Author Lisl Detlefsen's books serve as a voice for agriculture

Colleen Kottke
Wisconsin State Farmer
The Detlefsen family poses in 2015 with Lisl's first published book, Time for Cranberries while standing in a flooded bog at their farm family-owned cranberry marsh near Wisconsin Rapids.

While attending college, Lisl Detlefsen traveled to Wisconsin Rapids with her then-boyfriend in 1999 to watch the cranberry harvest on his family's fifth generation cranberry marsh.

The city-raised Detlefsen likened the experience to Dorothy stepping into the Land of Oz.

"It was like I had been living in black and white and all of a sudden I understood what color was," she told an audience at the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation annual meeting and conference. "How is it that I grew up two and a half hours from this and had no clue this was going on? There should be a book about this."

Sixteen years later that self-penned book has become a reality and Detlefsen finds herself immersed in agriculture, now the wife of a cranberry grower, mother of two young sons and a published author whose goal is to be a voice for agriculture. She accomplished that by writing books that not only provide an accurate portrayal of the industry, but help to educate consumers about the source of their food and those people who work to bring it to their table.

Detlefsen says farmers have both an opportunity and a responsibility to help educate people about that process. 

"The bottom line is this: As farmers, we care about the food we grow because we eat it, too. We care about the land we farm on because it is our home and, hopefully, the home of our families for generations to come," she said. "Even though most of our consumers are strangers, we recognize and value the connection we share through our food."

In the beginning

Detlefsen and her family live in the farmhouse that her husband's great great grandfather Sherman built near Wisconsin Rapids following the Civil War. It is their hope to continue the cranberry farming legacy into the sixth generation.

"We are constantly assessing what we need to do to make our farm financially sustainable not just for now but for the coming generations," she said.

And one of the biggest challenges standing in the way of that dream is public perception. One way to meet that challenge is for farmers and growers to share their stories.

Lisl Detlefsen's sons, Wesely and Jasper, right, help their father, Robert Detlefsen, pull boom as they get set to harvest cranberries on their farm family-owned cranberry marsh near Wisconsin Rapids.

"We can start by educating young readers about where their food comes from through good ag books," she said. "That's become a real passion for me."

As Detlefsen began searching for relevant agriculture books available to the public, she was shocked to see so many books either hopelessly outdated or out of print. Others she found provided readers with inaccurate representations of farm life or simply skewed the facts.

"In one modern book, the author dedicated a whole chapter to telling the reader how cruel dairy farmers are: pumping cows full of antibiotics, forcing them to become pregnant and then ripping their calves away from them after they're born," Detlefsen said. "There's also wonderful picture books out there of talking farm animals doing farm work...but if these are the only pictures kids see, they're not understanding what farm life is really like."

Detlefsen said many folks in the ag industry also expressed their frustration to her over the use of outdated stereotypes to depict farmers often clad in overhauls sporting straw hats and milking cows by hand while perched on a three-legged stool.

Not all segments of agriculture are well-represented in the literary world, in particular animal agriculture, especially the beef industry. In Detlefsen's book "Right This Very Minute: A Table-to-Farm Book About Food and Farming," explains to children how every minute of every day, someone, somewhere, is working to bring food to their table.

"No one wants to talk about where we get beef from," she said. "One review of my book from a very well respected trade journal liked the book but said it might not be good for kids not ready for the reality of where their food comes from. We should be ready, and if you're willing to eat beef, you need to know where that came from and appreciate the animal that gave it to you."

Thankfully, Detlefsen noted, that there are good authors still out there — and others waiting to get published — that are helping to portray all facets of agriculture in a factual, fair way including Wisconsin dairy farmer Cris Peterson who has written 10 books for children and Gail Gibbons whose wide collection of books also includes agriculture offerings.

"Those two are wonderful authors but they can't be the only voices for ag. We need lots of voices," Detlefsen said.

Lisl Detlefsen's goal is to be a voice for agriculture by writing and publishing books that not only provide an accurate portrayal of the industry and its people, but help to educate consumers about the source of their food and those people who work to bring it to their table.

Getting published

Detlefsen's dream was to become a published author. But in the meantime, she continued to take on freelance writing jobs and work as a substitute teacher in her children's school district.

"Writing children's books is a job I'm able to do because my husband has a steady income," she said.

In 2013, Detlefsen sold her first book to an editor she met while attending a workshop in Michigan. 

"That weekend I could not stop talking about cranberries; it was like I was possessed!" she laughed. "But (my perspective editor) told me in her experience passionate people usually succeed. And if I was that passionate about cranberries, she felt I would succeed in selling that book."

While the growing movement for locally sourced food and consumer interest in the production of that food has helped push Detlefsen's book forward, the lack of in-house understanding about agriculture slowed the process down.

"When you think about publishing that book out on the coast, you can understand why they're having a hard time making that connection," she said. "My editor emailed me constantly saying 'Marketing doesn't get it, can you send more photos?' or the artist would ask for photos of the different kinds of equipment we used, the buildings on our farm or the kinds of wildlife that lived there to help him develop the illustrations. It finally published in 2015."

She said her husband, Robert, was instrumental in reviewing the artist's sketches for accuracy.

"What I love about that first book is that it not only gives kids that don't live on a cranberry marsh a virtual field trip but it gives kids that do live there a chance to be represented," she said.

Time-consuming process

Nothing happens overnight in the literary field. In the 10 years that Detlefsen was writing her first book, she was on the go, traveling to workshops, networking with potential editors, learning more about writing and the publishing business.

Detlefsen said her story, which she says evolved over 34 drafts, continued to get better over this extended writing and learning process. Unfortunately, publishing a children's book is an uphill climb.

"It's super hard to get published without an agent, and it's super hard to get an agent if you aren't published," she said. "But once you have an agent, more doors open for you where your work can be sold to different publishers."

Lisl Detlefsen's sons, Wesley, left, and Jasper, help provide inspiration and ideas for some of her storybooks for children.

Detlefsen's latest book "Right This Very Minute: A Table-to-Farm Book About Food and Farming" was the first work published by Feeding Minds Press, a project of the American Farm Bureau Foundation for Agriculture, whose mission is to build awareness and understanding of agriculture through education by publishing books about the industry that connects readers to stories about where their food comes from.

“This book is the first of many titles from Feeding Minds Press that will bring modern agriculture to life for young readers,” said Christy Lilja, executive director of the American Farm Bureau Foundation for Agriculture in a news release.

Detlefsen says the American Farm Bureau Foundation for Agriculture wanted to address misconceptions and stereotypes about agriculture by creating an awareness of modern agricultural processes.

"Basically their goal was to show readers the Old MacDonald is outdated and the new MacDonald is using technology and best practices to increase productivity and uses fewer resources to grow more food," she said.

A place on the shelf

As a youth, Detlefsen remembers being so impressed after reading a novel about a child who lived in an apartment in New York City and rode a taxi to school each morning. 

"I thought that was so cool and was one of the reasons I wanted to move to New York City," she said looking back. "That's a reality for some kids and we need books like that. But we also need stories where kids are helping out on the family farm, and they're riding a long ways on a bus to get to school. With these books, we need to show kids accurate and well-rounded representations of different communities, different careers, different lifestyles."

While Detlefsen has written books on subjects including humorous look at swimming lessons or navigating a jet pack to school, she says it's her agriculture themed books that resonate strongly with the rural community. 

"When I get an opportunity to speak in front of groups for the Farm Bureau, people actually come up to me tell me how my work really matters and thank me. These books have a meaning in a way that my other work does not have," she said. We all feel how important it is to tell the story of agriculture, and it's just something I've become so passionate about."