Just 13 years ago, Lisa Kivirist and John Ivanko spent their days in a skyscraper in Chicago's Loop, working in marketing.
"It was the ultimate corporate cubicle culture," he said.
When they decided to bolt for what they considered freedom, it was to rural Wisconsin, which they'd grown to love during camping trips. They bought a $123,000 five-acre hobby farmette in Browntown, even though they hadn't lined up new jobs and had no friends in the area.
"We came up here with a roll of quarters, a roll of duct tape and a Rodale guide," said Kivirist. "We didn't have a clear idea of what we were going to do, but we were so busy we didn't have time to worry about anything."
What they did know was that somehow the sun and wind would share their workload. And it did. The couple's bed and breakfast, Inn Serendipity, has been named one of the "Top 10 Eco-destinations in North America" by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in addition to earning many other honors, and has been featured on ABC News and other national media. The couple's wind turbine and solar collection systems are producing 110 percent of their energy - so Alliant Energy returns more than $100 a year to them.
It's also allowed the couple and their 7-year-old son, Liam, to live comfortably on about $15,000 a year, which includes expenses for a cabin they own in northern Wisconsin. "We find all kinds of ways to save money, and don't rely on one income source," Ivanko said.
One source is renting two guest rooms, usually to people interested in alternative energy who come from Madison or Chicago, though this summer they'll host Canadians for a week. Some families, who often bring children, want to experience farm life, complete with vegetarian breakfasts cooked by Kivirist, a cookbook author who uses ingredients from their garden as well as Green County's world-class cheesemakers. Both Kivirist and Ivanko write, speak, consult and blog on alternative energy, and Ivanko does professional photography. Because of their low income, they also qualify for Badger Care insurance.
Then, there's the scavenging and bargain hunting component of their lives. Ivanko points to the stainless steel kitchen sink plucked from a curb during Monroe Clean-up Day, a salvaged stove top, and counters made from scrap granite. In the barn beside a diesel-fueled Volkswagen Jetta is a 1974 all-electric CitiCar, which they bought for about $200 (but cost over $3,000 to restore), that's used for short jaunts.
Kivirist and Ivanko have also learned to navigate private and public sources of financial support for alternative energy projects. The wind turbine, for instance, might have cost more than $40,000, but it was erected as a school project in 2003. "No one should be scared off by sticker shock for any of this, especially with the stimulus package," Ivanko said. "There's all kinds of help out there."
A recent project was the transformation of the granary at the 1928 farmstead into a two-story greenhouse that is insulated with bales of hay. It's so warm and bright upstairs that tropical plants - papayas, limes, bananas, and even coffee - are grown there, alongside seeds germinating before they're moved to the garden in spring.
"Wisconsin is one of the best places in the world for people who care about sustainable living," Ivanko said. "So many visionaries in green business and organic farming live here. And we're blessed with all this clean water that people in so many other places on Earth would give anything for. Living like this allows people to take control of their lives. You can lose all the money in your bank account, but if you have food you'll be fine."