A Rural Renaissance: Bed and Breakfast

From a busy city life to a quiet homesteading lifestyle, running a bed and breakfast.
by John Ivanko and Lisa Kivirist
June/July 2004
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Seven years ago, in search of a more satisfying, sustainable lifestyle, we left the hectic pace of downtown Chicago to move to a small farm in Browntown, Wis., in the southwestern part of the state.
Photo courtesy Fotolia/catolla


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Seven years ago, in search of a more satisfying, sustainable lifestyle, we left the hectic pace of downtown Chicago to move to a small farm in Browntown, Wis., in the southwestern part of the state. We left behind prestigious advertising agency jobs for an 80-year-old farmhouse that we operate as Inn Serendipity Bed and Breakfast, and that serves as our base for such income-producing projects as writing and photography, and a variety of environmental-conservation efforts.

One balmy evening last July, while sitting on our front porch sharing a simple supper of tender lettuce greens and ruby red tomatoes partnered with a warm and crusty loaf of homemade bread, we watched the summer sunset fade to a warm glow and the fireflies begin their evening dance. And we realized we were no longer just owners of a farm; we were active participants in a rural way of life.

We moved to this farmstead with the idea of living our lives according to Mahatma Gandhi's philosophy that "We must become the change we seek." Our quest for the ideal life aims for an existence simpler in design yet richer in meaning than we had in the city. It means a sustainable lifestyle, where we are unearthing passion with every potato we dig.

Making the Move

As suburban kids, and later as young urban professionals, we felt an illusory sense of prosperity and success. The ad agency we both worked for offered exactly the kind of atmosphere in which our college educations prepared us to thrive. And for a while, we both did.

But nightclubs and espresso bars satisfied for only so long. Why were we thinking more about the next weekend getaway to Wisconsin or the next vacation to the Smoky Mountains than of moving up to a corner office? After three years on the job, we realized something was amiss; all we had to show for our efforts was a bank account and a collection of restaurant matchboxes. So, we wandered into southwestern Wisconsin in search of another place to plant our roots, and we found our farm. With a computer and an Internet connection, we established our bed and breakfast; with Rodale's All-New Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening, we figured out which direction the eyes of the potato should be facing when planted. And we dug into our new rural life.

Another sort of Workplace

Chickens, cats and our 2 1/2-year-old son, Liam, roam freely across the land. Occasionally at night, a great horned owl hunts from atop the crest of the barn roof. Our urban commute to the ad agency has been replaced with a 20-second stroll into our home office, where we are as likely to talk about bluebirds, "visit" with ladybugs or slip outside to pick flowers for the guest rooms as we are to crank out copy on the computer.

Our farmhouse itself is a blend of traditional and modern Earth-friendly technology. We cook up hearty breakfasts of farm-fresh eggs and vegetables in the kitchen, while B&B guests take a morning shower upstairs with water heated by solar panels on the roof.

The family from whom we purchased this place took great pride in their home and outbuildings. The house is rock solid, and needed very few repairs when we bought it. We did do a little bit of renovation for the B&B, including adding full bathrooms on the second floor for each guest room.

When we made changes, we did so with an eye toward more Earth-friendly options. These include bathroom tiles made from recycled auto windshield glass, no-VOC (volatile organic compound) paint, and no-VOC stains and wood floor sealers.

Staying Connected

Past homesteading generations tended to live in more isolated locales, often building cabins in the woods alongside others with similar values, but we thrive on staying connected to a diversity of people around the world. Today's technology helps us do this. Between an Internet connection, faxes and international couriers, we can literally "set up shop" anywhere.

Connectedness is the element that makes this 21st-century rural sustainability movement different from the homesteading movements of earlier times. And modern technology makes it possible. Our Internet connection makes it far easier to earn income in a rural area from such nontraditional sources as we employ. Sustainability is an ideal, a "moving target" that we're always working toward. But living in the country, we find that more than ever, our environmentally responsible decisions are based on personal convictions rather than on what other people might think. The neighbors aren't close enough to see us, and those mythical image-driven Joneses probably would take one look at the chicken poop on the sidewalk and cruise on by.

The anonymity could give us carte blanche to do whatever we liked; recycling is voluntary and whether we apply chemical pesticides and fertilizers in the garden is up to us. But the frog croaking in the pond knows, and Liam is directly affected by our relationship with and treatment of the Earth. So we're determined to leave this farmstead, and this world, in better shape than we found it.

Fresh from the Garden

Growing 70 percent of our own food organically is one of our biggest investments in sustainability. We didn't harvest a single zucchini our first planting season, but every year since, we have increased our growing know-how and our production.

B&B guests always are served fruits and vegetables from our garden. Our chickens' multicolored eggs are popular in the thriving local barter economy, too.

We plant according to what we enjoy eating, and our gardens look similar to the victory gardens of the 1940s: We have three growing fields that measure 40 by 70 feet, 50 by 82 feet and 48 by 40 feet; in them, in 30 intensively planted raised-bed rows, we grow both fruits and vegetables, from staples such as tomatoes, potatoes and spinach to strawberries and pumpkins. What we don't eat fresh or serve fresh to our guests, we cold store and freeze for off-season use.

The first spring, standing water covered the garden fields, which had compacted, predominantly clay soils. Over time, we've added lots of organic matter — our own compost and our free-range chickens" "inputs" — and mulched heavily to create the raised bed rows.

As we've gardened, we've slowly come to understand that every living thing in nature is someone else's lunch: Natural ecosystems are self-regenerating, with nutrients that are continually recycled. Instead of growing in ways that work against these natural cycles, we have chosen to build the natural fertility of the soil and to foster ecological diversity there. We do most of the gardening ourselves, but sometimes B&B guests and personal friends will join us for planting, harvesting and, on occasion, even weeding.

Energy Independence

We also are pursuing a long-term goal of completely powering our home with renewable energy. Already, we have accomplished our short-term energy goal — to live in a house not powered by fossil fuels; to accomplish that, we simply shifted to an all-electric home and selected the 100-percent renewable "green energy" option from our local electric utility.

We've learned the first step in moving towards renewable energy for power isn't taking on big projects, like installing a solar hot water system or wind turbine. Rather, it's focusing on conservation, and figuring out how to use less energy and use it more wisely so that, down the road, renewable systems can be adopted more easily and cost effectively.

Initially, to cut down on our energy use, we replaced just about every incandescent light bulb in the house with compact fluorescent bulbs. We also switched to Energy Star appliances and began line drying our laundry. And we plugged all our appliances into power strips so it's easier to control "ghost loads," the small amounts of electricity used by automatic functions on appliances whenever the appliances are plugged in.

In time, we started installing renewable energy systems, which together with our conservation efforts have cut our electricity use today to 40 percent of the previous owner's use.

Among our installations is a three-collector solar thermal system for domestic hot water, used by us and our B&B guests. Then came our EPA-certified Lopi Endeavor wood stove, to meet our heating needs with wood, which in this area is a readily available fuel.

We made numerous visits to the Midwest Renewable Energy Association's Sustainable Living Fair and talked often with our neighbors "Uncle Phil and Aunt Judy," who live a mile away and, in the 1970s, ran a solar energy business. After much study, we added a 480-watt photovoltaic (PV) system, cantilevered off the south wall of an equipment shed, and a 10-collector solar thermal system to heat our straw bale greenhouse.

Our most significant renewable-energy effort to date is the addition of a 10-kilowatt Bergey wind turbine. This system, placed atop a 120-foot guyed lattice tower, generates an estimated 12,000 kilowatt-hours a year — more than our annual electricity needs. Surplus electricity from this wind-PV hybrid, grid-connected system automatically flows into the grid, further helping offset our neighbors" use of electricity, which in Wisconsin, mostly comes from coal-fired electricity plants.

Right Livelihood

The term "right livelihood" originated in ancient Buddhist teachings and means work that is ethical. According to the Right Livelihood Award Foundation, the term reflects a belief that each person should follow an occupation consistent with the principles of honest living, treating other people and the natural world with respect.

In our lives on the farm, right livelihood is made up of all the things we do on any given day: selling photos, planting sweet peas, sharing s'mores with B&B guests around the campfire, nursing Liam. Our work and leisure blend into a lifestyle and work style that remind us of a time when commerce still was about community exchanges, relationships and local priorities.

As a couple, we love having the opportunity to work together on an intimate, daily basis — even though we didn't set out specifically to live and work this way when we started our relationship 14 years ago.

Back then, we shared a vision of living closer to the land. Over time, we have developed a livelihood partnership based on a love that binds us by much more than a legal document. Our personal goals as individuals, global citizens and business owners are to plant more trees than have been cut down for our use; to help cultivate a bioregional and sustainable food system that is more secure for us and our community; to completely offset the carbon dioxide emissions caused by our energy use; to live a fossil-fuel-free life and to feed the flames of our imaginations. Nearly a decade after leaving the fast track, we have a combined income that totals significantly less than just one of our ad agency salaries, but we are infinitely happier.


This story was adapted from Ivanko and Kivirist's new book, Rural Renaissance: Renewing the Quest for the Good Life, selected for MOTHER's new "Books for Wiser Living" series, published by New Society Publishers. You also can visit their Web site.


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