Creative Landowner Fosters Local Food and Community

soulful prairies map
Soulful Prairies is approx. 80 acres of diverse prairie, pasture, woodland, and a pond. Click here to enlarge map.

Linda Bruce, owner of Soulful Prairies in Woodstock, knew two things would be true of her farmland when she purchased it 12 years ago:  it would allow her to realize her dream of owning horses, and Linda and her family would be able to grow their own food.

Linda immediately got to work on her dream of owning horses and offering equine gestalt therapy on her farm. This form of therapy helps people heal inwardly by connecting with horses. Being in the presence of horses and interacting with them enables adults and children to make deep connection with their natural energies, emotions, and past history. 

“Horses are the heartbeat of Soulful Prairies,” says Linda.

Growing food, however, has been a less defined, more organically evolving path. Early on, Linda and her family did plant some crops and saw good harvests.  But those activities were relatively short-lived.

“It quickly became apparent I was juggling too many things, and I couldn’t do it all myself,” Linda said.

While she came to recognize that she might not be the one to farm her land, Linda still envisioned that someone else could. She believed local food would be integral to seeing the community around her thrive. “Nature and food are a huge part of healing,” added Linda.

Linda Bruce of soulful prairies

Vegetable Farming Along Alden Road

So, over the years, Linda kept an open mind and tried different approaches. First, she installed irrigation and built a tool and farm stand cabin at the front of the property along Alden Road. She used this area initially for starting a community garden that had around 20 members at its peak. Then a tenant farmer used a few acres as a satellite farm for growing vegetables. Since then, other vegetable farmers have used the land in different capacities. A beekeeper has also kept hives there. 

Leasing out land to farmers has been more complex than Linda initially imagined, even frustrating at times. Some farmers just haven’t worked out. And finding a replacement farmer can take time as there hasn’t always been a large pool of candidates. Nevertheless, she has remained committed to exploring ways to provide opportunities to the local farming community in ways that will also benefit her dreams for her family’s farmland.

The good news is that Linda has a new tenant - Claire Hodge - for the front of her property who Linda hopes will bring new life and local food production to her farmland. Claire began Sunfleck Farm in 2021 on leased land that was also in Woodstock. She offered a variety of mixed vegetables, herbs, and dry beans that she sold through a local farmers market, a weekly box program, and restaurant sales.

sunfleck farm
Claire Hodge of Sunfleck Farm and her mother selling at the Dole Farmers Market in Crystal Lake.

“The shared land-ethic values of Soulful Prairies excite me!” says Claire. “I love how welcoming and visionary Linda is. We're already dreaming about what Sunfleck and Soulful could look like in the years to come, though this year we're still really focusing on the basics, like a reasonable rental and operating agreement to lay a good foundation.”

After a few months of discussions and negotiations (in which we provided advice, suggestions, and clarifying questions), Claire and Linda developed a one-year lease agreement they are both satisfied with. They have agreed to sit down again after this year’s growing is over, evaluate the arrangement, and then discuss whether pursuing a multi-year lease is in both party’s best interests.

“I want to see Sunfleck be successful and have a viable business, supplying food to local farmers markets and neighbors and the community,” says Linda. She also hopes to find ways to partner with Claire to offer fresh, grown-on-site produce for events and visitors at Soulful Prairies.

Grazing as Land Management and Land Access

Linda expanded the use of her land by farmers in 2021 after discussions with Terra Vitae Farms, a local livestock grazier also located in Woodstock. Terra Vitae was looking for temporary grazing land opportunities during the year. Linda had fields, prairies, and brushy areas that needed management. 

They decided to try having Terra Vitae bring in 17 head of their Dexter cattle last May and rotationally graze them in those areas where Linda needed the management help. 

Using a portable electric fencing system, Terra Vitae moved the cattle to a fresh area every few days so that the cattle would get good food and the vegetation wouldn't be hit too hard. The initial agreement between Linda and Terra Vitae was just a trial for one month. It went well, so they extended the arrangement into September 2021.

dexter cattle grazing at soulful prairies
Dexter Cattle from Terra Vitae Farms grazing at Soulful Prairies during the 2021 season.

“It expands our grazing capacity and doesn’t overtax our land,” said Kevin Kelley of Terra Vitae Farms. “This buys us time to regenerate our pastures by seeding and letting them recover. We believe we have already seen signs of this type of regeneration happening at Soulful Prairies.”

Linda has welcomed Terra Vitae back this year for another round of grazing at her prairie. Both sides are hopeful the management of these munching ruminants will restore and rejuvenate the land of Soulful Prairies. 

“I believe it is helping our land and our soil,” Linda said. “In my eyes, Terra Vitae is farming in a way that I would like to see everywhere, and I’m happy to help and support what they’re doing.”

Building Community and Beyond

Local food production is just part of the big picture of healing and community Linda envisions at Soulful Prairies. And even though there have been bumps and issues to work through along the way, she encourages any landowners drawn to using their land creatively to “follow your intuition and try things on a small scale and see how they go.”

Feeling inspired? We’d be happy to talk more and provide advice, resources, and connections to help make your creative land dreams a reality. 

We are grateful to Linda for the generous hospitability she has shown us and many other people in the local food community over the years.

soulful prairies