Living Green

How one determined couple did what many of us long to do: chucked a high-rent life for what really matters

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In 1996, Lisa Kivirist and John Ivanko gambled on a dream—and won. Seeking their own version of the good life, the couple took a leap of faith and abandoned their advertising careers in Chicago. Nine years later, the former “corporate clones” are living simply and sustainably in rural Wisconsin—and they couldn’t be happier.

They’ve transformed 5 1/2 acres into an organic solar- and wind-powered farmstead and are running a popular vegetarian bed-and-breakfast. Along the way, they’ve had a son, acquired a flock of free-range chickens and two llamas, and made a bunch of friends.

There was no epiphany, really. Over time, the couple simply realized that their busy corporate lives felt wrong. “We said we valued community, family and the food we ate, but we had no time to cook, to get to know our neighbors or to see family,” Kivirist says. “Much of our life was focused on our jobs and the oceans of lattes and fancy restaurants it afforded. We were very much a part of the earn-and-spend culture.”

And they were very much dependent on technology. “We realized that we didn’t know how to grow our own food, generate our own power, make our own holiday gifts or even chop wood for heat,” Kivirist says. “We had allowed, and trusted, other people to do just about everything for us.”

They wanted change—beyond modest efforts at fending for themselves, such as growing some of their food in a rooftop garden. “We yearned for a simpler day-to-day life, one that avoided the stress of traffic jams or ‘smog alert’ days,” Kivirist says.

Although they’d never tried it before, rural living appealed to their green sensibilities—though Kivirist is quick to admit that you don’t need to live on a farm to live green. “You can eat locally through farmers’ markets and CSAs. You can switch to more efficient light bulbs. You can do lots of little things, and they add up.” Still, the couple felt their place was in the country.

Committing to a life in keeping with their values proved excit-ing, even if at times overwhelming. Yet the husband and wife were driven and enthusiastic, “good emotions to have as we embarked on what would require a lot of work and learning,” Kivirist says.

The work began with six years of belt-tightening. “When we decided to make this change, we cut our spending cold turkey,” Kivirist says. “We knew we needed a nest egg to buy a farm and some savings to get us started. We stopped eating out, we learned to fix things ourselves, and when we couldn’t, we made do. We ended up with a down payment and a plan to get the B&B running to pay the mortgage and some of the bills.

This farm had been operational for over a hundred years, and we saw strong potential in it,” Kivirist says. The couple envisioned retrofitting the buildings for renewable energy and expanding the gardens. And the farmhouse was already in semi-good shape for a B&B, needing only a new well and two additional bathrooms for guests. 

Inn Serendipity was up and running in about six months. The couple has been serving organic vegetarian and vegan breakfasts ever since, using produce grown on the farm. The hearty morning meal typically consists of fruit smoothies and a main course such as breakfast burritos, with sides such as rosemary hash browns and apple-maple muffins. They recently served their first raw breakfast—fresh raspberries, apple slices and freshly squeezed grape juice, all harvested within 100 feet of their back door.

A network of supportive and knowledgeable friends has helped with various projects—including the solar-heated straw bale greenhouse, which should allow them to grow food year-round. To build it, volunteers stripped an old granary to its foundation and insulated it with straw bales, a material the couple loves. “The bales provide super-insulation and are aesthetically attractive and relatively easy to work with,” Kivirist says. Also, compared to other building materials, straw bales don’t take a lot of energy to produce.

Windows from a torn-down school let in lots of sunlight, and a solar hot water collection system provides heat. “Our goal is to run it at a net zero energy cost,” says Kivirist, which means having it produce as much energy as the couple uses. Normally, heating can consume 30–50 percent of total costs for a greenhouse. “We’re hoping that what we learned from this project can help other farmers give new life to old outbuildings.”

funding the dream

Fifty percent of the couple’s income comes through rental  property. In addition to the B&B, Kivirist and Ivanko run Inn Serendipity Woods, a rural cabin retreat two hours north in Vernon County, WI. The wooded lot was supposed to be just that: an empty, lush green space where the eco-minded couple could learn sustainable forestry (Green County has only sporadic woods). But they fell in love with a lot that included—serendipitously—a furnished A-frame cabin that appeals to out-of-towners.

The rest of the pair’s income derives from selling vegetables at a farmers’ market, writing books, selling photographs, consulting, and selling eggs from their free-range chickens.

“We collectively make less than one of us was making before,” Kivirist says, “but our quality of life has increased exponentially.”

Debts are planned and manageable. “Like most homeowners, we have a mortgage. However, we’ve chosen not to live beyond our means by running up credit cards or owning the latest models of cars,” Kivirist says. “Just by growing the amount of food we do and by preparing it ourselves, we save thousands of dollars each year.” They further stretch their dollars by bartering for services such as babysitting for their toddler son, Liam, who’s a fixture on the farm.

To pass along what they’ve learned, the couple has written a book—Rural Renaissance: Renewing the Quest for the Good Life—about creating a contemporary, self-sufficient, socially

responsible lifestyle. While not everyone with the dream of living green will follow in the couple’s footsteps, the lifestyle is one that the couple is only too happy to promote. “Our move to the farm crystallized our understanding of many issues, including those related to healthy food and land, clean air and water, and renewable energy,” Kivirist says. “The farm allowed us to re-create our lives in ways that were more meaningful to us. We often share ideas and perspectives so others can go out and create a similar venture on their own terms. That’s a large part of why we wrote our book.”

Another large part? Sheer bliss. “We love the diversity of what we do,” Ivanko says, “from working on the property to learning more about food and energy systems to sitting around the campfire with our guests.”

Visitors to Inn Serendipity go home with more than a sense of peace: They might leave with ideas on how to create artworks or how to install solar panels.

And they also leave with recipes. “We’ve gotten pretty used to photocopying them,” Ivanko says.