A passion for peonies transforms Wisconsin dairy farm

By Joel Waldinger | September 20, 2022


In rural Shawano County family farms still dot the landscape, but on one farm a unique crop has taken root. Lee Mielke is retired so to speak, “You hear a lot of stories that where people retiring from dairy farming, and they didn’t have nothing to do.” So, in “retirement” he transformed his dairy farm into one of the most picturesque flower fields in Wisconsin.

And then Lee’s sister Sue Mielke transformed that into something much more around the time Lee had his second or third peony garden. “I said, Lee you really need to do something about these peonies. We either need to start selling them as cut flowers or wholesaling them or something.” That hobby did turn into something much bigger.

The peony farm now has about 150 varieties and about 2000 plants. It all started from just one peony and a chance encounter. “I was visiting my sister and she had a Red Charm Peony. They’re big flowers. And I said, “Oh my peonies”. As Sue recalls, that simple phrase launched a Christmas tradition. “Every year we would ask him, what do you want for Christmas? And he would tell us a peony gift certificate.” That was the easy part for Lee.

So, every year since then Christmas arrives on the farm in late June and shows up in full bloom. The price tag for some of the peonies they now sell can be eye-popping. Mystic Peony sells for $350 because there are only eight in the world. Another peony called Bartzella when it come on the market sold for a thousand dollars. Lee said, “I suppose it ain’t any different than cows some cows will give you more money. Some peonies will give you more.”

At the end of the day, it’s a sentimental journey for these siblings. “I appreciate the beauty of this place a little bit more, I think when you’re growing up and this was our home farm, you don’t take a real strong appreciation of that. Lee sums it up this way, “Life is too short. Like with the COVID it can end tomorrow. Success is just waking up every morning. You got the world by the tail. That’s the name of the game of success.”

Joel Waldinger

Joel Waldinger

Joel Waldinger is a reporter for the “Wisconsin Life” project and considers a sunset over the “big island” on Manson Lake to be a perfect ending to a day of fishing and fun in the Northwoods. 

Sign Up Form

Sign Up for Our Bi-Weekly Newsletter

Get your favorite Wisconsin Life stories, meet the crew, and go behind the scenes.

Our Favorite Collections

Storyteller Rodney Lambright II's comic series about the rich relationship between a single father, his young daughter and his retirement-age parents.
For the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, we discover how Wisconsinites experienced the war both at home and on the battlefield.
Ice, cold and winter are an integral part of what it means to live in Wisconsin. "Ice Week" explores the many ways that ice defines us.
Food plays a central part in many holiday traditions. This series honors the foods and meals that make the day.
Escape winter with a look at some of Wisconsin's favorite sports and games.
"Living the Wisconsin Life" is an online series exploring the little things that make living in Wisconsin fun, interesting and meaningful.