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Annette and Kathleen Fernholz feed the chickens.

Sisters Annette and Kathleen Fernholz offer some flax-enriched feed to their free-range chickens.

A growing ministry

Sisters (and sisters) Annette and Kathleen Fernholz named a "Farm Family of the Year"

By Rick Moore

August 1, 2006

It's just past high noon at Earthrise Farm in Madison, Minnesota--a hop, skip, and a jump from the South Dakota border. As the thermometer creeps toward 90 degrees, it feels as if the reduced humidity levels promised for the day took a detour around this 240-acre parcel of land.

Nonetheless, Kathleen (Kay) and Annette Ferhnolz have come out of the shade to joyously greet their visitors from the Twin Cities, and Kay begins to share her views on the spirituality of the Earth and how she is "trying to know better the personality of prairie plants."

Just then, the dinner bell rings (and the visitor with the notebook realizes he's never before been beckoned to eat by a bell). "Oh, we get to talk about it around the dinner table now," Kay announces.

The University of Minnesota has honored Kay and Annette Fernholz as the "2006 Farm Family of the Year" for Lac Qui Parle County--an honor they share with 58 other Farm Families of the Year from participating Minnesota counties. And whereas the Fernholzes may not be the typical farm family at first glance, "family" is the best word to describe the scene and the sentiment at the Earthrise Farm dinner table.

Annette and Kay--who are biological sisters as well as members of the School Sisters of Notre Dame--are joined this day by their three paid interns, Nick, Greg, and Meg; Meg's sister Emma, who's visiting from the Twin Cities; a high school-aged girl volunteering for the day; and a couple of neighbors who are also visiting. The main course is a hot dish prepared by Meg and Emma using "every vegetable we could find," and as the meal unfolds, Kay delights in sharing a bit about her guests and their journeys, and getting them to fill in some details.

Farm Families of the Year to be recognized at Farmfest

Fifty-nine families from around the state, one from each participating county, have been named by the University of Minnesota as a "2006 Farm Family of the Year."

The families were chosen based on their contributions to the agricultural industry, their communities, and the state. Families receiving honors have demonstrated a commitment to enhancing and supporting agriculture and agriculture production.

The winning families will be officially recognized in a ceremony Thursday, August 3, at the 25th Annual Farmfest in Redwood County. Farmfest runs August 1-3 at the Gilfillan Estate. Event hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on August 1-2, and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on August 3. Admission is $6; those 18 and under are admitted free. More information on Farmfest is available at farm shows.

For more information on the 2006 University of Minnesota Farm Family of the Year winners or the recognition event, visit the U's farm family website.

Annette and Kay have been on quite a journey themselves. Their parents originally moved to this farm in 1944, when the two sisters, who have seven siblings, were young. Kay joined the School Sisters of Notre Dame (SSND) in 1956 and Annette the following year, and both were classroom teachers for many years.

Through gatherings with a "rural life" community of other sisters from the order over the years, Annette and Kay began to seriously consider putting into practice the values they hold dear--caring for creation and restoring the environment. So 11 years ago they moved back to the farm and started their Center for Earth Spirituality and Rural Ministry. Its primary feature is a garden dedicated to community-supported agriculture (CSA). Shareholders from the area (and as far away as the Twin Cities) financially support the production of garden vegetables on the farm, and in turn receive a box of food each week for a 22-week season--enough to feed four people.

In late July, the harvest included green beans, peppers, cauliflower, zucchini, summer squash, carrots, potatoes, and purple basil. Each box contains a newsletter (currently produced by intern Meg) containing a wry look at Earthrise activities, along with cooking tips and other food factoids and folklore. Annette and Kay helped organize a weekly farmers market in Madison, and now produce food for a new farmers market in nearby Montevideo on Thursday evenings.

The farm also belongs to a small poultry co-op, and has about 50 free-range, actively laying bovan hens. The chickens are on a flax-enhanced diet and produce "designer eggs," as Annette calls them, that are rich in healthy omega-3 acids.

True to the SSND mission of education, Earthrise also conducts programming for local schools including a curriculum focused on sustainability. There are also classes at the farm on canning, bread-baking, pottery, and "Earth literacy." And Earthrise is a place where juveniles who are "sentenced to serve" by the county court system can come to do community service. "Almost all of them say, 'I really like it out here,'" notes Kay.

Volunteers also recently helped the Fernholzes erect a domed yurt--a homey structure designed for individual contemplation or small-group retreats. While Earthrise Farm is operated with restoration of the land in mind, the yurt, Kay says, was "created especially for the restoration of the spirit."

Looking back, Kay and Annette Fernholz acknowledge that implementing their current ministry of eco-theology and eco-spirituality wasn't without its hurdles. Though they had approval for their idea, they didn't necessarily have the unbridled support of SSND leadership, at first. Eleven years later, their work has been fully embraced, and the Fernholzes note that the leadership of the SSND community is now looking for able-bodied people to do similar work elsewhere.

Kathleen and Annette (who is holding two wooden flutes Fernholz
Annette Fernholz holds a pair of handmade wooden flutes that are part of the furnishings in the Honeycomb Center Peace Yurt at Earthrise Farm.

Both Annette and Kay mention a natural calling to come back to their family farm. "The restoration of the environment is the hallmark of the next millennium," says Annette. "Maybe we got 'caught' in that thinking process."

As for being a Farm Family of the Year, the Fernholzes consider the School Sisters of Notre Dame as the family. And it's obvious that the extended family includes the interns, the visitors, the young people "doing time" on the farm, and the many volunteers who help Earthrise to help the community.

"You get the feeling that you're not doing this all yourself," adds Annette, "and that makes a difference."