A chicken crosses the road

May 31, 2013
Chickens in Nyanga

Chickens in Nyanga, South Africa. Photo by Jessica Becker

“In spite of my grandmother’s careful tutelage, I have long forgotten how to tat, and to that skill loss, I say good riddance. There is a reason that the French word for tatting is derived from frivolite. But how far down this road of incapableness am I willing to travel?”

-Sandra Steingraber, ORION Magazine Jan/Feb 2009

There was an exhibition called “Vital Skills” at the Watrous Gallery in Madison that probed this question. I found myself returning to walk through the collection several times and then thinking about what skills I personally value, and possess. What seems most crucial for my children to learn, either from me or others? It’s not hard to imagine a world they might live in as adults, but it’s bound to be different than I could ever predict.

Often on travels outside the U.S. I am struck by the fact that people seem, by nature or necessity, more resourceful than I am. It’s not that I don’t have some talents, but as a 21st century American, I honestly count knowing how to tie shoes as a skill I intend to pass on to my daughters. I’ll have to be deliberate about it! Velcro and crocs are sending the old bow-knot the way of lace-making and chicken-butchering.

Years back, after a trip to Cuba, where chickens run free and many were killed expressly for me to eat, I felt particularly inept. The urban-chicken movement was taking off and I jumped on the bandwagon. I bought four teenage layers from a farm outside of the city and tried to acclimate them to an urban setting. My neighbors, a sales and repair shop for lawn mowers, were loud and made the birds skittish. The birds themselves made me skittish—I never got good at catching them with my hands—and more than once I wished I’d had more of a 4-h education.

My dad, who grew up on a farm, came to visit and helped me chase chickens that had escaped and were trying to cross the road. He took me to private language lessons and coached my baseball team but didn’t teach me much about poultry.

Man with chickens in India

Man with his chickens in India. Photo by Jessica Becker

Eventually I decided to have the chickens butchered as I wasn’t getting many eggs. The entire experiment was celebrated with a closing feast of chicken tortilla soup.

That was not even ten years ago. Backyard chickens were the gateway drug and now neighbors and friends are trying out bees, goats, and more. These are folks with no personal background with farm life, just the idea that they want to know how to do stuff. I think it’s because we want to feel resourceful.

Ultimately, I don’t think the details matter as much as the attitude. Thinking again of the exhibition of beautiful hand-made brooms and skillfully designed blown glass, I suspect that teaching my kids to tie their shoes might be more about slowing down to learn a skill rather than because tied shoes are going to serve them better than slip-ons in the future.

by Jessica Becker
Director of Public Programs
Wisconsin Humanities Council

Vital Skills was supported in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the State of Wisconsin.


Wisconsin State Cow Chip Scrapbook

August 29, 2012

wisconsin state cow chip throw and festival

Since 1975, when the Sauk Prairie Jaycees recognized the twin villages of Sauk City and Prairie du Sac as the cow chip capital of Wisconsin, the community has annually organized the Wisconsin State Cow Chip Throw and Festival.

While it’s not likely to be an Olympic event anytime soon, there were a plethora of nominations for local chip-chucking legend and 10-time world cow chip throwing champion, Kay Hankins, back in the mid-1980s when Wheaties held a nationwide search for sports champion to grace the front of their cereal box. Though a champion, Kay did not make the cover.

The event is held each Labor Day weekend. Festivities for this 37th year kick off on Friday with a corporate cow chip toss and live entertainment. Saturday begins with 5k and 10k run/walks, with the proceeds going back into the community to fund charities, youth-centered activities, and college scholarships. The kids start off the cow chip throw in the morning and that is followed by the Tournament of Chips parade at noon. The rest of the day has activities for everyone — a fine arts and crafts fair, cow chip throws for all ages, a beer garden and food court, pedal tractor pulls for the kids, community displays, and three stages of entertainment including one that is specifically for children.

Cow chip deflectors are available at the event, should anything fly your way.

picking cow chips

chucking a chip

pedal pull seating

pedal pull contestant

pedal pull trophies

magician props

feeding sheep

livestock treats

saint vince

Jodi Anderson


Sauk County ‘DTour’

October 11, 2011

Wayfinder, by Terrence Campagna.

Now through Oct. 16, as part of its 2nd Annual Fermentation Festival, Reedsburg is offering the Farm/Art DTour, a 50-mile circular excursion through rural Sauk County. The tour winds through the county’s less-traveled roads, past tidy farms and tiny towns, to flaunt the season’s explosive color. What makes this particular drive so exceptional, though, is more than two dozen farm-based art installations and other attractions–from Roadside Culture Stands selling local produce to music and theater performances in the fields along the way.

At its core, the Reedsburg Fermentation Festival is a showcase for fermented food and drink (beer, of course, plus cheeses, yogurts, sauerkrauts and more). But organizers have billed the fest as a “live culture convergence,” connecting culture of the microbial sort with cultivation of the earth and cultivation of the mind and soul. By embracing the roots of the word culture, or “the action of cultivating land” in 12th-century Anglo-Norman, the event helps clarify relationships among where we live, what we eat and what we grow–as well as what we create, and what we love.

Boots, by Christopher Lutter-Gardella of Puppet Farm Arts

To make the most of festival offerings, I recommend planning ahead; many events require registration. For example, if you’re a fan of  fermented cabbage, you can participate in Saturday’s ‘Powerkraut‘ workshop. Love kombucha? Find out how to make the fermented beverage at home from a Madison-based kombucha company, also scheduled for Saturday. Opportunities for less adventurous tasters include yeast breads, honey, yogurt, wine and beer presentations.

"Field Notes" installation interpreting a hayfield for tour takers.

If you take the Farm/Art DTour, try scheduling your trip around one of the pasture performances. On Saturday, Nath and Marnie Dresser present ‘Some Kind of Sign,’ a story told in poetry and song. And Sunday, the Madison-based band Graminy performs. Download a map and take a self-guided tour, as we did, or sign up for a guided bus tour on Sunday, Oct. 16, that includes a stop at Carr Valley Cheese Factory in LaValle.

As of today, the weekend forecast for the Reedsburg area calls for sunshine with highs in the 60s. Not quite the balmy weather we enjoyed for last Saturday’s drive (car windows wide open in October!)–but still, near perfect conditions for a fall day trip.

–Tammy Kempfert

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All in a Wisconsin Summer Day

July 10, 2011

My best summer days are unplanned, unhurried, and usually contain some sort of unexpected gift–like riding bikes along Lake Monona on a perfect evening, sharing a local brew in the backyard with neighbors, or maybe discovering a new favorite eating spot. But often Madison, where I live, offers up such a bounty of cultural delights that we need to strategize a little.

In Madison, Art Fair on the Square and Art Fair off the Square take place annually in July.

Yesterday was such a day, with three of our favorite summer events occurring in one weekend: the Saturday Dane County Farmers’ Market, the Art Fairs On and Off the Square, and La Fete de Marquette. (Actually, that’s four events, with the two art fairs running side by side.)

Whenever we can, we get up early Saturday mornings and bike the three miles to Capitol Square, where the Dane County Farmers’ Market  is held. Now approaching its 40th anniversary, the DCFM is the largest producer-only market in the nation, which means every vendor, behind every table piled with flowers or vegetables, breads or cheeses, grew or baked or prepared their wares themselves. This week, we came home with green beans, tomatoes, raspberries and zucchini for our dinner table.

For us, a visit to the market has to include a stop at the Graze pastry cart for a cup of coffee and a bite of delicious, just-baked flakiness. Graze always presents a variety, but as usual I enjoyed the mushroom and spinach bun, while my husband got his Pain au Chocolat fix.  (We tell ourselves the bike ride offsets the buttery indulgence.)

On Art Fair weekend, the farmers’ market gets displaced a block so that participating artists can set up their booths on the four blocks surrounding the Square. We had timed our farmers’ market visit perfectly, which allowed us to take in the booths before afternoon crowds swelled. At Art Fair On the Square, more than 450 artists from around the country display works in all media. This year, jewelry and handbags made of recycled inner tubing caught my eye, as did affordable art-themed t-shirts by Madison’s Wildwood Productions. The fair benefits the Madison Museum of Contemporary Arts (MMoCA), always free and open to the public.

The Madison Area High School Ceramists sell pots, pitchers, cups and bowls at Art Fair Off the Square.

At Art Fair Off the Square, I scored a lovely ceramic plate at the Madison Area High School Ceramists booth. An annual favorite, the booth displays and sells works by, you guessed it, Madison area high school ceramists.  I like knowing that 80 percent of my purchase went to Jenna, the young artist who made my plate, and the remaining 20 percent supports Madison public school art programs. In fact, at Art Fair off the Square, along Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard and on the Monona Terrace Convention Center Esplanade, every booth features the works of Wisconsin artists.

We actually had time to finish a home painting project and run some weekend errands before heading to La Fete de Marquette, also a short bike ride away. A celebration of French music and culture, this annual festival never fails to do Madison’s Marquette neighborhood proud. Top-notch performers from throughout the French-speaking world, along with some of the city’s best eateries, provide four days of French-themed fun. Relatively new to the festival is La Tente de Dance, a dance floor dedicated to Quebecois and Cajun dance. The fest also showcases the vibrant personality of Madison’s East Side, for some of the best people-watching all year. We felt lucky to see Maraca, a Cuban jazz band that had the whole crowd moving. (Sometimes the connection to France isn’t immediately apparent, but who minded? Not me.)

Both art fairs and the Marquette festival continue through today, July 10.

*****

I may be based in Madison, but I also manage PortalWisconsin.org’s online events calendar, so I know communities in all 72 Wisconsin counties hold their own summer markets, fairs and festivals. This weekend alone, you’ll find a polka festival in Ellsworth, a pow-wow in Lac du Flambeau, or for those who like it large, Milwaukee’s grand Summerfest and Rhinelander’s star-studded Hodag Country Music Festival.  Art fests abound everywhere as well. To find them, consult the calendar–or for a print copy of this year’s Wisconsin Arts Board Art and Craft Fair Directory, call  1-800-432-8747 between 8:00 a.m.-4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday.

And please, let us know what makes your local fair or festival special. We love hearing from you.

–Tammy Kempfert


Mowing

June 21, 2011

Despite the rain, it’s mowin’ time in Wisconsin. My nose tells me so, as it recently did when I passed a field of new cut hay while driving through farm country on one of the few days of full sunshine we’ve had this summer. The sweet smell came from just-mown alfalfa, of course, the crop that makes up nearly all the fresh cut plant matter raised for cattle feed in America’s Dairyland.

Mowing with a McCormick reaper. (WI Hist Soc)

It was not always so. Alfalfa was one of the wonder crops introduced by the land grant university agricultural experts around the time of World War I. A conservative lot and a might wary of dewy college fellows who’d spent more time steering pencils than plows, Wisconsin farmers were slow to give the wonder crop a try.  Alfalfa didn’t look like the grass they were used to. In fact, it wasn’t a grass at all, and who knew what would happen if you fed it to your mortgage lifter milkers? Not until after they had passed through the dark crucible of the 1930s Depression and the bittersweet prosperity of World War II, did our farmers take to alfalfa.

The horses helped, and the tractors. That is, the one replaced the other.  In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Wisconsin farmers sold off their Belgians, Percherons and other big shouldered work breeds for John Deere, International and Allis Chalmers machines. That freed up about one-quarter of their cropland. Ground reserved to raise oats and timothy grass for Nellie and Ned could now go into corn or beans or alfalfa. Fewer horses meant more cows. More cows meant more milk. More milk meant more income. At least that’s the way the economics textbooks say it’s supposed to work.

The scent of new mown hay takes me to the field in 1870’s Russia created by Leo Tolstoy in Anna Karenina. There, the other protagonist of the novel, the young landowner Konstantin Levin, defying the traditions of his class and station, takes up a scythe and mows with the “muzhiks.”

Forty men make their way across the field, led by a wiry, aged laborer named Titus. Following Titus, each mower steps off behind and to the side of his fellow, the space between measured by the arc of his swing. Levin struggles to keep his place at first, but he is no stranger to physical exercise, and soon holds his place in the muscular ballet. Forty scythes rise, their blades flashing in the sun. Forty pairs of shoulders swing downward, reach out. Forty left heels spin and rise off the ground. Forty waists pivot to complete the follow-through. Then the mowers step forward, set their legs wide, and begin the next stroke.

“The longer Levin mowed….it was no longer his arms that swung the scythe, but the scythe itself that lent motion to his whole body, full of life and conscious of itself, and, as if by magic, without a thought of it, the work got rightly and nearly done on its own.”

The work got rightly done. And still does.

Mowing grain with cradles on the scythes. (WI Hist Soc)

Whether in fictional Russia or real time Wisconsin, mowing is still pretty much the same.  The newest mowing machine–like the horse-drawn sickle-bars and side rakes of 1930’s Wisconsin, or Tolstoy’s 1870’s muzhik work gang–passes over the field, slices the stems, and lays the crop down in neat windrows to cure in the summer sun.

And stir a sweet scent of memory in those who drive by.


Fiber mill in a village that rocks

May 10, 2011

I came to see machinery but before I was there five minutes I met a goddess.  I think Argyle is that kind of place.  You’ve gotta love these creative, entrepreneurial types.

From Michigan, the note in the box says, "State Fair #1"

The term “Fifty-mile Fiber” brought me here to check out the Argyle Fiber Mill, one of those great little destinations well off the thoroughfare.  Salt-of-the-Earth kind of people.   They raise animals – alpaca, Icelandic sheep and llamas –  in addition to cattle, pork and fowl of all kinds.  The Mill purchases fiber locally – thus the Fifty Mile goal – and provides retail services, consignment opportunities and a great place for aficionados to gather.

You can buy great yarns, including 100% Icelandic, 100% alpaca, blends using both or even the “houseblend”, which can include Icelandic, alpaca, llama, mohair, merino and whatever else they have small amounts of leftover.

The Mill does custom processing, mostly for breeders with small flocks.  They process fiber based on the specific needs of each customer and produce clouds, roving, batts and yarn.  When you deal with the Argyle Fiber Mill, you’re assured that you will get your own wool back.  “No minimum, no blending, your animal,” states a succinct Kristi.

They support and supply local fiber producers and artisans, although they have customers from throughout the Midwest and all around the country.  I kept thinking of how many neat knitted creations I’ve seen in shops recently that might have had some connection to this place.  Kristi says, “There isn’t a soul who doesn’t appreciate a hand knit item from someone they know and love.”

Kristi sets-up the spinning machine

I did get to see some neat equipment, by the way.  The Mill is a full-service operation located in an old hardware store.  The production action is in the rear of the building, and the techno-nerd in me loved the spinning machine, although there were quite a few other pieces of equipment there to wash and prepare fiber.  Nothing is wasted, and the day I visited they had some lesser quality fiber ready for making rugs.

The Mill sponsors a number of classes from time to time, but Wednesday nights have become a special time for gathering.  Argylia, Goddess of Knitting, Wine and Laughter, presides over a comfy spot in the lower level where people gather every Wednesday evening to knit, spin and chat.  They are the Argylian Society of Knitters.  Folks come quite a distance and represent a wide variety of ages, viewpoints, communities and expertise.  Most have animals.  The group makes items to donate, and has helped organizations like the Special Olympics, the Veterans Hospital and members of the armed forces.  Who would have thought about the need for a nice, knit helmet liner!

Argylia - Goddess of kintting, wine and laughter

I asked Kristi pointedly if it was true that Wednesday nights are when women gather to complain about their husbands and she said, “yup”.  Hmmmmm.  But she hit on the success of the group when she said, “Knitting remains a relaxing, soothing, comforting constant – and at the end of the day, you have something!”

The Argyle Fiber Mill represents more than just entrepreneurship; it is a place with a heart and a purpose beyond a job.  The people who run the place realize they are part of something bigger, certainly in the geographical sense and something larger attitudinally as well.  A community of spirit: People who support each other’s creativity.

And by the way, behind the door with the “Art Inside” sign is a great little studio where Pam works and plans community art classes.  So the Fiber Mill can probably also claim it is a business incubator, because I know that in that room they’re hatching some great ideas for community art projects.

Argyle is a postcard picturesque little community of about 800, on the Pecatonica River in Lafayette County.  It has its own hydroelectric plant on the river (how cool is that?), and was for a time the home to Wisconsin’s own Fighting Bob Lafollette.   Its community school survives and thrives – every kid in the district in one building that shares the playground with the village park next door.  The Pecatonica River winds through town and its wetlands grace the perimeter.  And you’ve got to see the turtle – designed and built by the students, local artists and artisans and scads of community members.  It took years but most everyone got involved in one way or another.

Historic Partridge Hall

Entrepreneurial communities are those places that create an environment that attracts, retains and supports talent.  I’ve seen some neat, thriving places in my time and Argyle is definitely an entrepreneurial community.  It is an industrious place with great history – something fairly common in agriculture country – but also welcomes new folks and new ideas and, frankly, the mixture makes the Village glow.

The Argyle hydro plant

By the way, if you’re into community development, don’t miss the 2011 regional conference, Building Economic Strength Together (BEST), held this year in Argyle on May 24.  There will be two business tours: the Fiber Mill and another excellent local business – the Thunder Bridge Trading Company.  Click here for more information.

The famous Argyle Turtle, designed and built by students, teachers, local artists and just about everyone else. Yup, you can crawl right through it!

Give Argyle a visit sometime soon.  It’s near Monroe, Darlington and Blanchardville and other neat places in southwest Wisconsin.  Together, they’re great day trip material.  You’ll find scores of shops and hundreds of creative, innovative people.

And you can also connect with the Fiber Mill folks through their Facebook page.

Do you know of an entrepreneurial community, either an urban neighborhood or a rural place?   Let us know about it.

Rick Rolfsmeyer, Hollandale, WI


Wood cutting culture

April 4, 2011

Around November the conversation switches from the weather to “Got your wood in yet?”  Gas station, grocery store, Friday night fish, almost anywhere: “How ya’ been?  Got your wood in yet?”

I see my brother-in-law every 3 months or so.  The purpose of these meetings is for me to confess I don’t have much wood cut and also to try my new excuses for why.  Like, “Isprainedmyankleandmyunclediedagain.”  If I can get some sympathy from Max (for the 17th time in a row), I know I can use that line again.

Herbie the tractor and other tools. A little tractor gets around perfectly in the woods.

How much wood you have is like hay in the barn or food in the freezer, a sign or your industriousness and productivity.  That’s what worries me.  Telling people how much wood you have on hand is like the size of the fish you caught on that trip up north with your buddies.  There’s usually an inflation factor.  I keep my woodpile hidden from the road for more than aesthetic reasons.

I’ve been heating with wood for 40 years.  It requires a lot of specialized equipment.  We have three 4-wheel drive wood trucks that cost $450.  That’s $450 total, not each.  One was $250, another $200 and the third was “get this piece of junk out of my yard”.  That’s the best one, it’s a ¾ ton. I like to think I represent the “fleet” in Farm and Fleet.  They’re all Ford F series pickups which is good if you only have one alternator to share.   Before you say anything I know that $250 is a lot to spend on a truck but my oldest boy used it for Prom and my wife took it to Monroe once so it has more value than you might think.

What's growing in the back of your wood truck?

Spring is coming soon, in June they say, so you would think this is a good time to take it easy.  But even though it’s April the “pile” in front of our furnace looks like a spilled match stick box, so we had to do wood chores if we wanted to avoid another 52 degree Monday morning in the kitchen.  It also was a good day because our teenaged son had been to a party the night before and was beat, so he would be easier to sneak up on and capture.

So today our task was:  load green elm cut last fall, pile some branches, haul/cut some old poles and run the splitter.

The splitter, by the way, is an indicator of wimpiness.  I just bought it recently (honest) and tried to keep it behind the garage but one day someone in town asked what the red thing was in my yard and I was exposed, then and there.  “Getting old – can’t use a maul on his own wood anymore.  It would probably do him some good.”

I was already infamous at Lowes in Dubuque because we hauled the new splitter home behind a Miata.  I guess city folks aren’t used to trailer hitches on sport cars.  But sometimes the truck is impractical or doesn’t have the alternator on so we hitch trailers to the little black Miata.  I think of it as a support vehicle for the wood trucks, like a destroyer with an aircraft carrier group.

Small load of green wood.

At any rate my wife and the boy left to pile branches and load the elm on the Prom truck, about a mile away.  With warmer weather I figured I’d start by taking the chains off the tractor tires, although taking the chains off the tractor is one of the few sure ways to make it snow.  I hate the chains.  I hate putting them on and hate taking them off.  Of course, my disdain transfers to incompetence and it takes forever.

We have a great supply of poles, remnants of what our neighbors didn’t use for set posts.  (Nothing like a highway project to build your supply of poles.)  It’s best to use an old chain. Poles can have nails, staples and neat electricity warning signs on them so I use a lousy, old chain to minimize my loss when I hit metal, which is an invariable.  It is so dull I doubt it would cut butter so I try to sharpen it, which is somewhat like the chains on the tractor and a lot like bowling.  I bowled in a league for maybe 10 years and my average went down every year.  With the chains there is a strange inverse correlation that results in the chains getting worse the more time I put into sharpening them.  Like a few other things, I seldom disclose this in town.

In the summer Herbie does photo-ops for our city friends.

But I muddle through it, hauling a few poles at a time behind Herbie the little tractor, then cutting and splitting them to size.  The green wood duo shows up and joins in.  They have a small load of bigger wood so we split that up too, making a decent little pile. The 18- year old is starting to feel the stress of two hours continuous work without texting and is having hallucinations of a cold Mountain Dew.   We finish before tragedy strikes and he comes back around when we get his IPod into his hands.

We do wood chores every couple weeks. It’s a regular thing for many families around here.  But this has not been my year to brag about a big wood stash, so I usually like to redirect conversation to politics or the age-old argument about whether green or red tractors are best.  Lately it has been better to talk about the tractors.

But I am more conscientious this spring and finally on top of it all.  We got a lot of wood “done” today, at least a couple weeks’ worth.  So I think for once I’ve got a leg up in the bragging contest.  Almost makes me want to go down to town and wait for someone to start a conversation.

You thought I was kidding about Prom?

Before heading into the house I refuel the splitter. And in the distance I can hear the drone of at least three chainsaws in the distance.  My neighbors were hard at it, too.  Those dirty dogs.

So I have new plans to cut as much as I can this spring when I can see through the woods and before the underbrush grows too much.  I’ll get a biiiiiiiggg head start this time so by next fall I can crow when the weather and conversation both turn.  If not my uncle might die again.

Rick Rolfsmeyer, Hollandale, Wisconsin (Pop. 283)

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