If Central Wisconsin doesn’t jump top of mind as a hipster eco-travel destination, think again. This vibrant community brings together a diverse line-up of everything from farm-to-table fare worthy of big city zip codes to the oldest and longest running farmers’ market in the state. Come for the Midwest Renewable Energy Association's Energy Fair, one of the largest sustainability events in the country held every June, and linger for multiple ecotourism experiences and tasty farm to fork dining opportunities.
If you haven’t been to the Midwest Renewable Energy Association (MREA) Energy Fair yet, you are in for a sustainability-intensive experience. One year, the event was even powered by renewable energy produced on site despite the rest of the county going without power due to a storm. Today, attendees and exhibitors can plug-in their electric vehicles to solar-powered chargers for free. Held the weekend closest to the summer solstice, this pop-up outdoor event offers multiple workshops in tents covering topics from getting started with solar electric systems to living off-grid. My husband and photographer, John Ivanko, and I first attended the Energy Fair when we started homesteading now over two decades ago. Thanks to this event and the expertise it brings together, we evolved our Wisconsin farm and B&B, Inn Serendipity, to now run completely on renewable energy in addition to other green design elements such as heating with wood.
Today, we are honored to return annually and lead workshops that share our experiences on topics from frugal eating tips from our Farmstead Chef cookbook to supporting others to start food businesses in your home kitchen as we write about in Homemade for Sale. Thanks to our successful lawsuit lifting the ban on the sale of home baked goods in Wisconsin, we also offer bakery items at the Fair, including John’s hand-decorated “go solar” sun cookies, an Energy Fair crowd favorite.
“The fact that the Midwest Renewable Energy Association’s Energy Fair started here thirty years ago sets the stage for the eco-minded entrepreneurial community we have today,” shares Layne Cozzolino, executive director of Central Rivers Farmshed, a nonprofit representing all aspects of the food system in the Central Wisconsin region. “Between the Fair and the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point campus attracting eco-minded students who decide to stay, we have a very vibrant population of start-ups that prioritize both stewarding the land, our food systems and community.”
As with many area ecopreneurs, Cardozza wears multiple sustainability hats and recently launched Siren Shrub Company, her new business venture that produces drinking vinegars showcasing Wisconsin grown flavors like Door County cherries. The University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point is home to the nation’s first conservation education major created in 1946 with the College of Natural Resources and going strong today.
If you’re traveling in for the Energy Fair or passing through another time of year, plan to linger a few extra days to explore and get a feel for this welcoming, eco-minded community. Here are five of our favorite spots to get you started:
Central Waters Brewery
We say cheers to Central Waters Brewery, committed to being one of the most environmentally sustainable breweries in the nation. A 1,000-square-foot solar thermal system provides hot water to heat their 12,500-square-foot facility and provides preheated water to the brewhouse. A 20 kW solar electric system meets about 20-percent of the energy needs from sunshine. Their bar in the sampling room is built out of recycled materials.
Tour the Central Waters Brewery and learn more about the various energy systems they use. Sample their “Shine On” Ale, a special brew commemorating their switch to solar power with a portion of sales going to the MREA. They were the first brewery participating in the Travel Green Wisconsin, an ecotourism certification program in the state.
Stevens Point Farmers’ Market
This year-round market serves as a gathering point for all things local way before modern foodies started flocking to farmers' markets. Launched in 1847, the Stevens Point Farmers’ Market serves as the longest running market in Wisconsin.
Stock up a variety of unique products produced by area food artisans such as Stonehouse Farm Kitchen run by Katja Marquart and Karl Schwingel, crafting fragrant pesto variations made from both basil and other ingredients like garlic scapes. Since eco-minded members of the Stevens Point community often wear multiple hats, Schwingel is also a seasoned green building and solar installer, helping us convert our granary into a strawbale greenhouse over 15 years ago.
Father Fats Public House
Father Fats exemplifies how Stevens Point businesses take the expected and add a sustainable, local twist. Father Fats’ menu of small plates which changes nightly at first looks like expected bar fare. However, you quickly realize this is not your expected French fries when you sample owner Chef Christian Czerwonka’s poutin with local potatoes loaded with ham, house pickled red onions and a beer-cheese gravy made with brews from Central Waters Brewery down the road. Their Asian Chicken Lettuce Wraps with a sweet chili sauce and crispy wontons are also a big hit.
“Chef Christian prioritizes everything local and designs his menus based on what area farmers grow in season,” shares Sara Brish, Executive Director of the Stevens Point Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It’s the leadership of community members like Chef Christian with a long-term commitment to this place and the health of our community, that make this area so appealing for folks to also move to and launch their new entrepreneurial start-ups.”
In addition to Father Fats, Chef Christian and his wife, Leah, run a successful line-up of local fare focused restaurants including their newest venture: Chef’s Kitchen, featuring a changing pop-up menu celebrating local seasonal ingredients blended with different global cuisines such as Italian Asian-fusion, Brazilian specialties or a mix of other cultural combinations.
Artha Sustainable Living Center
Owners Bob and Marguerite Ramlow helped start the Energy Fair and have been instrumental in growing the MREA. They’re true pioneers in renewable energy. Bob Ramlow wrote the book on solar hot water systems, Solar Water Heating: A Comprehensive Guide to Solar Water and Space Heating Systems. He has penned articles for Mother Earth News over the years on the topic.
Bob Ramlow installed the solar thermal system at our homestead over twenty years ago that still heats our B&B guests’ showers, compliments of the sun. Artha Sustainable Living Center offers bed and breakfast accommodations that are, of course, powered by solar energy. Breakfast provided for guests are made with organic produce grown in their gardens.
If you can’t make the Energy Fair, you can still visit the MREA any time of year by scheduling a tour of the headquarters building in Custer, Wisconsin, just outside of Stevens Point. The MREA offers property tours that cover how they generate 100-pecent of their electricity from renewable energy systems and incorporate energy-efficient features including passive solar design, energy-efficient light fixtures, roof and ground mounted solar PV arrays, in-floor radiant heat, timber framed lobby and a masonry heater.
Additionally, the MREA offers various renewable energy workshops throughout the year where you can experience first-hand how solar electric, solar thermal, wind and alternative construction works. For those looking to make a career in this growing field, the MREA also offers one of the country’s top solar training programs.
Lisa Kivirist, with her husband, John D. Ivanko, a photographer and drone pilot, have co-authored Rural Renaissance, Homemade for Sale, the award-winning ECOpreneuring and Farmstead Chef cookbook along with operating Inn Serendipity B&B and Farm, completely powered by renewable energy. Kivirist also authored Soil Sisters. As a writer, Kivirist contributes to Mother Earth News, most recently, Living with Renewable Energy Systems: Wind and Solar and 9 Strategies for Self-Sufficient Living. They live on a farm in southwestern Wisconsin with their son Liam and millions of ladybugs.
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