How could we effect the food system…how we could use our privilege as land owners…to effect positive change…we want to open up our land as a place where people can come to learn.
We chatted with Joy Miller, Founder & Executive Director of Driftless Curiosity, we talked origins, immersive experiences, and what’s coming up for this organization offering experiential education in farming, social justice, and the Arts.
Joy Miller 00:48
So my name is Joy Miller. I was born in Kendall, Wisconsin and grew up there, went to Royal High School and then I attended UW La Crosse, UW Madison and then I finished graduated with my undergrad at UW La Crosse. We’re so familiar with the La Crosse scene, definitely. And then I moved to Fairbanks, Alaska and worked there for six years with several different nonprofits. I worked with Fairbanks Native Association, as well as teaching, substitute teaching for five years. So I really got grounded in my love for nonprofit work up there, working on social issues, specifically in the native community. I worked with drug and alcohol rehabilitation, as well as mental wellness and youth suicide prevention while I was there. So, I really fell in love with the idea of helping out in the social sphere and just wellness in general and helping people along on their journey of wellness. Alaska winters were super tough. So in 2017, I decided to move back to Wisconsin. I moved back to La Crosse, lived with my brother for a little while on the south side. And I went back to school at Johns Hopkins University and study my master’s program there in liberal arts. And I kind of started out with English literature, which was what my undergraduate was in. And then I started to gravitate towards things like ethical leadership, environmental ethics, diversity, family and cross cultural perspective. And again, sort of drifting towards that social sphere and how to affect social justice issues going on in our world today. And then in 2017, I met my husband Rufus who owns Keewaydin Farms in Viola, Wisconsin, and I totally fell in love with him, with his farm, and with farming in less than a full season. So I quit my job, broke my lease, moved to the farm, and started helping him run the CSA program. Which is if people aren’t familiar, it CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. And it’s a marketing model that is really beneficial for farmers because the money goes directly to the farm. Members buy a share of the farm, and then they get weekly boxes, sort of like a veggie subscription. Right now we pack about 160 some boxes a week that go out to families. And so I’ve been doing that for about four years now. Well, while I was in graduate school, I sort of gravitated towards food and farming justice and being out on the farm and seeing all the cracks in our food system and the inequities, the disparities, the problems with the capitalist food system, the problems with chemically raised foods, dietary problems, sickness and in our society, sickness economically when we look at the food system. So Rufus and I started to have all of these long winded philosophical conversations about how we could affect the food system, how we could use our privilege as landowners, and people who grow food to affect positive change. And so that’s sort of how Driftless Curiosity started. We want to open up our land, as a place where people can come to learn, can come to recreate, can come receive great food. And the land has been a really healing place, for me personally, the place where I got sober, it’s a place where I, you know, went through a lot of mental and emotional processing of, you know, hardships that I’ve gone through in my in my life, and I wanted to share that with other people.
Brent Hanifl 04:47
So speaking of that, Driftless Curiosity, it’s something that I’ve seen on social media here, a variety of different workshops. You know, I’ve seen everything from forging to things on perennials, to it looks like you even have stuff on soil studies, prairie restoration and even music. Just basically kind of natural progression from being on the farm to form Driftless Curiosity or what is it really?
Joy Miller 05:12
Yeah. So Driftless Curiosity came as an idea of ways for people to deepen their connection with the land. So our mission is deepening people’s connection with the land through curiosity, experiential education, farming, social justice and the arts. So it’s a wide variety of ways to reach people and for ways to deepen their connection with the land. So sometimes that’s farming. Sometimes people want to learn how to grow food, and sometimes that’s art. They want to come out. And like we just this past weekend had a workshop on nature journaling. Rufus and I created a hammock forest in one of the pine stands on our land, and it’s like this beautiful little retreat where people can come and relax and and connect with the land. In my graduate research, I found, I did my graduate research on socially responsible food and ethical food consumerism. It was a community based research project in the Driftless. Because when I moved here, moved back from Fairbanks, I recognize that there was a food community here who supported organics, supported locally grown supported fair trade. And it’s really not an economically thriving area. So I was like, well, what, what’s going on? Why do people why are people motivated to support these things, and a few things I found were, they had meaningful, subjective experiences with the land. They had a counterculture of food community, and they had space and an awareness of farmers. They had gone through the dairy crisis of the mid 80s. So they’d watched farmers lose their farms, they watched families go through divorce and loss of land, and loss of home and livelihood. And that raised awareness in the community, as well as Organic Valley being present in Lafarge that coming up in the 80s, and deciding to go to a more cooperative style of economics and then the competitive capitalist market. So Organic Valley was another entity in the community that raised awareness, and built that counter culture of like, there’s a different way to do food. The Driftless bucked the system because back in the 80s, when it was Earl Butz administration, and the saying was “get big or get out,” plant defense for the fence row and commodity crops. Well the Driftless couldn’t do that, because we were hills, and valleys we’re rich top farms and valley farms. We can’t do the sprawling agriculture of flatter areas of Wisconsin. So we decided we were going to buck the system, we were going to go organic, and were going to go collective, cooperative. So that was like a basically a group of hippies and back to landers, like 10 farmers that started Organic Valley that said, we’re not going to farm chemically, we’re getting it, we’re not going to go, we’re not going to play the capitalist game, they decided to do something different. Which became something really beautiful that has grown into this little like micro economy of food that I saw as a catalyst. So that’s kind of where it was born out of, too, is like, how can I use this area that’s already a catalyst, and bring people in and bring them onto the land and show them the beauty and teach them another way to live on the land.
Brent Hanifl 08:32
But you have this variety of different experiences. As someone who hasn’t participated in something like this before, what can people expect from this experience?
Joy Miller 08:40
Every single workshop is so different. And I’m finding like that It attracts totally different kinds of people. Sometimes they’re young college students from Madison, sometimes they’re people in their 40s, or 50s, who just bought land. Each experience is really different, but kind of the main theme is, people come out to the land, we welcome them. We talk about our principles of land stewardship, the reasons that we do what we do, our passion for growing food and nurturing people and allowing our land to be a healing place. And then we go into some kind of really hands-on, interactive activity. So that could be forging, that could be tapping trees and making maple syrup, it could be nature journaling. We really strive to do that hands-on interactive, experiential education. And I found just so much feedback that people want and need and crave that especially in a time of COVID when absolutely everything went online, and there was no opportunity for hands on learning. So we’ve been fortunate to be able to have space outside to offer those kinds of learning opportunities.
Brent Hanifl 09:52
So kind of speaking about COVID, I know you know, a lot of people are just jumping into new things throughout this time at home. It looks like you know, a decently full count for the remainder of 2021. How did COVID affect the business or even you know, even you personally?
Joy Miller 10:06
COVID definitely launched us into making our philosophical conversations come to life. When COVID hit we were freaked out like everyone else. But we saw our business thrive to the Keewaydin Farms doubled their CSA sales, we ended up packing like 250 boxes. So new people were coming into contact with farmers in their relationship for the first time. And the other thing that happened was friends, family, strangers, CSA members, were calling the farm, sending us emails, were sending us messages. Can we come out to the farm? Can we come out to the farm? I’m going crazy in the city, I need to get out to the country like, and so we had to figure out how to navigate that safely. And we wanted to create that space for people. So we had interns coming from Chicago that stayed on the farm, we had friends out in Colorado that came to the farm. And what we witnessed over and over again, was people going through these mental and emotional shifts, having those meaningful, subjective experiences and coming out when they were ready to leave the farm and go back home saying, I’m leaving here a happier person. You know, this contributed to my development as a young woman, this has helped me get into a mental space that feels like it has so much more ease and peace in it. And those things were like, wow, people need wild spaces, people need to see food growing, people need to be able to retreat from urban anxieties to get off the screen to just do like super simple things. But I saw them make people happy. I saw them put people’s mind at ease. And it made me say, alright, we need to make this happen. We need to open the farm up as a place for people to come and learn and heal and retreat, and reflect on what it means to walk in beauty on this planet.
Brent Hanifl 12:07
So just kind of perusing your website driftlesscuriosity.org, looks like this fall you got everything from soil study to Prairie restorations to music and wild spaces, looks like an artist workshop. What’s next, you know, besides those workshops, or maybe you want to talk about those specific, what’s next for the business?
Joy Miller 12:26
Think right now I’m so in a mode of community collaboration. So I think I’m learning more and more, of course, I’m brand new to this, I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m learning as I go. I’m learning from people that are already doing it. But one thing that I did going into this endeavor is I connected with one of the alumni from Johns Hopkins who is a nonprofits advisor. And the one thing he drilled into me was you need to make community connections, you need to collaborate with the community, it’ll make your organization stronger. Never get into a competitive mindset. Never be in competition with these other people. Collaborate, share resources, reach out and be a friend to these people. So that’s really what I’ve been doing is just meeting people that are in alignment. We just recently had a meeting with the Driftless Folk School. So we’re going to be doing some collaborations with them, you know, listing classes together and also hosting Driftless Folk School classes up at the farm. We recently started working with Burning Man, some people from daypacks from Burning Man just moved to the Driftless. And so we’re going to be doing a workshop in September on flame effects. So it’s a more art based workshop, where they’re going to be the first day is all like the safety and logistics of how to add propane, fire art to metal sculptures. And the second day, they’ll be like taking all the scrap metal from our farm, which is awesome. That means somewhere to go and creating art pieces and then adding flame effects. And we’re gonna have a camp and a barbecue, on the last day do a bunch of fireworks. So like, I’m just really open to like, what are people’s wildest, most curious ideas? How can I create a space for them on the farm? How do I host interesting instructors and you know, bring people together and make them curious about coming up and learning. I’m trying to provoke curiosity.
Brent Hanifl 14:24
Wow, sounds like you got a lot going on here coming up in the next couple months. So if people want to find out more potentially, you know, one of the classes, or just check you out what’s the best avenue for them to go to?
Joy Miller 14:33
You check out the website at driftlesscuriosity.org. Or you can always email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. And I will get back to you. I’m pretty attentive on the email and I’m learning how to balance farming and nonprofit and it’s getting easier as I go. This is the first season and I know that things are going to grow and expand and the more people I bring in the easier it will be on me so.
Amy Gabay 15:06
La Crosse Local Podcast is a production of River Travel Media. Do you have an interview idea you’d like to share with us? Message us on Facebook at La Crosse Local. Find out more about us at lacrosselocal.com and you can subscribe to the La Crosse Local Podcast on your favorite podcast app. If you’d like us, rate us five stars. We appreciate it.
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About La Crosse Local
La Crosse Local is an arts, food, and entertainment podcast and publication for La Crosse County and its surrounding communities.
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