I think of our cows lying in the field at nighttime with the stars and moon above. And I think of the quietness that they have. The peace they have in their lives. The cows are out in the grass chewing their cuds. There’s something very affectionate and peaceful when you look at that scene. There’s something deep and in the center of my heart; it is why I love dairy farming. We’re husbanders of animals and stewards of the land. We’re all part of the animal kingdom, and to treat animals honestly and with integrity and kindness makes me feel good. I give to them and they give to me. That’s a cardinal commandment, I would say, of a moral way of living.
—Elise Heimerl, Saxon Homestead Farm, Excerpt from Creating Dairyland
Ed Janus, author of the new historical book Creating Dairyland, chats with us about Wisconsin’s dairy farms, past and present.
How did the idea for Creating Dairyland come about?
I spent two years on a small dairy in Crawford County in the mind-’70s, and I really fell in love with it – almost like a high-school romance. I really enjoyed it; it sort of became a part of my soul. Afterward, I never really forgot dairy farming, but I didn’t get to do much about it.
I have been doing radio documentaries for the last 20 years. One day I read about Mike Gingrich of Uplands Cheese and Pleasant Ridge Reserve and thought, “Oh my, this is perfect.” I had noticed the possibilities of seasonal grazing while I was farming, and this topic was very interesting to me. I called up Mike, we talked, and I ended up with a nice radio piece on Uplands Cheese. This opened doors for some more dairy interviews and I thought, “I’d love to get out to talk to the farmers again.”
There were a lot of nice stories that came to life from my interviews, but they were all kind of isolated from the big dairy picture. I said to myself, “Well, duh. It is history!” And as they say, one thing led to another (the book).
How did you meet some of the farmers in your book?
Initially, some people in the industry guided me. I met some on my own. One day I was at the market and I saw a man who simply looked bewildered. I said to him, “Excuse me, sir, you look bewildered! Can I help you?” He said, “I can’t find such and such…” and we got to talking and he says he’s a dairy farmer out in Crawford County. “Lucky you!” I exclaimed. “You’re doing what I want to do!” (That lucky son of a gun!) So he welcomed me back to his farm and we got to talking.
Then I was at a wedding and met a woman a few years older than me and we got to chatting and she told me she grew up on a farm. That’s the story about “The Man Who Did Not Want to Be a Farmer.”
What are some of your favorite things about Wisconsin’s Dairyland?
I was amazed by the intimacy and kindness on the farm and in the dairy barn. Men in particular. You kind of expect it from women, but the dairymen that I hung out with in the barns, these were strong men and kindly folks. I wondered to myself, “I suppose you’ve got to be kind to cows, if you’ve got to make a buck.” In the book I make a big deal about teaching men to become gentlemen. It was my viewpoint that part of learning how to dairy was the making of men into gentlemen.
What are some of your most vivid memories about Wisconsin’s dairyland?
I loved how quiet the barn could be. Even though the machine was on, often you didn’t talk, you’d just do this kind of dance between cows. I thought, “Gee whiz! A place in modern society that you don’t have to open your mouth!”
What were some of your sources for this book?
When I first started, I did not realize the tremendous amount of books and magazines and articles and interviews about dairying that had been recorded. So I sourced a number of things. I read a book written in the 1920s by a New Yorker named Jared Wagman, titled The Cow. It was a beautiful ode to dairy cows and described them as the great saviors of humanity. I went through endless libraries of dairy improvement books. What really got me interested was how the books showed that not only were farmers interested in improving cows, they were really interested in improving their families and culture. It was amazing how many books there were from the very beginning. Books from the 1880s, of the farmers’ speeches – they were very literate. It was very impressive. I like to call them dairy missionaries.
What are your hopes for this book?
My wife is from Milwaukee, so when we drive out in the country, she says, “Oh, look at that,” or she sees alfalfa, and asks me, “What is that?” but she doesn’t really know why it is there or what it is all about. My hope is that after reading this book, Wisconsinites and tourists will be able to see the world of dairying differently as they drive their cars on the way up north, or throughout Wisconsin. I want them to see the unseen. We all know what a silo is, but do we really know what amazing things it has accomplished and how we’ve benefited from its past? Everyone drives through the countryside and sees the farms and thinks, “Wow, they are so beautiful and blah blah blah,” but nobody really knows what these guys are thinking. I want people to be able to say, “Oh, I get it. They are really interested in improving their dairy herd, and they do so in a very scientific way.”
The other thing I hope people take away is that dairying was a huge revolution. Not just a revolution in the way of dairying, but one of the greatest expressions in one of our American revolutions. It did things that revolutions promised. It changed who we were. It wasn’t the only thing that changed who we were, but it was part of this great movement where men and women who used to be enslaved to the land became liberated. Dairying was part of that great movement.
What are your recommendations for people to see and learn about Wisconsin’s Dairyland?
There are some really nice out-of-the-way cheese factories. All in all, you have to be a little bit forward. Find a farm. The odds are, if you drive up there and say, “Excuse me, sir, I don’t know anything about dairy farming” – well, some people might laugh, but any dairyman I know would say, “Oh, I’d love to take you around.” People love to talk about what they do. Just ask nicely.
I hope to tell you enough in the book so that you may be able to stand with a farmer at his fence and ask him some questions. I’ve become hungry for more, and I hope others do too.
For more information on Janus and his new book, Creating Dairyland, visit his website at CreatingDairyland.com.
We’ll be giving away three copies of Creating Dairyland on Monday!