PRAIRIE FARM — Eager to know more about elderberries? Flirting with the idea of grass farming? Curious about kombucha?

Look no further than the Traditional and Green Skills Event hosted annually by the Hay River Transition Initiative, which formed in 2005. This year's event, which featured a full day of classes and a bazaar highlighting locally crafted items, was held March 9 at Prairie Farm High School.

About 100 attendees learned from local instructors about everything from alpacas and Amish living to timber framing and trees. In its ninth year, the event was launched by a group of people interested in following the Transition Town model, according to organizer Sue Gerlach.

Gerlach said the initiative's goal is to bring people together to plan for changes in the future, rather than "waiting for a crisis." Challenges such as climate change and economic instability can be better met by cultivating a positive local response.

The 2018 Traditional and Green Skills Event drew more than 240 people who attended 26 classes and browsed a vendor area coordinated by more than 60 volunteers.

"Attendance was quite a bit lower this year, likely due to the over-the-top report of an impending storm — very impactful to a location as remote as ours," Gerlach said. "We do want to grow the event's attendance, and next year is the 10th anniversary, so we'll be making some special arrangements to highlight this."

Other things the Initiative has organized through the year include stone soups, a community garden, seed and plant swaps, garden and farm tours, canning and seed libraries, energy interest groups and a spring roto-tilling project. Gerlach said some future projects may include a tool library and a group solar buy.

"Some years, the Hay River Transition Initiative is more active than others, and the group changes as people and interests shift," she said.

If you build it ...

LouAnn Binsfield was one of three speakers on low-cost, do-it-yourself home building.

"My build is in progress," said Binsfield, who with her husband bought a teardown house in Chetek for supplies and hauled them to their property. For only about $3,000, they got the trusses, plywood, floor joists and more.

Other materials came from their own land, ReStore, along the roadside, garage sales and Facebook Marketplace. They got used kitchen cabinets from family and borrowed many of the tools they needed.

Binsfield, 61, said they have owned their farm for about 40 years, and it was her husband's dream to build there someday. Since bringing in materials from the teardown home a few years ago, they have done their own excavating and most of the construction, electrical wiring and plumbing. They hired the cement work done.

Binsfield said she has done the wiring herself, with a local electrician checking her work periodically.

Friends and family have helped with the project, and the Binsfields hired several Amish men to do some of the work as a fundraiser for their school.

Binsfield recommends asking a lot of questions, checking local building codes, using the Internet and YouTube videos, saving any receipts to return unused materials and taking advantage of Menards 11 percent off mail-in rebates whenever possible.

"Spend money on what you really want, and use local help," she said. "No question is a bad question unless you don't ask it."

Brenda Falk discussed going off the grid and using solar panels.

"If you're considering going off-grid for your build, be sure to research and talk to those who live off-grid," she said. "Don't be in a rush with building; we really wanted to get the heck out of our camper. We maybe went too quick because we didn't want to spend another winter there. Get what you want so you don't have to redo anything later."

Falk said the types of appliances in the home and routine energy usage play a big role in determining the size and scope of a solar project.

In her build, she sought advice from a lot of people in the community and borrowed tools from friends. She's still working on the home's siding and rock in the basement.

"It's not worth you buying (a tool) to use it one time," she said.

Curt McNamara, who purchased a farm with an off-grid house run on solar between Downing and Knapp, said systems vary widely and depend on household activities. He said his more than 30-year-old home doesn't "run like a normal house."

"You just kind of learn how and when you can do things," he said. "I've switched from listening to music at night to during the day. If we get a washing machine, we will run it only on sunny days. It's a very different way to structure your life."

McNamara said some of his panels are a couple of decades old and still work just fine. When buying new ones, he recommends avoiding shipping expense, which can be quite costly. 

While it may take a little longer to get them in, "see if you can piggyback on a larger order," he said.

All about the Amish

Willis Mast offered insight into the Amish way of life and traditions. Mast and his wife, along with their six sons and three daughters between the ages of 1 and 19, have a 20-acre farm near Prairie Farm.

In addition to rotationally grazing sheep and raising one cow, horses and chickens, he does carpentry work with a local contractor and, by this summer, hopes to open his own woodworking shop specializing in hardwood interior doors and cabinets. Within the next couple of years, he would like to direct market some of his lambs to Hmong customers in the Twin Cities. 

The average Amish farm is 50 to 60 acres and might include about a dozen dairy cows, horses, chickens and other livestock, along with a large garden (maybe an acre or two). Many Amish men do woodworking or have sawmills.

Some families have gotten out of milking cows in recent years, he said, adding, "It just doesn't pencil out to make money."

However, some area Amish dairy farmers are forming small cooperatives to start making their own cheeses.

"Quite a few still milk by hand, and there is demand for cheese made from milk not from milkers," he said. "That has been working out fairly well and bringing back the dairy farms for the young generation."

In his talk, Mast discussed everything from Amish schools, which children attend from grades 1-8 before learning a trade or helping out at home, to funerals, which might draw as many as 1,000 mourners. Dating, health care, childbirth, crime, finances and taxes were other topics.

Amish church services typically are held every two weeks and rotate among homes, Mast said. Services normally are three hours long and include a couple of sermons. Lunch is served, then everyone goes home to do chores before returning that evening to the hosting home for supper and hymns.

Mast, who said he has siblings in Michigan, Kentucky and Ohio, said many Amish people travel, when necessary, by bus or Amtrak. Flying is frowned upon and done only in emergency situations. Many have access to a local driver with a passenger van. The going rate is 50 cents to $1 per mile.

"Most Amish have something like that," he said. "It's nice; that's the old neighborhood."

Mast said there are about 26 different groups of Amish, which vary slightly in how conservative or progressive they are. Some Amish farm with tractors, while others don't at all or use steel wheels instead of rubber.

"People often get the groups confused," he said. "As a rule, we all still do our stuff the same way. Some communities just use more modern conveniences and technology."

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