Nestled behind the cornfields, you’d never know it was there. The long ribbon of driveway works as a portal, inviting guests and friends on a journey to a magical place where art, nature and the pastoral beauty of a Wisconsin farm have been carefully woven together into something special.
Serenity Farm: The name says it all. With its myriad flower and vegetable gardens, whimsical sculptures and outdoor art, barnyard critters and more, the tranquil setting is a celebration of the creative spirit combined with the wildness of nature. It beckons the curious to stay a spell; discovering all of its gifts might just take a while.
Paul and Laura Phelps purchased their 126-acre farm on Mapleton Road in the town of Oconomowoc in 2011. Paul is a stained-glass artisan, and the couple owns Oakbrook Esser Studio in downtown Oconomowoc.
“We were living in the city of Oconomowoc and had looked for years for a farm. We had a list of priorities and looked at hundreds of properties,” says Paul. “When we saw this farm, we made a connection right away. It was meant to be, and we felt it was our destiny. We prayed about it and promised to be good stewards.”
“This land is just beautiful. It’s a perfect rectangle. It has rolling terrain with wooded, wetland and tillable areas. The Ashippun River runs through it, and is breathtaking. It meanders back and forth, and when it freezes over in the winter, we enjoy walking on it,” adds Laura.
Inspired by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s philosophy on organic architecture, Paul and Laura purposefully intertwine form and function with the symbiotic ordering systems of nature in everything they do on their farm and in the studio.
“When we are planting our gardens, we’re carefully thinking about where things go and how they fit. Textures and colors all intermingle. They are key elements in art and plants and are very important to us,” explains Paul, bending over to pull a few pesky weeds from in front of a mosaic sculpture. “There’s a repetitive rhythm, like the trusses in the barn or the chevron shape in plants like oats and barley. It’s like music, in a way. I love that.”
Using organic practices, Laura and Paul started 16,000 seedlings in the Purple Cow Organics research greenhouse. Additionally, tens of thousands of seeds were directly sown this spring in 19 vegetable, herb and flower gardens of varying shapes and sizes. The couple sells their harvest through community-supported agriculture (CSA).
This last season about 20 families participated in the farm share partnership with Serenity Farm, each receiving a basket brimming with fresh, organically grown, non-GMO produce and flowers every week.
“It just keeps evolving. And we are always weeding. It’s a lot of work, but there’s also so much enjoyment,” Laura adds, smiling. “When we bought our farm there wasn’t a flower anywhere. It was a former dairy farm and had been owned by the same family for five generations.”
Serenity Farm is also home to a pair each of goats, Shetland sheep, pigs, a flock of chickens and turkeys and thousands of Italian honey bees.
“We’ve planted a few thousand flowers from seeds. They feed the mind and soul, while the food feeds the body. Lavender and even the dandelions are for the bees. They take it right back to their hives,” explains Paul, as he brushes through fragrant purple blossoms of Russian sage.
Scattered throughout their farmyard, tucked within colorful clumps of flowers and peeping out behind feathery green and yellow fennel are more than 50 original works of outdoor art and sculpture.
“The art on our farm has a connection with what we do each day at our studio. The farm is elevated to a gallery; it’s our life,” explains Paul. “We really like works by outside artists. They are so passionate about their art and have this unexplained need to create. We sort of see ourselves like them. We go on adventures, and we research who the artist is, and we bring things home. It becomes very personal, knowing the stories behind each piece.”
Standing sentinel at the entrance to a flowerbed bursting with bright yellow black-eyed Susan and pink cone flower is a towering scarecrow made from bits and pieces of old farm tools, reminiscent of a rusting tinman.
“This is Dudley. He was created by artist David Strickland, and we traveled down to Red Oak, Texas, about seven years ago to find him. This is the perfect spot for him,” says Laura.
A focal point of Serenity Farm is, of course, its stunning 100-year-old red barn, which the couple meticulously brought back to life and is now used for weddings, family and community gatherings.
“When we bought the farm there was a tree growing through the roof, and you couldn’t see the barn through the box elders,” says Laura. “It reminded me of ‘Sleeping Beauty’; stuff gets tangled up and you have to go in and expose the princess. We have a gem here.”
Two breathtaking stained-glass rose windows adorn either end of the building, drawing the eye up to the soaring rafters. The windows and lighting in the shapes of barley seeds were crafted at Oakbrook Esser Studio.
“The building is magical on its own. Barns are very cathedral-like because of their soaring spaces. They have an ethereal feeling. Christ was born in a building like this. It’s very humbling,” explains Paul, his hand running along the rough, hand-hewn barn post.
Preserving it forever
Beyond what has been lovingly cultivated by the Phelps, the farm’s natural resources hold a treasure trove of Wisconsin’s most precious and vulnerable wildlife habitats. The gently rolling landscape is home to lush wetlands and ancient oak savannah, with the meandering Ashippun River also running through it.
The farm also sits adjacent to 300 acres of Waukesha County's preserved Ashippun River Greenway and Park and is within the Ashippun/Oconomowoc Agricultural Enterprise Area — a state-designated area in which agricultural preservation and activity is promoted.
To protect this special piece of Wisconsin history and the connections they have created between art and nature on their farm, the Phelps placed 116 acres of their farm under a conservation easement through Tall Pines Conservancy in 2014 to ensure the agricultural land is preserved for future generations.
Tall Pines Conservancy is committed to protecting remaining farmland, water resources and natural areas and open spaces adjacent to and affecting northwestern Waukesha County.
Serenity Farm has shared its farm for Tall Pines’ events, including serving as one of the stops for bicyclists during the Ride to the Barns and the Fall Harvest fundraisers.
In October, the farm was the focal point of the Farm-N-Tation Fest, a fundraiser for Lake Country Agriculture & Nutrition Alliance Farm to School Initiative. During the event, the community had the opportunity to meet farmers and artisans while enjoying local food, music and demonstrations.
“We love to share what we do. We want to inspire people to have a deeper connection with where their food comes from. It’s very personal. The kids know all our animals and they get an appreciation of what a farm is,” says Laura.
For more information about Serenity Farm and Oakbrook Esser Studio, visit www.serenityfarmwisconsin.com and www.oakbrookesser.com. For more information about the Tall Pines Conservancy, visit www.tallpinesconservancy.org.