A homesteader and community activist’s enthusiasm gave her town the right to own backyard chickens and inspires others to connect with nature.
Jen Van Order is something of a celebrity in the 9,000-person town of Rhinelander, Wisconsin. “Just last week I dropped Ivan off at work,” she says, “and an older lady was unloading her bike in the driveway. I didn’t even get out of the car, and after I drove off she asked Ivan, ‘Was that the chicken lady?’ I’m the chicken lady—or the crazy chicken lady, depending on who you talk to.”
Jen, a server at a local diner where her sister, Katie, also works, and her husband, Ivan, a bike mechanic, live in Rhinelander, a small community in north central Wisconsin where everyone knows just about everyone and “people will stop and say hi, or wave or beep at you,” Jen says. “It’s a pretty easy-going and friendly place to live. We’re progressive in so many ways,” she says, noting the small town’s expansive farmers market and natural food grocer. Yet when Jen decided she wanted to keep chickens—for their eggs, for their many contributions to the garden and as pets—she found no clear wording in any of the town’s ordinances about whether keeping birds inside city limits was permitted.
So Jen jumped into action, contacting a friend who sat on the town’s alderman council who suggested they write up something to present to the city council. “It was difficult,” she says of the process. “Convincing some of the other aldermen was a little tricky. The attitude in this city can be, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’” Yet Jen persisted in her quest, asking the city council, “Why can I travel 30 miles down the road and live in an urban setting and have some chickens in the backyard, but here I can’t?”
As the debate continued, Jen became the town’s de facto chicken spokesperson. “This is a pretty sleepy town, so I ended up being on the news and in the papers,” she says. Eventually, the town settled on a fairly restrictive ordinance, but one that does allow for community members to keep up to four birds in the backyard.
Although she was interested in the various benefits of keeping chickens, the work to draft a chicken ordinance in Rhinelander was ultimately about something bigger to Jen. One of Rhinelander’s most vocal community supporters, she also recognizes that small communities like hers need to do some work if they hope to keep younger generations around. “Most people leave this community when they graduate high school,” she says. “We have a lot leaving, and they don’t come back. We need to work a bit to make this a more appealing place for young people. When we do get people back in their late 20s or 30s, they say they missed this place a lot. It’s the closeness and sense of community—it’s endearing, and it’s really special,” she says.
For Jen, doing things like working to revamp outdated legislation is just one way to help encourage the community to grow and offer its residents benefits that will help keep them around. Ivan’s passion is bicycles and mountain biking, and both Jen and he have participated in activities that helped Rhinelander acquire new public lands dedicated to hiking and biking trails—another cause Jen believes can impact individuals and the community in an important way. “The reason I’m so passionate about mountain bike trails is because they are so much more than just hiking or biking trails,” Jen says. “They are a safe and accessible way for people to get into the woods, and the more access people have to nature, the more they will appreciate and love it—and want to protect it. You think of mountain bikers as these hard-core folks shredding it through the woods, but they really do a lot for preservation. Acquiring land, giving wildlife safe habitat, allowing people to explore nature, and even making biking fun, which often encourages people to bike more and rely on cars a little less.”
Although she is enthusiastic about her community, Jen’s top passion is homesteading. Her front-yard garden, an abundance of flowers, vegetables, fruit trees and her own brand of quirky, natural décor, makes this passion known to everyone who drives by her home. In the backyard, another garden shares space with the chicken coop and an immaculately stacked wood pile (another of Ivan’s hobbies), which helps keep the cozy home toasty throughout the Wisconsin winter.
In her two gardens, Jen grows lettuces, hot peppers, many tomato varieties, peas, beans, celery, beets, carrots, onions, zucchini, pumpkin, winter squash, sweet corn, popcorn, broccoli, hops, strawberries, apple trees, raspberries, potatoes and “a boatload of herbs.” Because her space is limited, Jen says she’s learned to employ a number of space-saving gardening techniques, such as growing squash and beans up trellises and training hops to grow over the backyard fence. Up front, her grapevines double as a shade provider for the closed-in front porch. “It’s the perfect awning,” Jen says. “In spring, it’s nice and sunny and warms the porch. Then in summer when it gets hot with all the windows, all the leaves have grown in on the grapes, and it shades the front porch area.”
Jen’s love for gardening started as a kid. “When I was growing up, we lived in the country and we always had a big garden,” Jen says. “My sister and I were outside all the time. When you grow up in that environment, being outside never leaves you. When you move to the city, you cherish every bit of green, growable space you have.”
Jen finds the garden useful on many levels. First, it provides her with fresh, organic food she might not otherwise be able to afford. “Ivan and I are not rich. We live below the poverty line,” she says. “That said, we are still able to afford organic food, we’re able to eat incredibly healthy and stay well. We can afford to live a really awesome green lifestyle. There is so much you can do for so very little. A packet of seed is less than $2 and that can last you for two years. If you collect your seed, it goes even further. That food might not solve every problem, but it will supplement your diet with organic produce. And if you learn to can or do other inexpensive things like that, it’s simple.”
Along with providing food, Jen says the garden acts as her therapist. “When you’re a kid, the idea of weeding is sheer horror,” she says with a laugh. “But as an adult, it’s almost a form of meditation. If I can go into the garden and mindlessly pull weeds, that is Zen.”
Jen also credits the garden as the dating service that helped bring together her and Ivan, who used to be her next-door neighbor. “Ivan was my neighbor, and we often had interactions while I was out in the front yard pulling weeds. That’s how we first talked to each other!”
Gardening and homesteading also brings Jen back around to her connections with her family and community. Jen credits her dad as the one who “has made absolutely everything possible.” He helped build the chicken coop, the back deck, the clothesline, the garden fence and more. And when she has gardening problems, she immediately turns to her sister. (When they both don’t know, they consult the local university extension office where there are “a lot of live humans to talk to.”) The connections between garden and community are a two-way street: The garden helps Jen meet and work with people in the community; and on the flip side, her community helps with her garden—“It’s a barter thing,” she says. “It’s ‘I’ll make you some dinner if you come drop off some cow poop in my front yard,’” she says.
And finally, the garden is a focal point for get-togethers with friends and family. “My sister lives and works on a homestead here in town, as well,” she says. “Every year around January or February, they host ‘Seed Night’ at their house. That means we all go have dinner and a few cocktails, play board games and order seeds.” Through Seed Night, Jen learned more and more about the varieties of plants and seeds, and she developed a special love for heirlooms. “I got introduced to all these seed vendors and catalogs—Baker Creek is one of my favorites,” she says. “Through that ever-famous Seed Night, I discovered all the beautiful heirlooms out there. I always had a particular soft spot for tomatoes, but when I got into the heirlooms, it was game over. When you can eat a blue tomato, your world’s never going to be the same.”
Jen’s love for inexpensive, green living extends into her home décor, where she collects a huge variety of unique treasures. “The only thing Ivan and I have purchased new in the past 10 years is our bed,” she says. “For the most part, everything we have comes from yard sales or thrift stores. It’s all secondhand.” A collector at heart—she says her daily walks end with her pockets filled with treasures from nature such as pinecones, sticks covered in moss and unusual rocks—Jen loves the upcycling aspect of buying secondhand, and the fact that she’s rescuing something that would otherwise go to the landfill. “But it’s also kind of a treasure hunt,” she says. “It’s awesome when you find that amazingly cool thing. I can tell you a story about every single piece in this house. You don’t get that at big retailers or furniture stores.”
Jessica Kellner visited Jen and Ivan’s home last fall, where Jen’s contagious enthusiasm, delicious coffee and toasty woodburning stove made up for the unseasonably chilly, wet weather. A longtime thrift-store lover, Jessica was enamored of Jen’s quirky sense of style, which perfectly reflects her fun and spunky personality.
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