The Effect of Affection
by Inga Witscher of Osseo, WI
Wendell Berry has been a background presence throughout my entire life. I was raised knowing that his essays, prose and poetry brought to readers what we who farm know in our hands and in our bones, and feel in our hearts and souls.
When I first read his Jefferson Lecture 2012, “It All Turns on Affection” I was deeply moved but, in all honesty, I didn’t fully understand it. Berry described much of my life experience, living and working on a farm, but, as he wove together theories of economies and economics, imagination and conservation, along with references to literature, I got a bit lost. I realize now, I simply needed to mature. I also feel I needed the experience of running my own farm and, at the risk of sounding a bit woo-woo, maybe my barn had to catch fire and burn down before I could comprehend the full message of his essay.
I come from what Berry referred to as a family of stickers. Stickers, by intent and nature, “love the life they have made in the place they have made it in.” It’s from that inherent sticker-ness that the affection and love of place arises.
In 1919 my great-grandfather farmed Cloverdale Farm, 116 acres in Arlington, Washington. Cloverdale was a dairy farm with 80 Holstein and Guernsey milking cows. Over decades, and through marriages, the farm expanded; through life’s vicissitudes, it also contracted. My grandfather took over running the farm around 1950. My dad stepped up to manage the farm around 1980. I was home-schooled on Cloverdale. That involved feeding calves, milking cows, moving pasture fences, tending the garden and chickens and internalizing the rhythms and culture of farm life, on the land and in the kitchen.
The 1980’s were challenging for dairy. Market pressures were articulated in “get big or get out.” My dad was interested in fully transforming the farm into organic (in 1985 he was an early adopter of rotational grazing) but pressures erupted, and in 1999 the family sold what remained of Cloverdale to the county as a public park.
Subsequently we, my mother, father, and two older brothers, moved to Northern Virginia where my dad became the manager of an organic dairy farm, with heritage breeds and a nascent cheese operation.
Within a year, as our family cycle continued to turn, my oldest brother and his wife moved to Wisconsin to start a dairy farm of their own. Once grandchildren began to arrive on the Wisconsin farm, my parents responded with the heat-seeking love of new grandparents. They left Virginia and resettled in Wisconsin.
I didn’t realize I was a displaced “sticker” until I visited my parents on a small organic dairy they purchased in Osseo, Wisconsin. Walking the meadows with my dad, helping him milk the cows and rotating them on pasture set off an inner recognition which was both surprising and undeniable – I needed to farm.
St. Isidore’s Mead was transferred to me, and I embraced it.
Not only was I immensely happy managing a herd of 40 Jerseys, but I was thrilled to join the vibrant community I was discovering, of small-scale farmers, endeavoring to fulfill hopeful, sustainable farming practices. It was a community I was ready to stick to, the affection was real.
I once read that a sorrow shared is halved, and a joy shared is doubled. I believe that’s true, and in that spirit I wanted to share the stories of the farmers I was meeting, and celebrate their convictions, and their work.
That desire was galvanized when I met Helen Kees of Wheatfield Hill Organics near Duran, Wisconsin. Helen was born, reared and resides on the 320 acres which was settled by her grandparents in 1919. When she told me “..my bones and my blood, my marrow, my DNA are built from this soil; my mother formed me here, my very composition is of this soil..” the world stood still. Inspired, my dad and I hatched the idea for Around the Farm Table, a television show to feature and showcase the stories of sustainable farmers of our region, farmers, like Helen.
Around the Farm Table is now in season seven on Wisconsin Public Television. We get lots of mail and email from viewers. We know that we’ve helped expand markets and the customer base for some farmers. We’ve learned from teachers that episodes of the show are used in their classrooms to discuss sustainability and farm culture. We’ve learned that families watch the show together, sometimes with three generations all watching Around the Farm Table; and we’re encouraged to develop a podcast for kids and families.
It’s gratifying. Regardless – I was unprepared when last November 13th, at 6:00 in the morning, I saw that the barn was on fire.
Ironically, Wisconsin Public Television had just aired the previous evening the episode in which we honored the volunteer firefighters of Hale Township, the county of St. Isidore’s Mead. The episode included a visit to a farmer who changed from dairy to raising Wagyu beef, an expansive neighborhood organic green garden that covered an entire front lawn of a suburban house and a visit to Silver Spring, the largest horseradish farm in the world, farmed by the Hutsinger family, founders of the farm, now into the fourth generation – another family of “stickers.”
Each episode of Around the Farm Table ends with a meal, made from the products from the farms featured in that show. With the volunteer firefighters, many of whom are also dairy farmers, we had a meal of Wagyu burgers, green bean salad and homemade pickles spiced with horseradish, as we discussed, in detail, the vagaries of putting up hay, and how fires can get ignited in barns. Little did I know that they would soon be coming to my aid.
The sun had just cracked the sky when I saw the flames. As the barn burned, my affection for St. Isidore’s Mead, the place I discovered, the place I wanted to stick to swelled into high relief. As a sense of loss began to rise, it was met with immediate and heartfelt support from members of my community. Neighbor farmers took in my surviving herd, and people dropped off materials they knew I would need. In addition there was astonishing support from viewers of the show, people I had never met.
Today, nine months later, we’re beginning to rebuild. The new barn will have a creamery like the one we had completed in the former barn, just days before the fire. I’ve decided to maintain a small herd, 10 Jerseys, and will be concentrating on making a true farmstead cheese.
I love the restrictions of making a farmstead cheese, to make cheese using only the milk of the herd that grazed on the farm where the cheese is made. It embodies that affection for place Berry wrote about.
Now, watching the new barn go up, I remember the swirl of feelings in November, as I watched the volunteer firefighters save the fire from spreading to the farmhouse. I’m also reminded of Wendell Berry’s final line in “It All Turns on Affection”; “We do not have to live as if we are alone.” – that’s one of the truly magnificent benefits of being a sticker, with affection for a place.
If interested, you can see the Volunteer Firefighters of Hale Township in Season 6 Episode FIREMAN’S LUNCH on WPT website (all episodes are there, too!)