Earth Heart Farms aims to educate and inspire area students

It’s all about conservation.

That’s the mission behind Earth Heart Farms, a multigenerational family farm that offers environmental education to local youth.

Through community collaboration, the Oak Harbor-based Earth Heart Farms is able to create an open space for education, research, healing and recreation, says Vicki Rae Harder-Thorne, who runs the program with her family.

This education includes K-12 STEAM classes; research on soil, air and water health relating to carbon sequestration and mitigation of harmful algal blooms; eco-activities that include birding, art, habitat stewardship, herbal medicine, indigenous history, land restoration and climate adaptation; and community monitoring of the ecosystem’s wildlife and resource quality.

Earth Heart Farms will continue to provide private land access through community engagement in partnership with area schools, universities and conservation groups. (Photo/Payton Werling)“In larger terms, Earth Heart Farms has a conservation mission to revive and protect our soil, air and water resources; to help people learn about the natural world, and our place in it; to demonstrate how choices affect the health of habitats, and how small steps create big change – a legacy for living that sustains the land in the same loving way it sustained my family for generations, and supported Tribal Nations before us,” Harder-Thorne writes in a recent email interview.

Harder-Thorne’s upbringing led her to her calling – educating youth about the environment.

“It started with growing up on Mom’s family land,” Harder-Thorne says, “how our grandparents lived a very frugal lifestyle where reduce-reuse-recycle and free-range chickens were part of everyday life, not just marketing terms. I still have hand-stitched quilts and crocheted rugs that Grandma made from old clothing.”

Harder-Thorne’s grandfather had a strong relationship with the land.

“He called himself a caretaker, and understood that his partnership with the soil could help the crops thrive,” she says. “He tasted the dirt to know what to plant next. He didn’t like the corporate influence that promoted chemical solutions, and he was devastated when he needed to harvest seven acres of hardwood to increase his tillable land. When I was about 10 years old, he told me that he believed people took too much land from wildlife, and if he could afford to do it, he’d give it all back.”

And give back they have.

Harder-Thorne’s family made sure to honor that wish, and in October 2022 began a revitalization of the site. The farm's transformation, however, began in 1993, when Lois Rae (Hehl) Harder, Vicki's mother, started transitioning the farm to native grasslands via her work with the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). Today, her legacy continues through the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) and H2Ohio."

The revitalization included a controlled burn to help remove invasive plants, reseeding of the existing grassland areas to increase pollinators, planting of 2,600 native trees and shrubs in a riparian buffer, and excavating wetland areas to increase biodiversity.

"The first day I saw bulldozers moving 30-year fallowed soil, my reaction was, 'What have I done?' Harder-Thorne says. "After it was completed, I stood on the highest point at the back of the land where I could see the entire 80 acres. It was stunning, and tears rolled down my cheeks. The resilience of the land after being burned, excavated, reshaped; the new species and the excitement of our collaborators and visitors gives me hope." 

In October 2022, EHF began a revitalization of the Oak Harbor site, transitioning the farm into a native grassland. (Photo/Payton Werling)The summer before that project started, Harder-Thorne and her family launched a STEAM-enhancement program with funding from the Ohio EPA’s Ohio Environmental Education Fund, the University of Toledo’s NASA-funded GLOBE Mission EARTH (GME), and in-kind services from local conservation organizations. Years 2 and 3 are funded by NOAA’s B-WET fund, GME, and in-kind services. 

Since the program’s launch, more than 400 students and 14 teachers from six local schools have visited EHF. Students from those schools – Perkins High School in Sandusky, Immaculate Conception School in Port Clinton, the Aerospace & Natural Sciences Academy of Toledo, Toledo Early College, Margaretta Middle School, and Ottawa Hills High School –  joined presenters in a variety of activities that emphasize our impact on the local ecosystem.

Students who return to the farm – the program completed its second-year in 2023 – get to see the environmental changes that have occurred since their previous visit.

“The lush grassland was burned two weeks after their fall field trip, and the following spring they saw nearly 80 acres of charred earth covered with wild onions, and twigs planted in the riparian buffer,” Harder-Thorne says. “Year 2 students not only saw the finished wetland excavation in October 2023, but the grasses and flowers had already replaced the wild onions.

“They also saw evidence of the June 15 tornado damage – the residence being rebuilt, siding still hanging in the trees, and some of that debris along the water’s edge had created habitat for salamanders and frogs.”

Now entering STEAM Year 3, EHF is one of the private land sites for the Biggest Week in American Birding, as well as an eBird Hot Spot, which is atypical for private lands.

Black Swamp Bird Observatory conducted a BioBlitz in August 2022, which logged more than 500 species in about 36 hours, and plans are underway to create a habitat for wintering owls.

EHF's 2024-25 STEAM program is titled “Engaging K-12 Students in Authentic Watershed Experiences, Science and Stewardship: Reconnecting to the Land at Earth Heart Farms.” (Photo/Payton Werling)The farm is such a popular spot for birds that other agencies have jumped in to take advantage of the education that can be gleaned there.

Green Creek Marsh Conservancy has been conducting a monthly bird census for nearly two years and have banded bluebirds, tree swallows, purple martins, and have tagged monarch butterflies for several years. The Ohio Bluebird Society received a grant to replace and enhance the purple martin rigs lost in the June 2023 tornado. In addition, the Ohio Ornithological Society donated houses for wood ducks, flickers, kestrels, and replacement bluebird boxes lost in the tornado.

EHF also has the support of the Mayor’s Office of Oak Harbor and the Ottawa County Improvement Corporation to educate the community about the uniqueness of the area and its impact on environmental and economic health. 

Other collaborating partners, including The Nature Conservancy, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Ohio Department of Natural Resources, and Park District of Ottawa County have presented on topics such as STEM-careers, wetland wildlife, birding, and how land cover affects biodiversity. 

Friends of the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge recently hosted a webinar to launch EHF’s 2024-25 STEAM program, “Engaging K-12 Students in Authentic Watershed Experiences, Science and Stewardship: Reconnecting to the Land at Earth Heart Farms.” There is space for 15 teachers to participate in the 2024-2025 school year with onsite professional development on June 10-12.

“I’m aware every day that I couldn’t have done this without my family’s commitment to the land,” Harder-Thorne says. “I’m forever grateful for the relationship my grandfather and my mother had with the land and all its creatures. While they are hard acts to follow, I’m giving my best effort to fill their boots.” 

Despite all of the success, Harder-Thorne says there is still much work to be done.

“Sometimes the scope of the project feels daunting,” she says. “Besides the need for infrastructure funding and labor, I live in Illinois. I’m grateful for our dad’s willingness to manage daily activities, and to our collaborators for their unwavering support.

"At times it feels like an exercise in futility – when I read statistics about habitat loss or watch another woodland cut for yet another development, I close my eyes, take a few deep breaths, and remember how fortunate I am to have this opportunity to improve our world. I see the face of my grandson, hear the thrumming of woodpeckers, smell the wet earth, feel the wind on my face, taste the nectar of red clover, and I know exactly why I keep going.”

To learn more about Earth Heart Farms LLC, visit the farm’s Facebook, website, or email [email protected]. To apply to be a part of the Summer 2024 GLOBE Mission EARTH Professional Development held at Earth Heart Farms June 10-12, visit this link.