Sunday, April 24, 2011

It's All About the Earth!

(Bald eagle, seen at the Wild Rose Mill Pond during our recent April 19 blizzard. Photo courtesy of the "Waushara Argus".)

I remember reading Rachel Carson's book, "Silent Spring", in maybe 1970. I was about 13. It's pretty heavy reading for a 13-year-old. In 1970, the year of the first Earth Day; in central Wisconsin, I think it was shelved right next to literature about UFOs, extraterrestrials, bigfoot, and the Loch Ness Monster.

You see, central Wisconsin is the heart of the premiere vegetable-growing region in Wisconsin. In the 1970s, Wisconsin was the largest producer in the USA (and maybe the world) of cucumbers, and second largest producer of a whole array of edibles like potatoes, beans, cranberries, sweet corn, honey, maple syrup; putting a dent in the idea of many who before the California Cows went all Hollywood on us, thought that Wisconsin was simply "the Dairy State".

Nobody around here believed DDT was "bad" for us.

I saw my first eagle when I was about 12. It was a big deal. I remember my Dad running into the house to grab the binoculars and telling us to come quick and be quiet. We ran out to see the eagle sitting on a dead branch in the top of a towering cottonwood tree. The fact that I remember my Dad making a big deal about it, means that it was a big deal for him, too.

I didn't see another eagle until I was nearly 35.

Now, I see them all the time. I see a lot of other birds casually, as well. I remember avidly looking for birds as a young adult and not seeing that many. It is the carrion-eaters and raptors that were missing most from the bird entourage; the eagles, hawks, and turkey vultures.

Now, with the Wisconsin DNR's help, turkeys also go their merry way in Wisconsin. Hummingbirds are frequent visitors to feeders in every yard. The birds are back.

DDT is banned, dairy farmers are having a hard go of it, and I don't think we are in the top three in the production of many vegetables these days. Back in the 1970s, California produced about double the edibles Wisconsin did. Now, according to the USDA, California outproduces us by nearly seven times! In 1960, Wisconsin's total output was sixth. In 2004, we are ninth.

Wisconsin's economic climate is becoming more and more debatable and some have written that we are a state at war with ourselves. Our path is not clear.

If you live in the central part of this state, there is little more than lip-service to ideas of sustainability or the green movement. This is amazing to me, when we also have one of the premiere environmental colleges in the country, are home to the largest renewable energy festival in the country every year, and are the native soil of the likes of Aldo Leopold and John Muir. Here, where we are a distance from anywhere, it has been our large scale commercial vegetable agriculture that pays everyone's way and petroleum that gets us where we are going.

Charting a path where our agricultural can sustain us in a meaningful way and provide a living wage to the small farmers who feed us will continue to be a challenge. I'm not sure where the vectors of sustainability and cost intercept here in central Wisconsin-- or even if they do.

Small farmers are on Wisconsin's endangered list these days. I can hear a present-day father somewhere asking for the binoculars, "Come quick, I think I see a small farmer!"

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