Former Albion farm could become agricultural learning lab

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Neil Johnson
Saturday, February 22, 2014

TOWN OF ALBION—A former family farm north of Edgerton could become a multifaceted learning laboratory for agricultural education if a nonprofit group can find footing and support for its plans.

Silverwood County Park, a 300-acre Dane County park in the town of Albion already has seen use as a laboratory for agricultural research and learning for students from Edgerton High School and the UW System.

But Friends of Silverwood Park, a nonprofit group that's partnering with Dane County, wants more, and the county's willing to listen to public input to form a master plan on the park.

A chicken house? Maybe. Canoeing, kayaking and hiking. Probably. There's also talk of a lecture hall/restaurant/learning lab, corncribs turned-lookout observatories, a tree house, and, when Rice Lake is frozen, ice fishing and broomball.

“I guess if we don't think big, we're not going to get anywhere. The sky's the limit. There are no ideas that are way out there,” said Katie Vance-Whitten, president of Friends of Silverwood Park.

The park, a former farmstead north of Highway 106 and Liguori Road, was donated to Dane County a decade ago by the late Irene Silverwood, who was a teacher at Edgerton High School. Her husband, G. Russel Silverwood, farmed the land. Silverwood's wish was that the park would be used for agricultural education.

The county and the nonprofit group got the land released in 2012, and the groups have launched a campaign for private support and public input to turn it into a recreational and educational area for agriculture education and training for students and the public.

It's just the start of partnered efforts in the park. The county, Friends of Silverwood and the Edgerton School District hope to transform the park into an “off the grid” learning lab that could combine elements of alternative energy studies with back-to-basics farming, greenhouse operations and even country store-style marketing.

Edgerton High School students are growing winter carrots at the park this year as part of their agriculture studies, and last month one high school student and the school's agriculture teachers organized an ice-fishing demonstration on Rice Lake, Vance-Whitten said.

Meanwhile, UW-Madison researchers have begun to grow switchgrass in the park for biofuel research, Vance-Whitten said. Switchgrass is a native North American prairie grass that some biofuel researchers see as an alternative to ear corn for fuel production.

The county established a matching fund for the park of $150,000 through its capital fund to develop the park, Dane County Real Estate & Acquisition Director Laura Guyer said.

The Friends of Silverwood and its nine-member board is casting a wide net for public input on a master plan for the park. The group is hosting a number of upcoming planning sessions in Edgerton and Madison to get ideas of how people envision the park's development. 

Guyer said the county will make final decisions on any park plans, but it's got a “wonderful partnership” with the Friends of Silverwood. The county plans to take comments until mid-April to develop a master plan over the next several months. She said preliminary master plans could be unveiled for more public input in June or July.

Those plans could give the county a window into how people would want to use the park and help the Friends of Silverwood develop a fundraising campaign.

For now, the park is largely undeveloped and is not an active public recreation site, although plans for hiking trails and lake access are in the works, the groups say.

“Really, it's a blank slate. There's nothing out there right now,” Vance-Whitten said. “There are classes planned for the summer through Edgerton School District, and there may be other entities from Madison. But it's in its infancy right now.”

The main challenge for the park, Guyer and Vance-Whitten said, is its location—it's in the far southern reaches of Dane County leaving it somewhat out of the spotlight for Madison area residents.  

But its location also is a boon, Vance-Whitten said.

“We're within ten to twenty minutes of several communities and the school districts in Edgerton, Milton, Janesville and Fort Atkinson,” she said. “All the surrounding schools could benefit from a park like this."

The Dane County alternative education program Operation Fresh Start has students shoring up and rehabbing a stone farmhouse that's part of three original homesteads on park grounds, and there's enough open land for at least eight football-sized crop fields, livestock areas and even grounds to feed and observe birds and other wildlife.

Meanwhile, those students also plan to rehab some of the corn cribs on the land, which could be re-used as future observatory towers at the park, Vance-Whitten said.

This spring volunteers will clear hiking, biking and horse trails in woods along Rice Lake, which borders the west side of the park. Those trails are planned for public use.

Guyer said the county wants to learn how much public or volunteer support there could be for maintaining crop plots on the land. Vance-Whitten said some members of the group have an ambitious hope the park could one day have a lecture hall/country store where students can learn to cook, can and even market their own produce.

“It's sustainable agriculture. It's how can we survive on a piece of land and be 'off the grid,' basically?” Vance-Whitten said.

Vance-Whitten said park organizers are drawing preliminary ideas on the park from an outdoor agriculture learning lab and farm, Gale Woods Farm Park, a 410-acre reserve in surburban Minneapolis, but the group seeks local ideas, and even volunteers to join the Friends board in upcoming meetings.

"We need as much input and support as we can get," she said.

The Silverwood Park plans are taking off as another nearby nonprofit, Southwestern Wisconsin Agricultural Group, is trying to drum up support for its own $20-million plan to create a regional agriculture and events center, and potentially, a new site for the Rock County 4H Fairgrounds on 200 acres along Highway 14 and County M in Evansville.

Vance-Whitten did not give an estimated costs or fundraising goals for her own group's plans.

Among the larger questions the groups are asking themselves as they forge a plan is whether the park would satisfy the Silverwoods' wishes that the land remain a model for agricultural teaching and learning, Guyer said.

The UW System and high school's educational uses are in keeping with those wishes, she said.

County funding that's available now is to help organizers get a foothold on some features to build on, and the county and organizers are looking into grants that would fuel the park's development, Guyer said. She said Friends of Silverwood Park and the Edgerton School District are being looked at as major partners to drive the park's development and planning.

Guyer said the plans would develop gradually, but initial phases wouldn't take long.

“I can tell you that some likely outcomes soon are public trails and access to Rice Lake. But it does take time for our parks to develop. We want it to last forever, but we don't want to rush in. We want to make sure to leave room for ideas to develop and grow.”

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