Farming took the place of filmmaking for artist Micaela O’Herlihy. The mother of three grows herbs and produce for a handful of Milwaukee restaurants on her farm in Wisconsin’s magical Driftless Area.

Photo by Sara Stathas.

Photo by Sara Stathas.

When the glaciers retreated eons ago, they left behind tangible mementos – rock, gravel, clay and sand, all referred to as drift. Wisconsin’s Driftless Area – encompassing Crawford and Vernon counties, just south of La Crosse – escaped glaciation, giving it a striking topography of forested hillsides and river valleys.

In 2009, multimedia artist Micaela O’Herlihy traded paintbrushes and 8mm film for fig trees, goats and medicinal herbs. Today, while raising three children, the California native and graduate of UW-Milwaukee’s film program drives the reins of her 14-acre Long Arm Farm in Westby, Wis. “I’ve always loved gardening,” says O’Herlihy. “About 11 years ago, I was in L.A. working on a commercial for a golf ball company. My job was to paint 8,000 golf balls gray. I was clobbered with grief that I was wasting my life doing crap like this to support my family when I could be doing much more radical things. Things that helped people. Things that fed people.”

To keep Long Arm running, O’Herlihy recruits a rotating cast of interns. Her youngest son – 5-year-old, ginger-haired Lugh – was born on the farm. Both the child’s and the farm’s names were inspired by an Irish mythical warrior named Lugh Long Arm.

Since establishing the farm (where she says she follows organic agricultural methods), the O’Herlihy gang has transformed a former disc golf course into a stew-like enterprise. They started with homesteading (self-sufficiency farming) and chipped away at the unfinished farmhouse to make it habitable. In time, they started row-cropping annuals and built 6 acres of fencing with paddocks for rotational grazing of their animals. Even O’Herlihy’s 7-year-old daughter, Oota, helped construct the greenhouse, whose heat nurtures fig trees and tall, leafy clusters of flowers and culinary herbs. In 2014, they adopted the RSA (restaurant supplied agriculture) model of selling shares of seasonal produce to a handful of Milwaukee restaurants.

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But this year, things have changed. The industrious farm matriarch is mellowing somewhat, partly because of a diagnosis of Lyme disease. She’ll continue to sell produce to Ardent, Balzac, Odd Duck and Juniper 61, only not as an RSA. Her main emphasis will be wildcrafting (foraging wild edibles and medicines from uncultivated land) and harvesting perennials like currants and elderberries.

“Most people have this romance associated with [farming],” says O’Herlihy, “and come out here thinking they get to live the simple life and slow down, when in fact, we’re often working 14-hour days … but I love it nonetheless. I get to be outside and get filthy, and we eat like gods!”

‘The Good Earth’ appears in the June 2015 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
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