In the middle of Kansas farmland, an unlikely group is doing its best to heal the Earth.
For 27 years, the Dominican Sisters of Peace have held workshops, retreats, peace camps and open houses. They have produced demonstrations on topics such as how to cook with a solar oven, create contemplative photography and writing, and make jelly and bread.
Their latest endeavor: “Spirituality and Farming,” a retreat scheduled for Aug. 21-22.
Their 80-acre farm, 13 miles west of Great Bend, is billed as an agritourism mainstay for south-central Kansas and is described on promotional fliers as a “serene oasis tucked into the Kansas Prairie.” It attracts volunteers and guests from around the world.
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The sisters raise alpacas, heirloom vegetables and chickens. They have built a prairie-grass labyrinth in a pasture and installed stained glass in an upright feed silo before converting it into an acoustical feel-good chapel.
There is a straw-bale pottery barn with enough room to serve as alpaca wool-weaving headquarters, solarium and more.
In essence, the Dominican Sisters of Peace have created a haven for peace and live in abundance within the heartbeats of country life.
Life of peace
The Heartland Farm headquarters are in a century-old farmhouse, its back porch filled with galoshes and with hats and coats hanging on wall hooks.
“In the 1980s, there was a growing awareness of environmental concerns among the sisters,” said Sister Marilyn Pierson, one of four sisters who live on the farm. “We’d go to leadership meetings and people were starting to get knowledgeable. Different congregations were beginning to invest in land so it could be preserved in a more careful way.”
A perfect storm was brewing on the family farms during those years with interest rates in the double digits. Farmers were heavily in debt, and farm exports were suffering because of the economy. Energy costs were high. Land prices were plummeting.
And there was an ongoing drought.
“The ’80s was part of a farm crisis that never went away,” said Sister Jane Belanger, another of the sisters who live on the farm. “Because the Dominican Sisters were located in this area, in this rural community, they made some conscious decisions about serving in this area and region.
“Buying the farm was an expression of solidarity with this rural community, but doing it with the objective it would also be an alternative for more sustainable, organic, holistic farming.”
Their mission and lifestyle has been featured in Saveur magazine – a gourmet food, wine and travel publication – as a recommended place to stay in Kansas. Their meals are made from produce grown on the farm.
A lunch last week consisted of vegetarian lasagna, fresh homemade garlic bread, sliced heirloom tomatoes from the garden and a stir-fry of garden vegetables that included cabbage, carrots, onions and potatoes. Dessert was homemade chocolate cake with German chocolate frosting.
Currently there are four sisters who live on the farm: Belanger, Pierson, Sister Rene Weeks and Sister Mary Ellen Dater. There is also a full-time organic farmer, Ariel Aaronson-Eves, who manages the gardens, crops, orchards and animals.
Guests and volunteers come and go – some staying weeks, some only a few hours. There are also two cats, Willow and Xander, who live in the chicken house with the 65 chickens; three dogs, Lily, Lenny and Langston; and 18 alpacas.
A day at the farm
The sisters’ days begin at 7 a.m. with prayer and Communion.
Volunteers weed the garden, load grass bales in the barn, tend to the orchard and do whatever else needs to be done for the day. An Eagle Scout from nearby Olmitz, Eric Frieb, recently built a pavilion/shelter for the sisters, raising $17,000 and constructing the project with his father, Tim Frieb.
At noon, Sister Appoline Simard, who is volunteering at the farm this summer, rings the dinner bell with as much enthusiasm as the old chef Bolivar in “Lonesome Dove” – methodically and with great purpose.
The noon meal begins with prayer, thanking God for the people present and expressing gratitude for the meal they are about to eat.
People often find out about Heartland Farm through the Internet. That’s how Laura Walsh and Sarah Conley from Chicago found the sisters.
“I Googled ‘find work on alpaca farm,’ and they came up,” Walsh said.
Some find out through the Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms, a network of sustainable farms.
“We had two college kids from the University of Southern Florida not long ago,” Belanger said. “They were here for a full week.
“And another guy was from California and was working his way from one summer project to another across the nation to see what was available.”
Their mission is to help raise awareness of what’s happening to Kansas farmland, its dwindling water supply and other resources. That’s one reason for the spirituality and farming workshop later this month.
“It is one way to support our own vision,” Belanger said of the workshop. “But we want to ask our participants why they do what they do, why do they care about agriculture?
“So much about agriculture is a spiritual calling, but there are not many opportunities to articulate that, and you rarely here a sermon about that in church.”
Directions: Go west for 12 miles on 10th Street to the Barton County line, continue west on gravel road one more mile, turn left on Rush County Road No. 390 and drive a half-mile south. The farm is on the west side.
Cost to stay at farm: $30 a night for a single person plus an additional $25 for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Couples who share the same room can stay for $50 a night. Volunteers who work can stay for room and meals.
More info: www.heartlandfarm-ks.org or call 620-923-4585