Echo Valley Farm, more than a community
It was 2002 when Dena Eakles bought the property now called Echo Valley Farm located just Southeast of Ontario, Wisconsin.
“I was looking for a place where I would be able to be in the country, be in nature, but also one that I could allow other people to come, because I felt that was the most important thing to our healing as human beings,” Eakles said.
At the time Eakles was thinking about going back to Western Pennsylvania where she is originally from, but when 9/11 happened, that changed everything.
Eakles was in Chicago at the time, and had been living there for 22 years. Eakles felt It was too flat being from Pennsylvania, and remembered coming to the Driftless area that reminded her of the hills back home.
Eakles started driving 4 ½ hours one way into the Driftless to look for land. “One time I saw this place and knew this was it. I thought, maybe I could do this, maybe I could be here. I appreciated the different levels of the property. I had made some notes of what I was hoping for, and this place fit perfectly,” she said.
The first time Eakles came to buy this place, the owners told her they raised the price $10,000, and she had saved her money to the penny to pay the original asking price. So Eakles drove back to Chicago disappointed.
A few months later she made a trip back to the area to pick up a rocking chair, and found the property was still for sale. So Eakles called the owner and said, ‘Can you take my offer and be done in two weeks?’ He accepted, and her dream was realized.
“So, I pulled my Nissan up with 3 dogs and a cat. We slept in the weeds in the car. The house was unlivable at the time. I would drive up every week and start scraping and painting the walls. People would just carve their deer out in here. Upstairs they had layers and layers of fluorescent wallpaper. It was a wild place,” she said.
Eakles continued, “We did a lot. My friends came up and helped. We had our first gathering here in October 2002. I just had some people come. I had the guy who was mowing the lawn for the real estate keep mowing because I didn’t have a lawn mower. I didn’t know what I was doing. One woman was kind of psychic. She was saying, ‘Everything that you want to do here will come to pass’. She just came through. She was one of those people who just come through, tell you something and go away.”
Eakles said some people have lived at the farm for a long time, like Lauren, Deb, and Margaret, and some came and stayed for 6 years and left.
Eackles shared, “It’s sort of been a fluid thing. We are part of WWOOF (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms). It’s been around since the 70’s. When I joined, our first Woofers were from all over the world. We’ve had people from China, Japan, Panama, France, Canada, Germany, all over the place. The people who were from out of the country would have a lot of time on their hands.” As an explanation, Woofing is when someone goes to an organic farm and in exchange for food and sleeping accommodations, helps on the farm and/or shares their knowledge or skills with other residents. Some people would stay for 3 months, some for longer.
Eakles said it was nice to get to know others over the years, and feels the sense of community is big at Echo Valley Farm.
Eakles eventually built a stage on the property hosting musicians, and called the venue ‘Widening the Circle’. She didn’t know there was a ‘Widening the Circle’ in LaCrosse that already existed, where the Hmong and Ho-Chunk were educating educators on their respective cultures.
Inviting community people to come to their venue, Eakles found that “People don’t always respect the land.” Eakles stressed that they didn’t want alcohol to be involved at their gathering, and noted they would still find beer cans after events to their dismay. Eventually it was decided to halt the gatherings. “We haven’t done it for a few years now. We have it still, it’s a natural amphitheater.” She is not counting out eventually hosting gatherings in the future though.
Sari, a guest I met on my visit to the farm said, “I’ve known Dena since before she had this place. I’ve been coming up here since she bought it. I’m still North of Chicago, with family and kids. This was an experiment, a journey, an exploration, a creative genius that I love. I come up once a year, twice if I’m lucky. I help where I can, and go home better for it. Dena’s always been an amazing and special person. She has a broad experience of knowledge.”
The farm, originally 40 acres, expanded a couple years ago when Eakles bought 6 acres because she rescued some mules she we wanted to keep. That 6 acres also has a garden where they grow Native American corn, and teas among other useful plants. It also is home to one of the few natural springs on the acreage that provides water for the farm. The teas are sold to help support the farm, as does their bakery.
They have put in a wood-burning stoves so the farm is almost completely off of LP, and have solar panels to reduce their dependency on the traditional electric grid. Echo Valley Farm makes every effort to lessen their human foot print in nature and become more and more self-sufficient.
Deb is the resident gardener, overseeing the gardens and the greenhouse that was built all from re-purposed wood.
As for how Deb came to the farm, she said, “I was fortunate. I grew up in the country in Northern WI on a small farm. I loved it. Then, I lived in cities like Colorado, North Carolina, and back to Colorado. Then I came back to Wisconsin to be with my parents because they were getting old and needed help. Then I met Dena and the people here, and started visiting. I visited a long time before I moved here. I just really felt at home here, and felt like these were my people. It’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to be able to live in the country and share it. I lived in Madison a while and had a job with occupational therapy. Then I moved here and started growing things. I learned how to grow things I hadn’t grown before like Chinese herbs, and other sorts of herbs. I like Western herbs so I planted those. We make the teas with the Tulsi, and it really balances me.”
On the farm, they grow most of the food they eat; sheep, vegetables, and herbs to name a few. Foraging also complements their diets and they try and use everything that is available from the land.
Now having mentioned a bakery, that would be Lauren’s contribution. Lauren came to the farm as part of the WWOOF program.
“I road my bicycle here from Indianapolis. My plan was to ride my bike all the way to Portland, Oregon, because I had previously been living there. I made it to Madison, and thought, what was I thinking? I realized my plan was terrible and crazy. I heard about the WWOOF program, so I thought maybe I could find a place to stay for the winter. Someone told me this part was beautiful and had a lot of organic farms so I looked on the WWOOF website at this area and found Echo Valley. Echo Valley called back and said I could possibly stay for the winter and I said ‘ok’. I came and never left,” Lauren said with a laugh.
Eakles added, “The thing about this place is that I encourage people to do what they love, but it has to be in keeping. We have two rules here: respect yourself and everyone and everything else, and live as conscientiously as you can. Within that parameter, have at it. Deb loves gardening and Lauren loves to cook and bake. So, I said let’s make a bakery.”
Lauren continued, “We all want to have a way to support ourselves from the farm so we don’t have to have jobs away from here that we don’t want to do. I think food is a great way to know people and teach people what is here and what they can eat. I love it, it is fun. We just opened the bakery the end of May of this year. There was another woman that lived here that owned an adjacent piece of property where we had a bakery, but then she left and sold that piece. So, we closed unexpectedly. That was a different set up because it was separate from this place. Here people can sit outside here and walk around the farm a little bit.”
I would be remiss, if not to mention the amazing scenery that makes up Echo Valley Farm. The animals, apple orchard, unique homes, and especially the residents that all make up just one of the special places in the Driftless area. This place has a calm, peaceful, spiritual feeling, that seems to help you get in touch not only with nature, but yourself and the very nature of being.
“I just want to do the best I can while I’m here and learn. I told my friend Annie that I wanted to buy some land. She said, ‘Buy the land, it will teach you.’ That’s been the truth. I’m happy. We’ve helped a lot of people. We have tons of thank you notes, sometimes people will send them after they leave,” Eakles said with a cheerful smile.