Getting to Know Your Neighbors

The knock at the door caught me off guard since I hadn't heard a vehicle drive up. As I opened the front door, I recognized the young man as the son of a local farmer I'd once met at a chili cook-off. This farmer and his sons worked a pretty tired farm a few miles away that had been in one family longer than most of the other local farms. His son was of medium build with a strong brow and burly forearms. I tried to invite him in, but he declined politely and stood on the porch. He said he wanted to speak to me about my fields.

"That sure is a weedy mess," he said, looking out over the field.

It didn't bother me that he was so direct. I enjoyed these kinds of encounters. They gave me the opportunity to explain my work. So I tried to engage him, as I had done with many other visitors and neighbors those first couple years after planting the prairie, and would continue to do with many more.

"Yes, it's a mess," I agreed, "but it's been planted this way on purpose. Those aren't weeds, actually. They're young wildflowers and other seedling prairie plants."

He looked at me with an uncomprehending smile.

"For the next year or two it will look like that. Random. That's what it's supposed to look like. It's just getting started."

He kept grinning. He looked back over the field nervously and then smiled from ear to ear, as if he'd just remembered a punch line.

"Say, I'm not too clear on what you're saying, but I was just driving around looking for some land to rent and noticed that your fields appear to be fallow and weren't planted to corn yet this year. If that's so, would you rent that land to me for planting corn?" he asked, punctuating "corn" with a broad friendly grin.

"The entire farm has been planted. Those are young native prairie plants and wildflowers," I repeated, pinching my thumb and index finger in his line of sight like crosshairs to draw his attention to the nascent seedlings. "See how they're coming up under those agricultural weeds?"

"So, you'll just let the weeds grow instead of planting corn?" He asked this slowly as if perhaps I was the one who didn't understand the situation.

"Actually, the entire farm is fully planted, and none of it's for rent. Sorry." I had a full day's work ahead of me, and this tutorial didn't seem to be producing much fruit.

"Oh, that's too bad. Well thanks. I just figured that if it was sitting idle, I'd be a fool not to ask."

"Wait a year or two and the wildflowers will be lush and beautiful."

He stopped a second to consider that, as he patted his vest for his keys.

"What good are they? Can't sell 'em, can you?"

"Actually we do. They're a crop. We produce wildflower seeds."

"So your crops aren't in rows?" he asked. "Don't you cultivate and spray to keep the weeds down?"

"Actually, we burn the fields to keep the weeds down. Fire encourages growth of native prairie grasses."

"We used to burn our fencerows to keep the weeds down," he said, visibly pleased to finally share a point of reference. "Well, thanks, and good luck." He shook my hand and pivoted around for one last look at the weedy mess before he walked around the house to his truck.

This was a scene that would be repeated with many variations for years. Neighbors simply don't know what to make of the way we view and use our land.

A weedy mess is what most of them saw in the beginning. But after a few years the mess became so spectacular it couldn't be written off so easily. The green growths of giant ragweed and foxtail grass slowly gave way to big bluestem, coneflowers, and fifteen-foot compass plants. And each subsequent year the prairie showcased its variegated display of wildflowers from late May through early November on par with the most colorful children's kaleidoscope.

As the land changed, so did perceptions. Even the farmers took notice when the wildflowers bloomed. Neighbors, AES clients, and the occasional school group started coming around to take in the full spectrum of color and get up close to the wild-flowers. We welcomed them. When we could we conducted informal nature walks. Otherwise we just let people explore on their own. In time we were conducting conservation demonstrations, proposing that interested visitors plant prairies on their marginally productive and erosion-prone farmlands, and showing how this helps restore ecological health and foster abundant wildlife.

Word got around, not only about the diversity of plant species on the farm but also about wildlife flourishing in fresh new habitats full of foraging opportunities. And where the dubious farmers had vilified the weedy mess, the hunters got excited about the prospect of shooting game. The farm quickly became the largest block of wildlife habitat in the community, so the fields were coveted for their bounteous hunting potential. I recognized the draw. I was no stranger to hunting and had occasionally invited colleagues over for pheasant hunts. But there weren't enough game animals to make the place a hunting ground for the masses. And frankly, I hadn't been encouraging all of this wildlife simply to see it killed for sport.

After a heavy frost, the prairie's autumn hues brighten the rolling hills. At about the time the hay crops and corn foliage fade to tawny yellows and browns, the prairie grasses explode in glowing waves of reddish blue and gold. Like kids in a candy store, neighboring hunting enthusiasts inevitably come knocking on our door, hoping for some of the spoils. Inevitably we'd open the door to reveal a group of men decked out in traditional plaid hunting jackets and modern fluorescent orange vests. Out the window we could see friends and dogs in the driveway, waiting for the affirmative nod that the hunt was on. But I rarely granted permission, because giving someone the green light guaranteed that dozens of friends, and friends of friends, would show up the following day asking permission.

"It's the first hunt for my eight-year-old son" was a typical refrain from a door knocker in a sporty orange vest. "Sure looks like a great place for a young guy's first hunt, what with all the rabbits and pheasants out there."

Sometimes it was coyote hunters coming round, hell bent on lecturing me about predator-prey relationships.

"Neither the pheasant populations nor the Republicans are gonna survive if the predators aren't trimmed," they'd argue.

"Sorry, but hunting just isn't allowed. The ecosystem is still quite fragile," I'd explain. "Besides, the pheasant population doesn't seem to be in decline, even though coyote and fox populations are on the rise."

They'd still try to hunt coyotes in winter anyway. Trucks would follow a squadron of radio-collared foxhounds. When the radio signals indicated that the dogs had cornered a coyote, the trucks would swoop in, driving as close to the farm fields and yards as possible. The hunters would park on the access roads overlooking Stone Prairie Farm, while their dogs trespassed in search of coyotes seeking shelter in the prairie habitat. Again the hunters would appear at my door asking for permission to shoot the coyotes. I'd always say no, explaining that I'd only reconsider if they needed subsistence food or were addressing a wildlife disease issue that threatened ecological health.

"After all, the coyote and fox pups play with our dog, Max," I'd offer. "I can't deprive him of his friends."

I'd let them retrieve their dogs, but only on the condition that they leave their guns in their trucks.

I didn't like these run-ins. The hunters were usually disgruntled, but fortunately they always honored my requests. I did have one particularly bad experience, though, with the farmer who'd rented my land during the conversion from corn to prairie. He came over one late fall day in 1992 and asked to hunt pheasants. I said no, telling him I'd already invited some colleagues and a neighbor to hunt that same afternoon.

I thought no more about it until he reappeared later that year during deer-hunting season, determined to take advantage of the abundance of game. In an audacious move, he cut a fence and drove onto my land in an all-terrain vehicle, crisscrossing the fragile prairies in an attempt to flush out the animals. Other curious hunters had parked around the perimeter and were poised to shoot should a spooked deer flee into the open. At my wit's end, I called the county sheriff's office. Officers showed up with the game warden, who took photos of the hunters and their license plates to discourage future poaching. To be neighborly I didn't press charges for the blatant trespass. But I did get him to repair the fence, thanks to the sheriff, who facilitated our detente. After this incident the requests to hunt on the farm tapered off.

These days only a few hunters ask. It's gotten around that hunting is not allowed at Stone Prairie Farm. Susan and I field the calls that do come in and take the opportunity to explain our philosophy. The hunters get detailed explanations of the restoration and are told that our focus is on producing high-quality habitat—and hunting experiences for our family and close friends. We even suggest they could do the same on their farms.

In an earlier chapter I mentioned the patriarch of a local farm family who disapproved of our land use. "A noxious weed patch!" he'd call the farm, only half joking. I met Carl around 1981, not long after moving in, when he was tending to his livestock on a section of the farm that he was still renting. He'd drive through my yard to get to the back pasture where he kept heifers, dry cows, and one large bull. He came twice daily from his farm a few miles south in Illinois to feed and water the livestock.

Occasionally we'd meet on the driveway and talk. He'd sing the praises of his straight, weedless crop rows and the well-maintained habitat-free fence lines. And I'd argue against his policy of leaving no acreage uncultivated, as well as his insistence that the value of every inch of ground needed to be quantified in purely utilitarian terms. I didn't try to insult his philosophy or suggest that one should get nothing out of the land except enjoyment. But I would remind him of specific examples in which farm use damaged the land, as with the silt-clogged streambed and the crumbling, tattered banks where his cows had done their damage.

I think we respected each other, even then. But our debates frustrated both of us, especially Carl. I tried to appreciate the critical reality that every corn plant, cow, or gallon of milk was an asset in a portfolio that he had inherited from his father. He made a clear distinction between subsisting off the land and producing products for markets, as his family did. I'd ask him if there could be no stronger land ethic in the face of market forces, and he'd look at me with a blend of pity and disdain. I failed to convince him, and time and time again we returned to this theme in our discussions.

Despite Carl's distaste for our land use his daughter Patricia developed a passion for wildflowers. When I first met Patricia she was eight or nine years old, shadowing her mother in their garden, carrying a child-sized basket and tending to the vegetables. While she helped with milking chores and everything else expected around an operating dairy farm, she always gravitated to the garden. Then one year when she was in high school I was surprised to find her working as a summer employee at the AES nursery. From that point on she spent a lot of time on the farm, visiting with us and walking the trails, guidebook in hand, to learn about the plants.

Eventually Carl's lease ended and our regular encounters ceased. We lost touch with Patricia as well. She grew up, as they do, and went off to college.

One evening, six or seven years later, she reappeared. She told us she was getting married and asked if they could hold the ceremony overlooking the blooming wildflowers.

"You don't think your father will find that sacrilegious?" I asked.

"Well, first of all it's my wedding!" she said, smiling. "But you know what? He's really had a change of heart over the years. Now that he's retired from farming, he's a different person. I think over time the flowers won the argument for you. Sometimes he'll even stop the car when he's driving by and get out to admire the land."

Susan and I agreed wholeheartedly. We even gave them permission to mow a small plot near the wind generator so that they'd have a clear area after the ceremony for a dining tent. My only complaint was that we'd planned a family vacation then and wouldn't be able to be there!

The wedding took place on a sunny Saturday afternoon and the prairie was ablaze in color. Some neighbors who'd attended got word back to us about the handpicked black-eyed Susans, yellow coneflowers, and bergamot that the entire family, including Carl, had picked the preceding day for the lush bouquets and the wedding party's corsages.

Thank-you letters from the bride greeted us upon our return. In them Patricia and her husband, Mark, waxed poetic about the acres of beautiful flowers and related how moved their relatives and friends had been. It was clear that the landscape had been considered a part of the ceremony.

Years afterward some of their family members were still making visits to walk the trails and learn about the flowers. Carl and his wife, after finally retiring from farming and moving into town, asked if they could collect seeds to grow wildflowers in their new garden. I suppose that besides the meaningful experience of his daughter's wedding, Carl's change in attitude was solidified by his retirement from farming. Now he no longer needed to correlate the maintenance of acreage with the generation of money, or calculate the toil that went into each bushel of corn.

Of course we helped him find the best combination of seeds for his limited garden and offered to be of assistance should he have any questions in the future, or should he wish to replenish his seed stock. We were pleased that he could stop and smell the flowers and enjoy his retirement.

Getting to know Carl and his family helped Susan and me to better empathize with the struggles of the surrounding farmers, some of whom we'd come to see at times as the opposition. Through this relationship, we saw how our experiment related to the larger landscape and how our influence was being felt in the greater community. While young startup farmers were almost entirely production oriented, the older operations began to dedicate more resources toward the care of the land. Older farmers in general seemed to be more accepting of conservation initiatives and took an interest in issues of land use and corresponding productivity.

Our prairie is actually quite cost-effective. With minimal financial investment, it provides something for every season, from roots and berries to rabbits and pheasants, not to mention an abundance of fiber. Granted, the cornfield beats the prairie in a conventional marketplace that measures short-term financial return and sees the land merely as a means of production. However, against wildflowers, or organic vegetable and fruit production, corn actually lags in value on a per-acre basis. In our current marketplace this fact is skewed by the massive government subsidies of corn, but I suppose I can't knock the farmers for playing by the rules that allow them to make a living.

Add in current climate change concerns and the imperative to reduce greenhouse gases, and the prairie wins hands down in its contribution and value per acre. On a per-acre basis, with no fertilization, irrigation, or cultivation, prairies sequester almost five times more carbon dioxide than cornfields. In fact, most cornfields are net emitters of carbon dioxide and contribute directly to soil erosion and impaired water quality. And they provide little or no wildlife habitat value. Which would you rather have next door, a thriving wildlife habitat, or a corn-flake factory?

As our reputation spread, we got a fair number of unannounced drop-ins. Many folks had "windshield" experiences. They were too shy to ask if they could walk the land and just drove slowly by. But some were so inspired that they'd come back yearly to experience the changes.

We received numerous requests from schools for field trips, particularly involving biology classes wanting to collect plant specimens. Around 1996 one unusually articulate sixteen-year-old named Justin demonstrated stunning observation skills for someone his age. We spent the whole afternoon with him on the prairie, helping him identify plants so that he could gather some for class. A week later he came over for supper and told us how impressed his teacher had been with the diversity of species he'd collected. This began a curious relationship.

Justin had grown up nearby on his father's farm. After his sophomore year his folks sent him to a rigorous college preparatory school in Kansas City, so he was only around during the summer months. As a youth I had thought about little other than ecology. In contrast Justin was more of a tech geek who loved music, computer technology, and games. We encouraged him and were always glad to have him over, in part because Noah was already off to college in Iowa by then, and we found comfort in being able to help another young man as he was beginning his journey.

Justin liked to impress us with his growing knowledge of plants. For instance, he could explain the subtle differences between various sunflower species, identifying stem characteristics and flower structures that were not easy to distinguish. Ecology was perfect for his detail-oriented mind. If he wasn't in the prairie or sitting at the table, he'd come over to dog-sit or do some gardening. Naturally, when we bought new stereo equipment, we hired him to wire up the new system.

He ended up becoming a radio station DJ in Kansas City. I'll admit I was surprised that he'd chosen such a physically circumscribed profession, given how much he enjoyed the outdoors. Still, whenever he came home to visit his folks he always found time to drop by and walk the trail. And if we'd missed him he'd leave a note wedged in the door listing the newest plants he'd identified. I was a bit disappointed that he didn't pursue ecology or a related field, but I knew that his experiences on our land had stayed with him, providing a link to the land that endured even as his daily life moved away from the prairie. I believe he'll always carry that love for nature, and share it someday with a family of his own.

Newspaper journalists also found their way to Stone Prairie Farm. After the local Janesville and Brodhead papers published articles in the mid-1990s, we received wider attention, eventually attracting major outlets like the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. These were odd interactions for us. Even though the reporters posed thoughtful questions about the value of restoring prairies, they did so like trial lawyers who think they already know the answers. And like Carl, they tried to narrow the discussion to the question of return on investment, as if that were the only indication of success. They showed little interest in our thoughts on the nonfinancial value of our efforts and the joy we'd derived from the restored farm. But when I explained the economics of native seed production, such as the high value per pound of big bluestem grass seeds or even more valuable species, they took copious notes. Most journalists seemed resigned to satisfying their readership with simplistic results-based reporting.

We did meet some writers and photographers who seemed to understand that it was difficult to convey the scope of our achievements in a short article. Fortunately, the land often spoke for itself, punctuating an anecdote with the sudden arrival of bobolinks, bluebirds, an upland plover, or a meadowlark. When the reporters experienced nature directly in this way, they listened more intently to the pulse of life on the prairie, and their writing was influenced by the wealth of information they absorbed.

After reading a Los Angeles Times article, an elderly woman living in a retirement home in California sent a handwritten letter telling us how heartening it was to know that we were restoring prairies. She congratulated us and said that she wished she were young enough to visit the farm, because our work had renewed her faith in the future. It had shown her that restoration benefited both nature and humanity by correcting overdepen-dence on monoculture and creating abundance through diversity. One doesn't have to be a revolutionary to see that the current market paradigm equating financial wealth with happiness is fundamentally antithetical to planetary health. It's common sense. Our elderly friend merely hoped that future http://6boofc89ueoisi second chance generations would be able to enjoy the natural order that had been an inalienable right of humans for millennia. Whether we grow corn or wheat or native prairie plants, we have to recognize that we have the choice.

We have met many of our neighbors at various summertime community events. We visit the occasional county fair and thresheree, as well as other rural cultural events, such as historical "mountain man" and Civil War reenactments. Among our favorites are the local "Cheese Days," which are much more than a farmer's market. Local businesses display their wares at this festival, but the main focus is the many dairies and cheese makers that provide samples of their products. People come from far and wide to taste regional delicacies, drink locally brewed beer, and generally to celebrate the Swiss cheese-making heritage that defined the culture of this part of America and its relationship to the land.

Neighbors meet to gossip, talk about the pending corn crop harvest, and discuss politics while eating cream puffs and dancing the polka. A percentage of the money raised at these events goes to scholarship funds. For weeks afterward, the local newspapers and club newsletters run stories on the lucky scholarship winners, the overall financial success of the event, and the prize-winning parade float. AES has even joined the fun by putting together a mobile prairie display. One year, AES employees and their children decorated a truck-drawn trailer filled with thousands of pots of blooming prairie plants for the Cheese Days parade in Monroe, Wisconsin. No one had ever seen such an eco-friendly float, and it was a big favorite with just about everyone.

Overall our relationship with our neighbors and the broader culture is complex and ever evolving. The social ecosystem and our position within it change with time, finding one point of equilibrium, shifting as new factors are introduced, then establishing another, much like any natural ecosystem.

chapter 11

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