This morning, like most on my small Southwest Wisconsin farm, the riotous chatter of birds woke me up just before dawn. My place is in a valley, and for much of the year, their symphony is entwined with the song of frogs from my bottomland for the sunrise chorus. Now in high summer, the frogs are replaced by crickets.
Daybreak here is very loud. I run an organic vegetable operation and a bed-and-breakfast on my 20 acres of cultivated fields and woods and wetlands. I tell guests all the time that if they want to sleep in, they’d better use earplugs, and I offer them a set. But for me, the cacophony of nature waking up and getting on with the business of life is a daily call to thankfulness that I would miss terribly should it for some reason disappear.
I’m new here, having only lived in Wisconsin for 11 years, and I may be more wide-eyed about this place than the average native. I find the state, and in particular the Driftless Region where I live, to be achingly beautiful. After the birds wake me up each day, I walk outside to survey my production fields and check on my livestock in their pastures.
My eyes rest for a while on the neighbor’s prairie next door and I watch for hawks wheeling out of the oak hill beyond. I wait for the cranes to pass on their early flight through another neighbor’s cornfields and then I walk through my wetland, flushing wood ducks and both Great Blue and Little Green Herons out of the pond. Then I head back inside to make a farm-to-table breakfast for my guests.
When I came here in 2005, I was sick. My joints were inflamed with rheumatoid arthritis, an auto-immune disease of unknown origins, to the point where I couldn’t wrap my fingers around a toothbrush or hold a full coffee cup with one hand. I was 37. I was on a good drug and functioning, but within two years of moving here from Chicago, I was off the drug and symptom free.
My doctors have no idea why I’m healthy — but I do. I believe in the power of living in a rural agricultural landscape, drinking clean well water, breathing fresh air, eating local organic food and being immersed in green views. I believe in it so much that I opened a bed and breakfast to give others the opportunity to experience this lifestyle.
But this opportunity is quietly being taken away.
Here in very pastoral Lafayette County, our private wells are increasingly testing high in nitrates and over 25 percent show undrinkable levels of bacteria. Like devastated Kewaunee County, where over 34 percent of tested private wells are undrinkable, and the public schools are now offering residents water from public kiosks, we live at a dangerous intersection. Our land is sited on extremely porous fractured bedrock, or karst, geology and we are very agriculturally dependent. In an era of ever-expanding industrial animal operations, that means our land is spread with more manure and chemical-laden dairy waste than our thin soils can filter before it runs through the cracks in our bedrock and infiltrates our groundwater.
Yet here is the message that the Dairy Business Association delivered in July to the DNR when the agency responded to the water quality crisis in Kewaunee County by suggesting special rules governing manure spreading on porous shallow-soiled landscapes: “preserving water quality is simply too expensive to the dairy industry.”
Subsequently, the Natural Resources Board, which supervisors the DNR, chose to support these industrial ag interests over the recommendations of DNR scientists, and firmly set a course for water degradation in this state.
Finally, last week Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel replaced the head of the Department of Justice’s Environmental Unit with David Ross, a lawyer with a long history of defending big business against environmental regulations. The staff of the Environmental Unit is currently at a 25-year-low, and last year fines against polluters were at the lowest level since since 1994. Meanwhile, Schimel recently created a five-lawyer office at the DOJ tasked with fighting the federal government on issues like climate change and water quality.
Wake up Wisconsin! We are very much on the road to sacrificing our state’s primary natural resources — clean lakes, streams and wells and the beauty they support — for the opportunity to beat California at the dairy game it has already lost by ruining its water. Why are so many mega-dairy developers being lured to Wisconsin from California, Nebraska and Iowa? Because the cost of doing business there has risen as water woes have increased. Do Wisconsin citizens really want to be the cheapest state in which to operate industrial agriculture?
I encourage all of you who love living here to keep your eyes open for the ways in which Wisconsin’s primary industries, Agriculture and Tourism, are being pitted against each other by industrial ag interests, rather than working together to coexist with each other and with the frogs, birds and bugs that make our landscape so vitally alive. Perhaps the most tragic result of the takeover of Wisconsin lands by corporate interests, and possibly the most ultimately damaging to our shared culture, is the accelerated loss of the family-scaled farms and dairies which have defined our lifestyle and captured our imagination for decades.