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.”

The “big view” of the prairie.

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.

The couple’s home with a solar array, which annually produces more energy than consumed.
In addition to the planted prairies, numerous prairie and savanna remnants—relics of the habitats that were here before the land was farmed—are in the process of being restored and enlarged. Pictured: Hidden Oaks Point, one of the dry bluff prairies.

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.

A circa 1930 photo of the farm and Sumac Bluff, then owned by the Rutschow family.

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.

Mycena acicula – Coral Spring Mycena. Click here to peruse her “farm inventory” to date.

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.

Summer 2000, planted in soybeans.
The former soybean field, 11 years later.

 

 

 

 

 

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