St. Peter on the Prairie benefits when local farmer's name is drawn

ST. PETER ON THE PRAIRIE received a grant of $2,500 through the America's Farmers Grow Communities program when a local farmer was selected through a random drawing to nominate a local organization. This week, board member Aaron Johnson (left) met with farmer Chris Johnke, his wife Lori Johnke and board members Susan Janssen and Charlie Johnson to discuss the grant and the local community center.

Sometimes a phone call from an unknown number can bring a pleasant surprise. That's what Charlie Johnson learned recently.

As one of the founding members of St. Peter on the Prairie, a nonprofit located 12 miles southwest of Madison, Johnson is also one of the organization's contacts. Thus, when St. Peter was selected by a local farmer to receive a $2,500 grant, Johnson was called.

Not recognizing the number, he ignored the call. It went to voicemail and he didn't get around to checking it for about three weeks. When he did, he learned that Chris and Lori Johnke had been selected to choose the nonprofit which would receive a grant through the America's Farmers Grow Communities program sponsored by the Bayer Fund.

"This donation is a real boost for us and we deeply appreciate it," said Sue Janssen, a board member who was also a member of St. Peter Lutheran Church, which closed in 2016.

The nonprofit was created the following year to ensure the fieldstone church constructed in 1948 would continue to be a gathering place. With a sanctuary that can seat 140 and a fellowship hall that can seat 100, the site has been used for a variety of events, including weddings, funerals, parties and a small arts festival.

"We're open for any kind of gathering," said board member Aaron Johnson. "We had a 16-year-old who had her Sweet 16 party here."

"One gathering that was really special was late last fall after the flood," Charlie Johnson noted.

An engaged couple had scheduled a pre-wedding party at another venue prior to getting married in Minnesota. When that venue was inundated by the rising water of Lake Herman, the couple relocated their event to St. Peter where close to 200 people gathered. With food, a bonfire and children running all over the place, it brought the kind of life to the facility that board members like to see.

"That's part of the vision -- that people will be able to use the facility as their own," Charlie Johnson noted.

With the funds donated by America's Farmers Grow Communities, the nonprofit will be working to make the structure handicapped-accessible, according to Janssen. Under consideration is the possibility of making bathroom upgrades or applying those funds to the cost of installing an elevator.

"We feel that the more accessible the building is, the more it has to offer," she said.

America's Farmers Grow Communities is a program that awards 1,000 grants annually across the country. Of these, 38 were awarded in South Dakota this year. Sponsored by the Bayer Fund, the program is based on the premise that farmers know the needs of their communities best, according to a press release.

"Each donation shines a light on the organizations that are making a positive difference in rural communities across the country," Al Mitchell, Bayer Fund president, said in a press release. "Farmers truly understand the needs of their communities and where the opportunities to strengthen them exist. We partner with them to identify the nonprofit organizations that will benefit from Grow Communities donations."

Farmers are selected by a random drawing from among those who enter, according to the Bayer Fund website. To be eligible, a farmer must be actively engaged in farming a minimum of 250 acres of cropland. The program offers a variety of ways to enter which are outlined at americasfarmers.com.

The Johnkes have been entering for years by completing and returning the application they receive through their DeKalb seed dealer.

"There's a postcard that comes in the mail. You check the box that says you're actively engaged in farming," Lori Johnke explained.

When they learned Chris' name had been selected this year, they found it difficult to choose a nonprofit to support -- primarily because Lake County has a number of strong programs such as the Lake County Food Pantry and Interlakes Area United Way.

"We were trying to think outside the box," Johnke indicated.

Eventually, they looked down the road and decided to support an organization close to home. The Johnkes live just two miles north of St. Peter on the Prairie.

"We know they will do good things with the grant," Johnke said.

St. Peter on the Prairie is supported primarily by donations. However, when St. Peter Lutheran Church closed in 2016, members created an endowment to support a number of entities, including the nonprofit, according to Janssen.

"For the last year or so, the market has been unsteady, so there have been no distributions from the church's endowment fund," she said.

The nonprofit defines itself as a gathering place to meet, share and experience nature and God on the prairie. Fund-raising events include an annual Field Dinner on the Prairie. Prints of a painting of the rural church by John C. Green are also available.