Returning home, sustainably: Hudson grad living off the grid
TOWN OF ST. JOSEPH — Heidi Madsen pops a bright orange flower off a plant growing in her terraced garden that's awash in the powerful July sun.
"Want to try?" she asks of a visitor, encouraging a taste of the sweet-and-spicy edible flower.
The plant is one of many growing in Madsen's large garden — some for eating, some for medicinal purposes.
"There's some annual vegetables that we eat, but a lot of medicinal herbs," she said, explaining how the plantain growing in her expanding garden can be used to make a salve that can treat bee stings and scrapes.
The garden represents one portion of Madsen's unique homestead, which operates entirely off the electrical grid. Four solar panels provide power to her two-level home, which she completed in January after years of incremental progress while navigating local laws governing construction and land use.
The 43-year-old now holds classes for children and adults at her property, which she dubs Bluebird Hill Homestead. The 6-acre property, still a work in progress, includes chickens that live in a custom coop fortified with clay harvested from the earth beneath it and two goats that stay in the structure's bottom level.
Madsen said the homestead has given her the chance to put years of studying permaculture — a lifestyle focused on following nature's cues in everything from agriculture to building design — into practice.
She pointed to her home as an example. Set into the slope on her property carved eons ago by glaciers, the design offers natural temperature modulation, but also a break from the north wind. While the 1,180-watt solar panels harvest light for energy, the home's southern exposure is shaded by a large tree with leaves that drop, allowing the winter sun to warm the home.
A root cellar helps keep perishables cool, while a Sun-Mar Excel non-electric composting toilet is utilized until she can afford to have a well drilled and plumbing installed.
She earns money doing website design and teaching education classes. Her homeschooled daughters tend to the chickens and make a few bucks selling the eggs.
"I love this life," Madsen said. "As difficult as it's been, I wouldn't change a damn thing."
Finding answers, connections
The first few years saw Madsen, her ex-husband and her three children living in a refurbished school bus. Though it was heated, insulated and habitable, the space became cramped for the then-family of five while construction on the home advanced with each injection of funds.
"It's a huge relief on so many levels to have passed the inspection," Madsen said, looking out on her house.
Her roots aren't far from the house — just across the road, actually. That's where the 1994 Hudson High School graduate grew up. Her parents bought the surrounding 29 acres when Madsen was 4.
"As a young girl, I hiked over with my dog many times to these oak trees where I now live, and have a vested interest in caring for this land and area," she wrote in an application to St. Croix County to hold educational classes on the property.
She studied painting and photography at the University of Wisconsin -Madison and went to work as a photo stylist in commercial photography. Madsen said that while the business was lucrative, it was a soul-sucker for her.
"It was not how I wanted to be using my precious life force," she said.
She sold her belongings and moved to Kauai, Hawaii.
There, she drew a deeper connection to nature while living on a permaculture farm. She said it was there that she found answers to the question, "How do I live in a way that actively regenerates the planet?"
She and her then-husband learned that approach back to the Twin Cities, where they launched a sustainable landscaping business, with an emphasis on creating "sanctuary spaces" in urban backyards.
Though she said the business did well, the family was growing and they were drawn back to Kauai, where Madsen studied direct-mentoring, a different teaching technique that invites questions and curiosity.
That stay was shortened after learning her parents needed to sell some of their land. Madsen and her family returned to the town of St. Joseph, where they saw the 6 acres as an opportunity to put all their experiences into practice.
"I wanted to live here," she said. "This is home for me."
Her parents remain on the neighboring land. Madsen said her daughters have gained an extra appreciation for water use in the process.
"When you're the one carrying the water up the hill, you're very conservative about every drop," she said.
Madsen said it's taken strong support from friends, family, neighbors and strangers to see the process through to this point. She said that while government regulations have forced her to compromise at times, those tweaks haven't undermined the overall vision.
"I feel very proud of how I've been able to navigate those roadblocks," Madsen said.
And with clearance to teach classes all summer at Bluebird Hill — ranging from herbal medicine-making to no-till farming to permaculture — Madsen said she's feeling her wings beginning to spread.
"I believe in the resiliency of community and those connections," she said. "I want to be able to serve those people."
More information about Bluebird Hill Homestead is available at BluebirdHillHomestead.com