When the O’Connors bought an old dairy turned deer-hunting farm, they had visions of transforming it into a “perfect” prairie. “We envisioned prairies with beautiful flowers, all natives, and no weeds,” explains Marcie, who, with her husband Mike, has been restoring their 500-acre farm near Alma, Wisconsin, into prairie and savanna for the past 20 years. “We gradually realized that we’ll never have perfect prairies. We’ll always have weeds and invaders.”
Despite the persistent challenge of beating back non-native vegetation, the O’Connors have transformed their property into a remarkable re-creation of what their landscape may have resembled before early settlers turned much of the Midwest Driftless Area into dairy farms and fields of crops. The Driftless Area—a region of western Wisconsin, southeastern Minnesota, northeastern Iowa, and a small pocket of northwestern Illinois that was bypassed by glaciers—is noted for its undulating landscapes and rugged terrain.
Portions of the O’Connors’ acreage, comprised of steep hillsides and narrow valleys, had never been farmed. Those unplowed remnants of dry bluff prairies, savannas, sedge meadows, and wet prairies had long been overgrown, overgrazed, or inundated by invasive vegetation. But, buried in the soil on much of their land were prairie plants and long-dormant native seeds waiting for the right conditions to spring back to life. And, through the planting of new native vegetation, selective tree girdling, and the removal of invasive species, the acreage steadily transitioned into a robust refuge for wildlife. “As the restoration matures, we see more animals and plants every year,” remarks Marcie.
The couple is pleased with the results of their hard work—even though they have spent more time than they could ever have imagined to bring their property back to life. Their years of hard work have been fueled by a determination to provide safe haven to native wildlife. “So much wild land is being lost every year from relentless human development. It’s really important to us to protect and restore what we can of these native landscapes. Otherwise, they’re all going to disappear,” explains Marcie.
The 500-acre native landscape the O’Connors are lovingly restoring truly lives up to the name the couple gave to their farm, “Prairie Haven.” Through Marcie’s blog (with Mike’s tech support), frequent talks and presentations, farm tours, and an annual slide show, the couple view Prairie Haven as a living platform for education. “We hope our efforts will inspire others to appreciate the wildlife around them, plant native plants, protect native habitat, and perhaps try a restoration or native garden of their own,” says Marcie. “We’re deeply committed to sharing what we’re doing with other people.” It seems quite probable that from time to time Mike and Marcie must stand in awe of what they have created from former soy and cornfields—and an old dairy farm.
Interested in more articles on how to green your yard, block, neighborhood, community? Sign up to receive The Butterfly Effect journal in your inbox twice a year. And like us on Facebook for ideas and stories all year long.