Tom Rehberger is determined to put our community on a sustainable path.
“If you know the history of Door County, it’s a story of not sustainability,” he said. “We clear cut the forest, overfished the fish.”
But Rehberger’s property won’t fit that mold. He purchased 44 acres on Beach Road between Sister Bay and Ellison Bay, and has opened it to the public as a space to grow food, learn and connect.
He calls the place Hidden Acres Farm, and already more than 30 people have volunteered in the farm’s community garden.
The Hidden Acres Farm community garden is really community-focused – instead of getting their own plots, volunteers work together to grow vegetables in the garden’s raised beds. Volunteers just drop by the farm anytime from sunup to sundown, check the chore board to see what needs to be done, grab a tool or two and head out to the garden. When they’re done working, they pick some produce to take home.
Hidden Acres Farm was originally home to a fishing business in the early 1900s, and then became a dairy in the 1960s with hay, alfalfa and oats planted in the fields. Rehberger and his wife Carolyn purchased it in 2011, and fixed up the barns that were falling apart and filled with bats.
This is the first year of the Hidden Acres Farm community garden, and Rehberger was so excited to get it started he had the snow plowed off the yard in April so he could build the raised garden beds, which are made out of ash harvested from the property.
Rehberger, his interns and volunteers planted produce on May 21, and the garden is now overflowing with kale, kohlrabi, turnips, zucchini, herbs and almost every other vegetable you can think of.
And those veggies are doing well, even though planting weather hit Door County later than usual.
“Our goal was to have ripe tomatoes by the Fourth of July, but we missed,” Rehberger said. “It was the seventh.”
Public access to Hidden Acres Farm doesn’t stop with the community garden. Rehberger is fixing up an old shed and turning it into a library, there is has a walking path through the property, and he has restored the 98-year-old barn as open space for meetings, banquets and events.
The public space of Hidden Acres Farm helps support its commercial side. Rehberger plans to start Community Supported Agriculture and a Restaurant Supported Agriculture businesses. He’s testing out fields around the property to see what he can grow, and already has some produce designated for local cooks.
“We consider [the community garden to be] the test garden for us in the commercial side – we want to know what people like and what grows well,” Rehberger said.
Rehberger is also planning to grow acres of two specialty crops: hops, for local brewers, and aronia, a small, tart berry often cultivated in the Eastern U.S. The crops both hold special places for Rehberger – hops because he comes from a long line of brewers and aronia because he’s been told it’s a fruit soon to be in high demand.
Although he’s always worked with food, Rehberger hasn’t always grown it. He retired from Dupont in 2008, where he was a microbiologist studying how organisms such as bacteria are used in the food system. He researched things such as the bacteria that helps people and animals digest food, bacteria that can be used to preserve food.
But he was tired of being in the research side of the industry and wanted to move to the production side. He’s taking the things he learned in the lab and using them in the fields of Hidden Acres Farm.
Rehberger and his interns are experimenting with composting seaweed from local marinas, and using organic methods to protect plants from diseases and pests. They’re trying to make the community more eco-friendly and self-sufficient, to work with their neighbors to grow healthy, local food and support a sustainable Door County.
To volunteer at Hidden Acres Farm, head down to 11128 Beach Road. When you get there, check the chore board and get in the garden.