Dorothy and John Priske are passionate about sustainable farming and helping young farmers reach success.
The Priskes, who own Fountain Prairie Farm near Fall River, have participated in sustainable farm-to-table farming for many years. After scaling back somewhat, the Priskes wanted an opportunity to give back, helping the next generation of sustainable farmers.
In February, they decided to lease 165 of their 280 acres to Madison College for the school’s hands-on agricultural programs. For at least the next three years, students can learn about sustainable farming right on the farm. Randy Zogbaum, agriculture instructor at Madison College, approached the couple with the idea and the Priskes jumped at the opportunity.
The hands-on program began more than a year ago when John Priske helped teach a course with Zogbaum at the farm.
“It’s the idea of bringing them to the farm to get the boots on the ground experience and actually see sustainable farming, not something they can look at online or in a book,” John Priske said. “Some of (the students) have never been on a farm. They have this goal or dream that they want to be on the land, but this might be their first exposure of actually touching a cow. We teach them how to care for the animals in a safe way and not get hurt.”
The Priskes still own several Scottish Highland beef cattle, but they’ve reduced beef production the past few years. For more than 30 years, the Priskes worked with chefs in Madison to direct-market the farm’s beef on their menus.
The couple has also participated in the slow food movement, developed by an Italian chef protesting a McDonald’s coming to Rome in the 1980s.
“It’s about knowing where your food comes from, enjoying the preparation, sharing with family and friends and taking time to savor and enjoy it,” Dorothy Priske said. “Not just eating in your car while you’re driving some place. It’s a whole different kind of mindset to the way a lot of people live their lives.”
The Priskes, along with more than 5,000 farmers from 130 countries, were invited to Italy to learn about the slow food process for the Terra Madre (Mother Earth) celebration in 2004. At the time, Fountain Prairie Farm was transitioning into beef production and the Priskes considered their trip a revelation.
“We were trying to sell beef and it was kind of tough,” John Priske said. “We were transitioning from one way of farming and that trip really strengthened our resolve. We got to see what people do all over the world and it really helped us.”
In 2007, the Priskes hosted their first public pasture walk to give organizations a glimpse into sustainable farming. The walk attracted more than 220 people and the Priskes held a lunch at the farm, featuring food produced by them and other local farmers. The event was so popular that people had to be turned away.
“It was a good way to show how a different way of farming can be beneficial environmentally, socially responsible and can still be economically viable,” John Priske said. “That’s why we’re doing this with the college. We’re sharing, learning and educating. We’ve had mentors who have helped us and now we can pass that forward.”
Fountain Prairie Farm will offer workshops this spring and summer. Dorothy Priske said soil health is an important topic in the ag community and upcoming workshops will focus on soil.
Andy and Sadie Fischer, who run the Fischer Family Farm near Cambria, are hoping to follow the Priske model. Andy Fischer met the Priskes while working at Fountain Prairie Farm about 10 years ago and felt the urge to pursue sustainable farming. The Fischers heard about the young farmers program at Madison College through the Priskes and knew it was an ideal opportunity.
“At the time, I thought I wanted to get into the dairy business but then got into the seed sales business; currently I have a job selling vegetable seed,” Fischer said. “My heart has always been into farming and so I’m waiting for that opportunity to quit my full-time job and go into farming full-time.”
The Fischers are subletting a portion of land from the Priskes for their grass and barley-fed beef cattle. They also raise pastured hogs, turkey and chickens and sell free-range eggs.
“We want to have the whole gamut of everything and anything on the farm,” Fischer said.
Along with raising Scottish Highlands, the Priskes have a restored tall grass prairie and wetland. They also saved pastured land for song birds to nest with some coming all the way from South America. Like many farmers, the Priskes had row crops and focused on producing high yields. But they made a change and never looked back.
“They put a fence around their fields and put cattle out there,” Fischer said. “Their soil tests don’t lie when their organic tests are through the roof. I want to know exactly what they do and how to do it. The Priskes are a great resource for us.”