Grand Rapids — Harold Altenburg looks across his fields, where he grows strawberries, pumpkins and corn, and he pictures a future where teenagers can visit the farm to learn more about agriculture.
Altenburg bought 40 acres of land just outside of Wisconsin Rapids in 1964. Every year, he hosts fall events and sleigh rides at Altenburg’s Farm. Altenburg is 83, and he knows he won't be able to farm forever. His four children each have pursued other career paths.
That's part of what drove Altenburg to hatch a plan for a farm school to work with teenagers between the ages of 14 and 19. He already built relationships with schools in the area; students visit the farm or work after school, and Altenburg teaches them about farming, agriculture and hard work. A farm school would create a structured program and curriculum, expanding on the existing partnerships with local schools, and, he hopes, it would allow Altenburg's Farm to live on in the community even after he is no longer in the fields.
The farmer picked up a pen and wrote his vision for the school.
“A place to learn by doing,” Altenburg wrote. “A place to work and get paid. A place where students get credits for school. A place to learn about agriculture. A place where work and learning become fun. A place where you’re part of a team. A place where you use your hands and put your head to work.”
Altenburg's Farm already serves as more than a traditional farm in the community. Guests often visit the farm to pick summer strawberries and fall pumpkins, and the farm is a site for seasonal family fun. The farm hosts a fall festival several weeks each year and winter sleigh rides to support the United Way of Inner Wisconsin.
Altenburg first shared his vision with Incourage a few years ago. Altenburg and Incourage formed an advisory committee of teachers, community members and people interested in making a farm school a reality.
Gus Mancuso from Incourage said the group determined it needed the community to learn more about the project and get involved.
“Community members need to be involved and experience the farm the way people have for more than 40 years,” Mancuso said.
Altenburg is part of a larger demographic trend. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the most recent census data in 2012 reported the average age of farmers was 56.5 years old, while 9 percent were 34 years old or younger.
By transitioning the farm into a school, he hopes to encourage young people to get involved in agriculture, while he secures his own farm's future as a nonprofit organization.
Altenburg and Incourage will host an informational meeting at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Performing Arts Center, 1801 16th St. S. in Wisconsin Rapids.
The event will begin as a presentation and community launch of the project, then attendees will talk about their interests and passions around the topic.
The farm school will need a farmer, a nonprofit board of directors and funding to get started; Incourage declined to offer an estimate of what it will cost. Altenburg will still own the farm and serve as an adviser for the school, while the board will maintain Altenburg’s vision and passion for the not-for-profit farm.
There’s a lot of passion to go around. Altenburg said his favorite thing about running the farm has been the children who run up to give him hugs or draw him pictures to show their appreciation of the farm. The farmer's passion overflows when he talks about the relationships he has formed and connections he has built over the years. He dreams the farm school will continue the heart of Altenburg's Farm for future generations.
“It’s time to put passion into action,” Mancuso said.
For more information about Altenburg’s Farm, visit altenburgsfarm.com. For more information about the event, visit incouragecf.org, find Incourage on Facebook or call 715-423-3863.