When I think about a physical “view,” I think about concrete reality, things before my eyes in the here and now. A view is real, constant and objective, even somewhat intractable. It is what it is, so to speak.
I’m sure when the property that was originally owned by Illinois Glass Company magnate Charles Levis was christened “La Vista,” it was all about “the view,” which is spectacular when you look down from the ragged bluffs lining the Great River Road on the property’s western side to the mighty Mississippi River below. La Vista spans 255 acres and provides its current owners, the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, solitude, beauty, peace and, of course, that beautiful view.
But in 2001 the Order began work on a comprehensive plan, an Ecological Initiative, based on the simple idea that the Earth is our common home and that one of the most important jobs we—you and me included—have is to care for it and ensure its future. In turn, the Earth will continue to support us. Sort of a “divine” plan. In the words of the Oblates, they “adopted as a priority for their Order ‘Justice, Peace, and the Integrity of Creation’.” The physical manifestation of this priority is played out in the programs at La Vista’s Ecological Learning Center (ELC) and through something even more basic, its Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) Program—the La Vista Community-Supported Garden.
So while there’s still that beautiful view overlooking the river and the rocks, what goes on at La Vista has transformed a pretty sight into a powerful vision, expanding activities to include not only the ELC and the CSA but also a Pollinator Garden with strong ties to the local bee keeper, a Nature Preserve, and a Land Conservation program. Today, La Vista thrives on the connections that arise from sharing healthy food, doing generous good works, offering meaningful learning opportunities and maintaining strong community outreach—all while making sure each action enhances the mission to care for our “common home”. Everyone has a place at the La Vista table.
When you have strong faith and good intentions, things can move pretty quickly. The trajectory from view to vision began roughly in the year 2000. A mere three years later, La Vista was home not only to the Oblates but also to the ELC—at that point offering a wide variety of environmentally focused classes, workshops and presentations that are consistently filled to capacity—and its CSA, a community-supported garden that continues to serve many area families, food pantries and local restaurants. Today, La Vista’s CSA is really a small farm, with hundreds of participants, You-Pick Fields, and a full-time farmer named Phill Beile.
When I spoke with Phill about the growth of the farm, I expected him to talk about the farm’s amazing progress through the years—which he did—and the future possibilities for more growth and expansion of the customer base and a greater return on investment—which he didn’t…well not in those words. In fact, he pulled back a bit, noting that he was busy concentrating on ways to create a more regenerative system, not a larger operation. He was focusing on farming practices where soil was less likely to erode and where close community connections would continue to strengthen over time.
“We do not fully practice no-till at La Vista, but we have the full intention of converting little by little. The tools required to do so on a production level are very expensive, so it will be a slow conversion.” But expense and time don’t hinder Phill’s commitment to making the right decisions and keeping the priorities of La Vista front and center.
“My views on soil health have a couple layers,” said Phill. (And he is so serious about farming and doing it right that I’m wondering if he gets his own pun.) “No-till agriculture is the best method of preserving soil structure, and the commercial industry has begun more and more to adopt no-till practices, which I believe are the best options for retention of the natural soil structure,” he explained. “But more importantly, soil health is the key. Microorganisms in your soil are very important, and keeping your soil filled with organic matter such as compost will allow those microorganisms to thrive.”
According to Phill and many other organic farmers, the importance of soil health is nearly ignored by commercial agriculture. With its heavy use of pesticides and main focus on greater yield, Big Ag creates a situation that ultimately threatens soil health rather than improving it. “The longer your soil is bare the more the health of your soil depletes. The easiest way to combat this [depletion] is regularly growing cover crops and not using pesticides and herbicide on your plots,” said Phill. “That way, the nitrogen levels, along with a healthy amount of microorganisms, stay at a stable and productive level.”
Then there was that part about trying to expand La Vista’s customer base—something all good business-minded folks do, right?
“I do believe that farmers markets are a very important staple of any community,” Phill explained. “Both the CSA model and farmers markets provide a good network for folks who are interested in a healthy lifestyle. The beauty of the CSA model, and La Vista in particular,” he noted, “is that it includes several types of customers.”
In fact, La Vista works like a lot of CSAs: there are shareholders who invest upfront and buy a ‘share’ of the produce each week, and there are customers who are just simply interested in organic agriculture and want to get a first-hand look at where their produce comes from and the process necessary to grow it. Phill continued: “If they so choose, they can even mingle among the soil that provides their share.” (This is Phill’s poetic way of saying they can help out with weeding and pick their own veggies.) Phill explained that many people come and pick their own produce only to find the experience much more significant than they ever imagined.
“Also, when you invest in a share with a CSA, it may, at times, put you in the position to try a vegetable you may not be familiar with or haven’t tried—something you may have passed by at a market. That entails a challenge of experimenting with new food and discovering new flavors you might otherwise miss,” said Phill. Hence, Phill, too, suggests we “be brave” in the kitchen.
So at La Vista, you can join the CSA as a shareholder, pay a certain price up front and spend the growing months (May to November) picking up or even picking your own produce on the five-acre plot. You are assured of the quality of your food and the integrity of the growing process—everything edible at La Vista has been grown without chemicals or harsh land practices and picked at the peak of flavor, as Phill explained the day I visited. “Local”, as Green Gal readers already know, is all about flavor. And as a weekly bonus, La Vista’s CSA members enjoy each other’s company, swap recipes and spend time in a peaceful, lovely setting away from their busy lives.
Just to make sure everything runs as it should, there is a core group of volunteers to manage operations; engineer, maintain and run the farming equipment; and help farmer Phill get the planting and harvesting done on time—well on time according to Mother Nature, mostly.
Cindy Gelsthorpe serves as the Chairperson for La Vista CSA and has been a volunteer there since its inception. She wears many hats—accountant, planter, volunteer organizer, chef. “I’ve always dug in the dirt,” she said, smiling. “And I’ve seen the poor choices people can make about their food. I really like helping people make better choices.” Cindy is a retired pharmacist and will tell you that wholesome real food is truly the best medicine. When she is not serving the La Vista community, she volunteers at the Crisis Food Center in Alton on Sunday mornings. She has raised five children, four of which have gardens of their own. Clearly it is true that the apple does not fall far from the tree.
Tom Bechtold has been involved at La Vista since 2007. He is officially in charge of “infrastructure,” but that is code for crazy-wise inventor. Under Tom’s watch, the farm has engineered and developed an electric tractor, a nifty handmade compost spreader, a bed planting shaper, custom cultivators for the tractors and acquired a really cool two-person planting cart (Yep, you just ride along behind the tractor and plug, plug, plug those little tender shoots!). All Tom’s gadgets are low on carbon output and high on Yankee Ingenuity. As Tom states: “We are always looking for ways to be more efficient while still adhering to our mission of preserving the land, air and water.” I know some American car manufactures who could use Tom’s help, but I doubt La Vista would lend him out.
Charles Phillips is what I would call the average (as if La Vista has any “average” volunteers!) La Vista participant—he’s down to Earth (Ok, there is a pun there.), always thinking about others and keeping his creative juices flowing in and out of the field. When I met Charles (and it is not so much that I am really short—though I am—but that Charles is really tall, which he is.), I learned about an initiative he’s working on to open a community kitchen in Alton. This project will involve the local YWCA and the La Vista garden to create new access to healthy food for those who need it most.
Near the end of my visit, I met Sister Max. Maxine Pohlman is a School Sister of Notre Dame, serving as the director of La Vista Ecological Learning Center since 2009. Sister Max plans and implements ecological and eco-spiritual programs, workshops, retreats and study groups. And she is a big fan of the community garden. “You vote with your fork three times a day,” she said, explaining how she sees the farm’s place within that larger vision of La Vista. “So I go back to the words of Wendell Berry: ‘how we eat determines…how the world is used,’” she explained.
Sister Max partners with many groups to provide an amazing array of programs, including the Illinois Nature Preserves System, the Missionary Oblates Woods Nature Preserve, The Nature Institute, the Piasa Palisades Group of the Sierra Club, and the Great Rivers Land Trust.
“We have been offering several Nature Journaling classes this year,” she says. “Our next one will be on June 9. This is a series of classes, actually, that coincide with the seasons. We did the spring one and the June 9 class is the summer session. The Journaling classes are a great chance for people to get outside close to the Earth and express their ideas through written word and watercolor, if they choose,” she explained. Taught by Angie Jungbluth, a veteran science teacher, conservation enthusiast and experienced nature journaling instructor, this class meets from 9-11 a.m. on the grounds at La Vista and space is limited—hint, hint.
My visit to La Vista went way too fast. Every face sent me a smile, every beautiful corner gave me a surprise, every piece of information offered words of wisdom. So if you are a resident of the Godfrey or Alton area, I can tell you there is no better way to spend the summer than joining the community at La Vista. Whether you become a CSA shareholder, a garden volunteer—or both—you will take home way more than the delicious produce that ends up in your bag each week. You’ll have that conversation about the best way to store and serve heirloom tomatoes; you’ll learn to identify different varieties of greens; you’ll swap recipes with Cindy—ask for the carrot pesto, trust me—your kids will make new friends in person rather than online; you will hear the buzz of bees without the ring of a cellphone, and you will never view your food in the same light. You will see it differently, with greater gratitude—a vision of plenty for all.
A final note of gratitude: Many thanks to Virginia Woulfe-Beile for helping with photography.