It was exactly a year ago when I first came across Rising Sun Farm in River Falls, WI. Not in person; rather via the web, when I was doing some research for a brief article detailing an upcoming “Dine Fresh, Dine Local” event. Rising Sun was providing strawberries to a few restaurants for the evening, and the farm’s website, while primitive and simple, is nonetheless earnest in stating atop its crest: “Unconventional Farming at Rising Sun Farm.”
I’m a city boy by blood, more learned in cultivating a $5 foot long and hitting the gym than tending a Wisconsin field. Thus the site’s tenets of “Eating Plenty of Fruits and Vegetables” and “Moderate Exercise” did little to grab my collar; but then I came across the farm’s philosophy of “Naturism: Naked in Nature.” Within said article, penned by Rising Sun proprietor Roger Browne, it’s explained that:
“‘Disrobics’ may occur at any time of the day. Without clothes we can usually work comfortably in even the hottest weather. Practical advantages include absence of binding, sweat-soaked clothes, less laundry, and a lower risk of heat exhaustion. Even when hot, humid weather hits it can be quite joyful working nude when it would be miserable working clothed.”
Browne then goes on to say:
“Working as naturists with the soil, plants, and each other enables us to experience our connection to the earth and our interconnectedness with all life. Naked in nature, we transcend from observer to participant.”
Even for a city boy, that plants a seed of curiosity. I made a mental note that when the seasons turned over, I’d learn a little more about this place and its founder Browne, whom a writing peer familiar with the gent had described in brief as “unique.”
In the early 1970s, Roger Browne, a native of River Falls, spent time on the West Coast, living with “The Family of Man” at Marble Mount, a commune at the foothills of the Cascade Mountains. He eventually moved back to Wisconsin and soon co-founded Rising Sun in 1976.
In late May, I spoke with Browne on the phone to express my interest in visiting his farm. We spoke about the onus of the organic and nudist philosophies that he applies to his trade.
“I’ll sometimes refer to Marble Mount as my spiritual birthplace,” Browne explained in his super-relaxed monotone. “It certainly shaped me; to say it simply ‘influenced’ what I’m doing now would be understated. Small scale. Hand labor. Minimal use of machines. Particularly — not having a driveway. A significant part of the charm of the farm is that there are no cars here. At least there’s not supposed to be. You’ll notice that when you get here.”
Three weeks later, as I entered Hudson then proceeded south on WI-29, I was soon reminded — as per usual — of what a unique place the Twin Cities is. Drive 25 minutes in virtually any direction and noise fades, green appears, traffic lessens. In just under 40 minutes from my downtown St. Paul home, I arrived at Rising Sun; as per the afore-noted lack of cars, I drove past it twice.
At the farm’s entrance rests a measured garage-like structure that serves, I later learned, as Rising Sun’s unmanned storefront. The drill: come in, grab or a bottle of maple syrup or some produce or eggs from a walk-in cooler, leave a self-written receipt and some cash. Above a display of the syrup hangs a large chalkboard informing walk-up visitors (about two a day) of the inventory (and prices) that Browne described for me on the phone; among them: tomatoes, lettuce, peppers, eggs, cilantro, and myriad other products. Browne told me that he produces about 40 different items, although, all varietals considered, he oversees around 125 different plantings. Regular purveyors of the products include River Market Co-op in Stillwater, Dick’s Market and Whole Earth Co-op in River Falls, and Shady Grove restaurant in Beldenville, WI.
Continuing on foot in these early-morning hours, I follow the path toward the farm and Browne’s adjoining residence. The brief trail soon concludes, and two acres of farm and field appear as visitors are greeted by a sign post proclaiming: “Rising Sun Farm. Our Farm is Clothing Optional. Welcome.”
[Note: PG-13 nudity after the jump]
It’s only a matter of minutes before such greeting is personified by Browne, as I quietly ascend the steps to his handsome cabin which is mere steps away from the fields and greenhouses that are his charge. Brief pleasantries are exchanged while he points about the property (“Volleyball on Wednesday nights,” “That’s our cowboy hot tub”), and it’s not long before the work day begins, consuming the energy of Browne, a handful of interns / employees, and myself.
Volunteers like me are not a rarity at Rising Sun, as I’m given the manageable task of cutting some lettuce within one of the greenhouses. Browne gives direction with patience, his monotone never drifting. Inflection (or lack thereof) aside — when he speaks, it means something, and his instruction is succinct. From a purely verbal standpoint: think Matthew McConaughey in Dazed and Confused, but with something useful to say. From a mental vantage: think Tetris.
I start cutting lettuce and snipping Asian greens, placing leaves in a bucket. I take my shirt off, although leave my jeans on, silently wondering if I’ll chicken out and work the day clothed. I cut alongside Jim, a paid intern and recently anointed father who came to Rising Sun this summer after working the grounds for several years at a nearby golf course. He admits that he makes less money with this gig, however it becomes clear that he’s making up for the lack of funds by cashing in the expertise provided by Browne.
“I’m out here to learn,” he says. “I plan to be out here about three years, if Roger will have me. I just had my kid a year ago and my girlfriend and I look toward this kind of living for the future. So, I’m just trying to learn from Roger, and decide what I might want to do with the knowledge. I’m out here to learn to provide for my family, I guess.”
Jim is soon shirtless in the near-oppressive heat of the greenhouse. I somewhat sheepishly inquire if he works in the buff.
“I’m probably the only guy that doesn’t,” he replies. “But the nudity doesn’t bother me. I don’t have any problems with what anybody does here. It’s very open. It’s relaxing here; there’s such a wide swath of people. But the nudist aspect isn’t the reason I came here.”
His boss is a nudist, and soon, as I exit the greenhouse with a full bucket, I note that Browne strips down to nothing but a ballcap. I’m still wearing my jeans. He’s working naked, like most everyday, and asks me to see if Emily, another intern, can use any help.
Like Jim, Emily is new to Rising Sun, having arrived in recent months and working as a paid intern. She’s a nascent college grad and it comes up that her dad is an attorney in Green Bay; in days of yore, she worked at his office for a spell, and plans to take to the LSAT soon. I draw my eyes over the idyllic property, seeing Roger working away in the nude, his shoulders coffee brown. A law office seems really damn far away from here.
“I stay in an old bus that’s been here about 30 years,” she says, smiling, washing lettuce in a long skirt, sans top. “There’s sort of a super-structure on top of it, and a porch outside. People that lived in there before left some junk that I find myself still cleaning up — an ongoing project. But each person that’s lived here contributes something.”
Emily points out two other folks on the grounds, Christopher and Melissa, working different parts of the farm at present. Both live on the property, as well. Jim’s in the minority in that he doesn’t. Christopher, she explains, is also working in his incipient summer as an intern. Melissa has worked at Rising Sun for five years.
“Everybody works together all day, and then we go home to our own space on the property,” Emily continues. “No one’s paying rent; some people live and eat out here a little while in exchange for their work.”
Talking on, I’ve noted both that I’m the only one not doing any work, just as I readily realize that I’m also not doing any work while still clothed. It’s getting hot in the jeans, 80-plus degree beneath the rising sun with only the shelter of inconsistent foliage. Emily’s working half-naked; Christopher’s working naked; Roger’s working naked. A small pang of panic wells-up in my gut — brought on only by me — and I realize that if I don’t lose the denim now, I never will. It’s similar to the feeling of jumping off a cliff with your buddies: You walk to the top, watch them jump into the water, and consider whether it would be less… frightening to just walk back down the rocks. It’s either that or leap.
Taking off my jeans and Jockeys can at first be described by about 1,000 different words, among them: scary, liberating, strange, natural, different, fun. Not that any of those present really cared to know or label the adjective of my experience. I realized then, that at Rising Sun, it’s not about the parsing of clothes that matters, it’s the stripping of judgment.
As I walk nude to one of the greenhouses to speak with Christopher, I feel more at ease by the moment.
“Sometimes, I forget it’s clothing optional,” he says, after explaining that he first met Roger while camping here with a cycling tour last year. “I love to take off my clothes, to walk around the house naked. But I never necessarily said to myself, ‘Oh, this is a nudist venue. I want to go to this nudist place. I’m a nudist.’ But being out here, I get nude mostly for comfort, and I also think of it like, ‘When in Rome…’ I’m learning about the nudist aspect of what’s happening here. And it really appeals to my philosophy of not hiding, being open, and also challenging what people think of what’s right and wrong.”
Christopher soon volunteers to make lunch, a stated ritual at Rising Sun where plates are filled with contents raised, grown, or caught on the grounds. Today’s feast will eventually consist of a delicious egg salad, greens with homemade dressing, and a raccoon stew (kinda stringy) in which the titular ingredient was shot by Christopher himself.
“Best raccoon I’ve ever had,” I’d later crack wise.
“You’ve had ‘coon before?” Christopher would query.
But before I’d have opportunity to be a smart-ass at the lunch table, I was first charged with picking bundles of parsley for a spell, working alone, or at times with Emily, Roger, or Melissa.
“Look for the flat leaves; the darker ones,” Roger instructs, before showing me an example of his bunch and nodding toward a flipped-Frisbee filled with red rubber bands.
I work on through the morning, talking at times, mostly listening as Roger describes the daily happy hour after work, or the Harvest Party he hosts come Labor Day, or the fella from New York who had just come here to work for nine days after seeing the farm’s ad in N Magazine.
Mostly, I’m just enjoying the silence and occasionally smirking to myself about the leviathan dichotomy between this peaceful place, and the big-city gonzo environs of Wrigley Field where I sat just two days prior, covering the Twins and Cubs. Jim was right, this place is relaxing.
It’s steamy now; I perspire in my ballcap and pick on. “Naked in nature, we transcend from observer to participant,” Roger wrote on his site, and I realize now why he penned as such. We’re well past the am hours, and I’m hungry. The scent of something comes from the nearby cabin; maybe it’s the ‘coon. Roger asks me to see if Christopher needs any help. I wipe sweat from my eyebrows and oblige.
Rising Sun Farm
River Falls, WI 54022