This article first appeared in the Washington Island Observer.
A gift is extraordinary when its benefits may be felt for generations. In November 2016, the Lyons Vineyard was donated to a new Island nonprofit by Tim and Julie Lyons. While the Lyons were searching for the right owner, six people connected with each other through their shared interest in Washington Island and sustainable living; from diverse backgrounds in education, entrepreneurship, and land stewardship, Sue Dompke, Margaret Foss, Laurel Hauser and Russell and Alessandra Rolffs began a conversation about agriculture and sustainability and now form the board of directors of the new nonprofit, Gathering Ground: Planting for the Future.
Russell and Alessandra Rolffs, who came to the Island last summer as gardeners for Hotel Washington and naturalists for the Art and Nature Center, started talking to Sue Dompke of Sweet Mountain Farm and Jeannie Kokes of Hotel Washington, about their long-term goal of starting an organization focused on agriculture and education. Dompke’s interest was building a network of farmers and producers on Washington Island to secure profitable markets, building respect for agricultural careers, and encouraging youth to learn about sustainability. Laurel Hauser, managing editor of The Washington Island Observer, and Margaret Foss, an educator at the Island School, soon joined the discussions and the momentum around Gathering Ground grew.
“We decided on the name ‘Gathering Ground’ because we want it to be a place where farmers, gardeners and the whole Island community gather and celebrate the land and how it sustains us,” said Alessandra Rolffs. The vision of Gathering Ground is to cultivate and inspire ecologically-minded agriculture and partnership with land and people. The mission is to promote economic development through agriculture, to strengthen the health of individuals, the Washington Island community, and the environment.
Russell Rolffs admits he was surprised by how many doors opened up for Gathering Ground. “We knew that the Lyons were in discussions with Door County Land Trust about donating the vineyard, but then it fell through, so I asked Tim Lyons if he’d be interested in donating the land to another nonprofit.” Over a cup of coffee, the Rolffs and the Lyons shared their visions and hopes for the 34 acres on the corner of Lake View and Airport Road. “We are delighted that the new owners of the vineyard will put the land to use for such a noble project,” said the Lyons.
To help Gathering Ground get off the ground, Jeannie Kokes donated the funds needed to legally register a new Wisconsin nonprofit, and John Ward donated his time to help Gathering Ground complete the legal work.
“We are incredibly thankful for Tim and Julie, Jeannie, and Jay for giving Gathering Ground its land and allowing the organization to start debt free. We have a lot of passion for our mission, and we’re excited to see how Gathering Ground will bring people together around sustainable land use,” said Russell Rolffs.
In the first year, Gathering Ground will work to support the Island School Voyage program. The theme this year is “Sustainable Living,” which was selected before Gathering Ground had been founded. Margaret Foss hopes that by collaborating with the school, Gathering Ground can be a “resource, inspiration, and launching pad for students to envision and plan for a sustainable future on Washington Island.” Gathering Ground looks forward to working with the Island School, the Art and Nature Center, the Farm Museum, and other Island growers to increase the excitement around sustainable living and farming.