Family Farming in the Suburbs

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MTT News Desk's picture
Nathan Mabie
Times-Tribune photo by Nathan Mabie Amy Wiltzius holds Gracie, a Chinese Silkie bantam chicken. Times-Tribune photo by Nathan Mabie.

It didn’t start with the chickens. Before the chickens came the kids. It all started with the kids.

Amy and Jeff Wiltzius have an uncommonly large residential lot, about three quarters of an acre, in Middleton’s Shorecrest neighborhood. A petite neighborhood with little traffic, Shorecrest is north of County Highway M and east of County Highway Q. Across the backyard fence is Bishops Bay.

In 1997 Amy and Jeff, a young couple with plans to raise a family, bought their home. The  transition to homeownership included the addition of new chores and responsibilities.

“Every weekend we were mowing the lawn,” Amy recalled.

Three years after purchasing their house, Amy gave birth to a son, Nate. An independent child from the beginning, as a toddler Nate’s curiosity took him all over the neighborhood. “We’d find him having cookies and milk in our neighbors’ kitchen down the block,” Amy said.

So they built a fence. They didn’t know it at the time, but this backyard enclosure would prove to be the structure around which much of their future would be built.

Parenting is an unending sequence of decisions. And while it is certainly much more, any parent can tell you how many decisions must be made every day. Especially for parents of young children, even small decisions seem to be defining ones: which diapers, what foods, play dates with whom, naptimes, bedtimes, and toilet times.

Parents are responsible for their kids. For Amy, it was precisely this responsibility that prompted her to approach everyday decisions with an increased thoughtfulness and intentionality. In regards to food, Amy wanted her children to be well fed certainly, but also she “wanted my kids to know where stuff comes from.”

Amy planted a small garden in her backyard.

In 2003, the year of the fence, the Wiltzius family had a daughter, Gwen. Having two kids caused the Wiltziuses to reevaluate not only what foods they ate but how they spent their time.

Caring for the lawn had always been an inconvenience for the couple. And so in the spring of 2005 they decided to return the front yard to a natural landscape. They had mowed their front yard for the last time.

They wanted to replace the grass with native Wisconsin plants. As they considered plant options Amy thought, “as long as we’re trading a lawn for bushes, why not pick something edible.”

The family purchased 25 bare root cranberry bushes and an orchard starter kit from Wisconsin’s DNR comprised of two apple trees, two pear trees, and a cherry tree.

The following year their attention turned to the backyard. They tore up their landscaping to make room for a new strawberry patch.

“We stopped mowing over our raspberry plants,” Amy said. The summer of 2006 marked a turning point in their transition towards a self-sustaining, agricultural eco-system. This was the beginning of their own little patch of permaculture.

Year after year Amy added new herbs, fruits and vegetables to her backyard garden. With each harvest the yard’s yield became more diverse. Increasingly the yard was overtaken by Amy’s agricultural inspirations.

And they didn’t even have the chickens yet.

In 2010, after much research and deliberation Amy and her family ordered a box of chicks from The next day a peeping box was delivered to their doorstep. Inside, surrounded by straw and a heating pack, was the beginning of the family’s brood.

The chickens took immediately to their new home, a coop designed by Amy’s father and built with the lumber from the children’s old swing set. The first eggs were small and special to the family. As the chickens grew, so too did the size and frequency of the eggs. Today the Wiltzius’ 11 chickens produce more than enough eggs for the family, enough for Gwen to sell some to neighbors.

The success of the chicken experiment led the Wiltzius family to purchase a bee colony and hives last year. The results have been encouraging, with strong yields and a healthy, growing colony. The bees have found a place, among the chickens and the crops, in the Wiltzius’ backyard farm.

Cultivating your own food is rewarding but difficult, time consuming work. After a year of harvesting, they look forward to the restfulness of wintertime. But long before springtime arrives, and the process starts anew, Amy and her family will get the itch for planting season to begin.

What began as hobby for the Wiltziuses has, almost indistinguishably over time, become a way of life. For Amy this process towards long-term sustainability is more a discovery of herself than a transformation.

Always practical, always a minimalist, when Amy looks out at her garden what she sees doesn’t surprise her. “This is me.”


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