Working with farmers, Dr. Dirt helped address water resource challenges

Carol Spaeth-Bauer
Wisconsin State Farmer
From left, soil science professors Birl Lowery, Fred Madison and Kevin McSweeney describe layered features of vertically exposed prairie soil during a soil science class field trip to the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Arlington Agricultural Research Station on May 27, 2014.

He was known fondly as Dr. Dirt. He used his extensive knowledge of Wisconsin’s soils and his warm personality to help farmers and protect the state’s environment. Dr. Dirt, University of Wisconsin–Madison emeritus professor Fred Madison, died June 3 at the age of 82. 

A memorial service will be held Saturday, August 17th, 2019 beginning at 11 a.m. at Park Hall, at 307 Polk St., Sauk City.

Much of Madison's career was spent assessing the effect of agriculture on the surface and groundwater resources of Wisconsin while working with farm families to help address environmental challenges.

His work had big impacts on farm practices, natural resources policy and conservation professionals as he sought to protect the environment, assure farm profitability and sustain natural and human resources. Many of his projects were interdisciplinary, requiring coordination with various campus and governmental units, and he made a point to share his results widely, according to UW-Madison News. 

With his drooping mustache and kind gravelly voice, Madison was memorable to all he met.

“Fred was one of a kind,” says Steve Ventura, a UW–Madison professor of soil science. “He loved to help people understand the state’s diverse landscapes and its thin veneer of life-giving soil. He was passionate about protecting natural resources, and he inspired many people along the way.”

After graduating from Milwaukee Country Day School in 1955, Madison attended Harvard University, transferred to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, earning his MS in soils and PhD, Channel 3000 Madison reported. Upon completion of his graduate studies he was hired as a recruiter for the Peace Corps by its founder and first director, Sargent Shriver.

Madison served as a legislative assistant for Senator Gaylord Nelson where he authored the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. Madison was then appointed by President Lyndon Johnson to the Upper Great Lakes Regional Commission. Following his reappointment by President Richard Nixon in 1972, he returned to Wisconsin in 1973 to join the faculty at UW-Madison with a joint appointment to the Soils Department and the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey.

Fred Madison, professor emeritus of soil science, describes layered features of vertically exposed prairie soil during a soil science class field trip to the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Arlington Agricultural Research Station on May 27, 2014.

After completing his doctoral degree, Madison was hired as a scientist in the UW–Madison Department of Soil Science. In 1978, he took a split position as an assistant professor of soil science and an Extension specialist with the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey (WGNHS). He received tenure in 1984 and was promoted to full professor in 1991.

Madison helped establish the Nutrient and Pest Management program, providing guidance and technical support, to help farmers use agricultural chemicals more efficiently and carefully.

He also co-founded the university’s Discovery Farms Program, serving as co-director of the program from 2001 to 2011, according to UW-Madison News. Through the program, participating farmers partner with researchers to assess and modify their farming practices with the goal of developing farming systems that are both economically and environmentally viable and sustainable, according to UW-Madison News.

Madison's wisdom and advice on soils, geology and other natural resource topics was highly valued and frequently sought by the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey staff and students, Ken Bradbury, director of WGNHS said. 

For about 30 years, he taught Soil Science 305 and coached the UW–Madison soil judging team. In the late 1980s, he developed Soil Science 601, Soils of Wisconsin: Landscapes and Uses. This popular summer course, affectionately known by hundreds of students as the “Tour of Wisconsin Soils and Supper Clubs,” involved traveling around the state to study soils in a variety of landscapes, exposing students to diverse perspectives on environmental and land-use challenges.

“Fred’s the person I learned the most from about Wisconsin’s landscapes, and about mining in the Mineral Point area,” says emeritus professor of soil science Birl Lowery, who co-led the course with Madison for a number of years. “He had a tremendous amount of knowledge on these topics, and I really enjoyed working with him on the course.”

Madison chaired the master's Water Resources Management program, leading many workshops, including ones that helped lead to the development of the Farmers’ Fund Program and the Farm*A*Syst tool.

Over the course of his career, Madison advised 19 graduate students and served on graduate committees for more than 50 students in the Department of Soil Science and the Nelson Institute.

Believing in service, Madison was involved in the promotion and leadership of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program, serving several terms on its national Administrative Council and as Wisconsin’s representative to North Central SARE.

He received the Wisconsin Idea Award in Natural Resource Policy from Extension in 1995 for his contributions to natural resource policy and his accomplishments as an educator.

Prior to his retirement in 2011, Madison started studying two emerging issues in Wisconsin: water quality problems in the state’s Driftless Area and water quantity challenges in the Central Sands region.

He also served as chair of the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway Board for a number of years until 2018. The Lower Wisconsin was named a scenic river under the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

“He was a mentor and friend who is truly missed,” says Jim Miller, a graduate student advisor with the Nelson Institute, who participated in eight Soil Science 601 field trips. “We were all the better off for knowing Fred and having him in our circle.”

Madison and his spouse, Tracy, were active volunteers in local, state and national politics. They were avid supporters of the arts, contributing to the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the American Players Theatre in Spring Green as well as the Art Institute of Chicago.

Madison is survived by his wife, Tracy (Anderson); his son, David of Minneapolis, MN; two daughters, Jessica of Seattle, WA., and Ashley and her son, Owen, of Portland, OR; a sister, Nancy Hayes of Santa Fe, NM; and several nephews and nieces. In addition to his parents, he was preceded in death by his sister, Sarah Lawless.

UW-Madison News contributed to this article.

Carol Spaeth-Bauer at 262-875-9490 or Follow her on Twitter at cspaethbauer or Facebook at