Two sides of Wisconsin: Which will we choose?

We recently took a motorcycle ride to enjoy the fall season in Wisconsin. Literally and figuratively, our ride showed us two sides of Wisconsin.

We started out in the area well-known as “The Central Sands,” then traveled west toward the Kickapoo River Valley area, known as the “Coulee Region” since glaciers seemingly left that portion of the state untouched. The contrast in land contours is striking, and highlights what is so unique about Wisconsin. Within a one-hour ride, we could see flat, sandy land dotted with lakes and trout streams, transitioning to loam soil in ridges and valleys dotted with streams.

The other contrast we saw was in the use of the land. In the Central area, we rode past huge fields dotted with pivot irrigation systems. These are required due to the sandy nature of the soil, and the fact that any rainfall is quickly gone. In this area there were few farms as we used to know them in Wisconsin. Instead of houses and farm buildings, there were occasional older farmsteads that showed no evidence of farming, and then larger vegetable storage or processing areas with no houses around.

The harvesting equipment we saw was enormous and moved quickly through the big fields. We saw several freshly cleared forest lots that were obviously being cleared to make more room for fields. Then, we noticed a stark change.

We passed through Grand Marsh. Our noses noticed it first: What is that smell? It was an incredibly large CAFO dairy, and it was manure spreading time. I was raised around farms, but this was not the typical manure smell; it was much more potent. With the volume of manure these farms generate, they have to store it in lagoons, where it ferments and gets really ripe until spreading time.

On the road we met truck after truck hauling manure. The small town of Grand Marsh was busy with truck after truck hauling crop harvests into the farm, and manure trucks taking the nasty stuff away. The smell permeated the town and I wondered how these folks in a small rural town felt about all the traffic and the smell.

Thankfully we put that in the rearview mirror and headed west. Soon, we were in hill country. As we wound through the hills, I was intent on piloting the bike. My wife, riding behind me, broke into my concentration when she asked over our headset, “Have you noticed all the small farms?” I hadn’t thought about it, but she was right. I started to pay attention. We went past one family farm after another. Some were quite small, some a little larger with the newer open-sided cow stalls, and there were little Amish farms mixed in as well.

She noted how nice it was to see the family farms and the conservative use of the crop land with strip contours. As we rode through this area, we also passed through a series of small towns. One town’s streets were loaded with waving kids as we found ourselves passing through right before the homecoming parade. I truly felt we were in the Wisconsin that we proudly display on one of our state license plates. I think when you talk to people from other parts of the country, this is the Wisconsin that we are known for.

That night, as I sat enjoying a post-ride beer, I was in a melancholy state of mind. In the Central Sands where I live, all we hear is how this is the “new farming” that is the future. They tell me that mega-dairies and huge crop farms are the only way for people to make a living. That the “family farm” is dying because none of the kids want to do it anymore. But another side of Wisconsin told me that isn’t true.

There are plenty of folks out there still trying to make it as true family farms. And the small towns and the pride in them we saw as we rode reminded me that the Wisconsin values that define us as a state still exist. I pondered how current legislation on high-capacity wells, waste management practices, and farm subsidy programs stack the deck against the family farm. People with positions of power, and people with money to influence them, are trying to steer us in a direction that I fear undermines the true Wisconsin values we are so famous for. I, for one, am not going to buy the hype anymore, and will not sit silently by and watch it happen.