Landmark Farm is enjoying new life as a community education center with an emphasis on healthy food

Sheboygan Falls comes together to create a space to grow, cook, eat, learn – and get some fresh air.

In the mid-20th century, a milk stop from Miley’s Dairy at most homes in the area around Sheboygan Falls would drop off bottles of fresh milk and eggs so everyone in town could get a healthy breakfast.

These days, the old Miley’s family farm on the outskirts of town has been revived as Norwich Farms, and it still brings people together to eat healthy, local food. On a given day, you might find kids from the nearby elementary school learning about pollinators in the garden or preschool kids from a 4K program using “puppy knives” as they learn to cut up fruit.

Kids from preschool to high school get their hands dirty, learn parts of their science curriculum, and work in Nourish Farm’s cooking class. (Children’s photos courtesy of Whitney Morales)

Once a month, Nourish hosts a community dinner in the renovated hayloft, which has become an event venue that can host 200 people. In October, people gather together to eat pizza cooked in a wood-fired pizza oven, outside the barn among raised beds of Swiss chard and herbs.

Guests at Nourish Farm’s October community dinner helped themselves to salad, beet and goat cheese pizza and focaccia with tomato jam. (Photo by Susan Lambert-Smith)

The farm serves many roles, says Ryan Laswell, executive director of nutrition—from teaching young children about healthy food choices to training high school students for cooking jobs. But he believes an important goal is to serve as a community gathering area.

“We have forgotten how to be civil to each other, how to come together to share a meal,” he said. “I know there are people with disparate opinions who sit and eat together here every month.”

Old milk bottles from Miley Dairy Products make up a chandelier at Nourish Farms. (Photo by Susan Lambert-Smith)

In December, Nourish Farm will be holding a community event called “Pizza with a Purpose” on December 1 with a program from Lakeshore Technical College’s culinary program. The December community meal “Celebrating World Holidays” is set for December 7 and includes brisket, latkes, collard greens, sweet potato pie, saffron muffins, and a Christmas cookie decorating station.

On December 13th and 14th, holiday cooking classes for adults and children are held.

The entrance to the farm is next to the Sheboygan Falls Public Schools. (Photo by Susan Lambert-Smith)

Support for Norwich Farm, Laswell says, was nonpartisan. While the Obama administration started the “Farm to School” food program, Norwich received grants from the USDA during the Trump and Biden administrations.

“USDA area farm-to-school grant funding began under Obama, funding doubled under Trump, and now almost doubles from the Trump administration to the Biden administrations,” Laswell said.

Before all that, the barn had to be saved and renovated to what it is now the center for fine dining education. When Lasswell first sees Miley’s old barn, its windows are blown out and the former milking parlor is filled with old manure. There was talk of demolishing the barn to create more athletic fields for Sheboygan Falls Middle and Elementary Schools, which are adjacent to the property.

But local couple Richard and Christine Bemis, of the plastics company that bears the family name, didn’t want to see the historic barn subdued. They funded a restoration program that elevated the old barn to a new foundation, and spent millions renovating it. In 2018, they presented it to a nonprofit organization.

From there, about 20 local businesses contributed capital to build the teaching kitchen, carousel, and purchase a tractor for the 13-acre farm. Nourish Farms opened to the public in 2021, and has grown exponentially since then.

In 2021, Nourish had 30,000 public engagements, which counts people who have been eating, growing, cooking, sharing, or celebrating good food.

“It’s grown more than 500 percent,” Laswell said. “It’s growing so fast it’s hard to keep track of what’s going on.”

Kristina Singh, CEO of the Boys and Girls Club of Sheboygan, says nutrition fits perfectly with her foundation’s goals of teaching healthy living. While the kids in the Sheboygan Falls after-school program can walk, Nourish takes her show on the trail to the other six locations, including the teen club at the Sheboygan YMCA.

“There are a lot of teens who are hungry because they don’t have reliable access to food,” Singh said. The feeding program teaches them some healthy snacks that they can cook themselves from minimal ingredients that they may have available at home.

Young children benefit from being introduced to new foods, Singh said.

“They’ll say they don’t like zucchini, but when you let them turn it into Zoodles and cook up fresh tomato sauce to serve with it, suddenly they have a new favorite,” she said.

Principal Lynn Pope of Sheboygan Falls Elementary School (SFES) said teachers are developing a nurturing agricultural curriculum for science classes.

“It will be targeted at specific times in their primary education so that every student who goes through SFES can experience the entire program,” she said.

Sheboygan Falls superintendent Zack Bittan first experienced the school as an elementary school principal. He said the fresh air work on the farm had a major impact on children who were overstimulated to do well sitting still in the classroom.

“I’d take them out of class and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got important work to do,’” he recalled. “When they come out and have dirt under their nails, it’s like you flipped a switch and they all improved.”

The children take pride in their work in the garden, Bitan said, “These are kids who are not used to getting good comments about their work.”

In addition to inviting the community to the farm, Nourish does outreach to area businesses, such as its “Lunch and Learn” programs about wellbeing, which it offers to Kohler employees. Other companies work with Nourish for team-building activities, such as cooking classes or volunteering to work with youth groups.

Such engagements, Laswell said, would likely have pleased former plantation owners Al and Marjorie Wiley.

Ryan Laswell is the CEO of Nourish Farm. An ode to former ranch owner Maggiore Miley decorates the pizza oven. (Photo by Susan Lambert Smith)

Miley’s family was well known in the community. Besides delivering milk, they hosted international students interested in the dairy industry in Wisconsin. Marjorie Miley was a trained chef at Cordon Bleu and once appeared in Betty Crocker Magazine for national radio to promote Wisconsin cheese. Her poem about bread is set in ceramic tiles on the outdoor pizza oven:

Bread is the warm summer sun, early morning dew, rich earth.

It is the warm rain brought by the east wind, the west wind, the south wind, and the north wind that falls on a field of golden wheat.

Bread is as old as man. It’s racist.

It is necessary, because the grain of wheat carries all life in its seed.

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