelbarrows, and hauling concrete for raised beds. None would take Henley’s money; all showed up by 8 a.m. “It’s easy for kids to get sucked into park and rec activities and music lessons,” she says. “But valid work is real difficult to find in the suburbs.”

This got her thinking about that farm, and soon Henley found herself in the office of the developer who had bought it. “We can do better than this,” she announced.

Her pitch must’ve been a doozy. That land now serves three purposes—housing, city parkland, and Julie Henley’s brainchild: Clearwater Farm Foundation, an organic working farm operated by kids, supervised by an ever-expanding corps of volunteer families.

“We created something where kids can get involved, families can work, and it’s not just another soccer field or playset,” she says. “So far it’s working.”

For a yearly fee (less than $50), kids tend crops and animals such as sheep and goats, plus enjoy activities such as Easter egg hunts or kid-run farmer’s markets. Families bid on patches of garden (paid for in hours spent on farm upkeep). A local food pantry receives some of the produce. Future plans include buying the farm (they’re leasing now) and adding a garden maze, an organic café, and an instructional kitchen.

“By persistence, creativity, and allowing people to take active roles in our development, we are demonstrating that we can bring together these divergent—and oftentimes at-odds—areas of land development, and individually thrive,” Henley says.

To donate to the Clearwater Farm Foundation, send checks payable to the foundation to P.O. Box 352, Onalaska, Wisconsin, 54650.

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