Published in The Wisconsin State Journal on May 6, 2011
Land Shows Us the Way Back
by Karl Garson
“He’s overeducated,” is a sentence I hadn’t heard in a long time until I wandered recently into a local convenience store and overheard it from a conversation at one the little tables hidden in the back of the place–tables where the locals gather to exchange gossip and their views on everything that they believe, except on Sunday mornings.
To be declared overeducated in rural America is to be sentenced to the life of an outcast. The utterance is to rural America what “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing” is to anyone who makes time in their lives for serious thought. Thus, while knowledge seems dangerous to one side it seems equally dangerous to the other, but for different reasons. If knowledge was a coin its sides would read yes and no and the minds entertaining that knowledge would be marked open and closed.
When we bought this farm 10 years ago we thought it would sustain a small hay and dairy operation. We’d be building upon the years of hard work by previous owners and getting back to basics which, for us, included being wholly organic. All it would take was an investment in equipment and livestock. The barn had, and still has, 21 stanchions to hold dairy cattle while they’re being milked. Sure, there are more efficient systems than that, but that’s what was at hand.
The first summer the most productive valley land flooded–twice. The previous owner had disclosed that probability and so it wasn’t exactly an eye opener. Still, we thought, “That can’t happen a lot, can it?” Turns out, it can. The valley land has flooded every summer since but one.
That first autumn we climbed Helgerson Ridge, the steep hill rising behind the farmhouse. Looking at the valley below us we saw that the creek that now runs along the south edge of the valley once ran through its middle. The depression left in the land by time was clear as was the realization that the floods were water’s way of trying to find its way back home. The land that we had considered farmland was actually an extended wetland. Our initial view of the land as part of the economic system was clashing with the land’s original destiny as part of the ecosystem. We had a decision to make. It would take an open mind, study of the history of the land, close observation, patience and postponing the purchase of equipment and livestock.
After seven years on the farm we had a pond dug into the lowest part of the former stream bed we’d first observed from Helgerson Ridge. It immediately attracted Blue Herons to feed on the frogs that appeared quickly there. The next summer Wood Duck tried it out. Early last autumn a pair of Sandhill Cranes appeared, the first we’d seen in our part of the valley. This spring we observed a family of mink along the pond’s margins.
And so the decision we’ve made recently was not difficult. Our 100 acres, our steep hills, deep valley and spring-fed stream, our Everdene should be a fully functioning part of the ecosystem, not a marginal, struggling part of the economic system. It should be what it has been trying to be against the odds that had been stacked against it.
To accomplish this change we’ve decided to ask for help from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Crawford County Farm Service Office, specifically from the Natural Resources Conservation Service side of the office in Prairie du Chien. We’ll listen to what they have to say, what programs are available and rely on their knowledge and advice, or, as some may see it, their overeducation. To this we’ll add our own studies of the land and its primal ecosystems and decide how to proceed, using the education that nature has been patient enough to give us.