Four women who we see leading great shifts in agriculture through their lives and works were interviewed. This story is meant to inspire all to reach out within and outside of our communities to understand what is happening around us.
To the east is Nancy Utesch, who farms and lives in Kewaunee County. Nancy and her husband Lynn have a grass-fed beef operation on 150 acres in the Town of Pierce. A defining moment for Nancy was in 2004 when contaminated groundwater led to an entire family in the county being poisoned. The contamination was linked to a nearby Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO). Back then, questioning CAFOs was unpopular, however, inspired by her mother’s advocacy for health issues and having two young sons, Nancy took up the cause. Since then the state of groundwater in the county has worsened with one third of the wells tested being contaminated. As a credit to Nancy’s work, conversations in Kewaunee County now focus on how clean water can be assured for all.
Although Nancy may be known for her advocacy on water quality issues, she is first and foremost a farmer. Through pasture walks, she has inspired others by putting forth an alternative to the factory farm. When Nancy was growing up, her neighbors who farmed taught her to care for the animals and land.
“I loved that farm and the farmers made an impression on me as a child about values that were really important on how I wanted to live,” Nancy reflects.
Nancy’s story has shown the importance of planting the seed with children so they are inspired to stand up for the health and wellness of all life. Nancy says, “There is an emotional and physical response to being out on the land, having your hands in the soil, to being out in nature… for myself, I think there is definitely a connection to health and well being, so it makes me sad to think of this generation coming to not have that connection.”
An important way we can make connections within our communities is to support sustainable agricultural systems through the food we eat.
In the north is Mary Dougherty from Bayfield, WI. She is a chef, a consultant for the national organization Socially Responsible Agricultural Project (SRAP) and she recently published her first cookbook called “Life in a Northern Town.”
Mary gives a very human and ethical story to the meaning of eating local and supporting sustainable farmers. “I was in Tonopah, Arizona looking at a huge chicken egg facility. They stored poultry litter outside and it was super windy so there was manure everywhere, the air was kind of brown. A school bus stopped in front of us and two kids get off the bus… I remember what the little girl was wearing… she had brand new tennies and her new backpack, and she was running down the street through air that was full of manure to her mom. That’s when I thought, ‘all food comes from some place and that place is always someone’s home.’ And so, going back to local food, it’s not about buying local eggs because I want to stick it on social media. It is that the food I am buying and that I am offering on my table and to my family and friends came from someone’s home. I love where I live. I want to make choices to support other’s ability to love where they live and to be safe.”
Mary says, “My advocacy for good food isn’t so much that I have a burning desire to fight CAFOs but that I have a burning desire to bring food back into where it belongs, which is supporting and building good, healthy communities and families and infrastructure that supports those things. That’s when you can have balance.”
This balance of sustainable food systems is exactly what Harriet Behar advocates for. Harriet is known nationally and internationally as a leader in organic agriculture and runs her own organic farm, Sweet Springs, near Rolling Ground right here in Crawford County.
“I do this work because I really care about the natural world. All the time that I’ve spent in organics has
really shown me that you could have a highly productive farm of any type while at the same time improving your ecosystem, which is the law for organic agriculture. Agriculture does not have to be a negative thing, though in many ways it can negatively impact nature. Through organic farming, natural resources must be maintained or improved and so there’s a holistic way of looking at agriculture. It’s not just, ‘how much yield do I get?’ but more, ‘how do I improve my soil, and how do I sustain the ecological services by having lots of biodiversity on my farm for beneficial insects and keeping things in balance?’ So when I see the use of herbicide, which is not allowed in organics, I don’t see it necessarily negatively, I see it as really unnecessary. There’s no need for herbicides because I know there is another way and it does work. The more I see that, the more passionate I get.”
Reaching beyond the edges of our own properties was a theme among those we interviewed. Blanchardville, to the south, is tucked into a hilly patchwork of neighboring small farms where Kriss Marion hosts guests at her B&B and runs a small organic farm called Circle M Market Farm amongst many other things. “It takes so much time and energy to network, but it’s so important because we all see various things we’d like changed and we’d like to protect, but if you can’t have your voice bolstered by other people, you’re not going to be heard.
I was very busy for a long time on my farm all by myself and it’s hard to feel like it is worthwhile to leave the farm or community to do some of this advocacy stuff. About 5 years ago, I was picking my raspberries and something landed on my arm. I looked down and it was a little tree frog. I love tree frogs, and really value all the wildlife on my farm.
At this moment, I felt like God or nature was communicating with me, and what I learned was that, ‘hey, it’s great that you’re doing a good job on your farm, but if you don’t work with your whole neighborhood to do a good job on all the land, you are not going to have the frog!” Kriss laughs.
“The thing is, we can each value our own little farm or own little community, but if we don’t work up and down stream (literally and figuratively) we are not going to be able to save our own ‘frogs’! We’re all in this together.”
Through stories and insights from these women, we see a collaborative web forming, woven by those who take the time to learn, connect, and understand. This web will usher us into a new era of sustainable agriculture and it is inspiring to see women, those who discovered and nurtured agriculture to begin with, leading this shift.