The pigs know…it’s all about dirt

September 23, 2009

A friend of mine just started farming his parent’s land and he invited me out to help dig potatoes last weekend.  Before we got down on hands and knees in the dirt to unearth the tubers, he said the pigs needed a shower.

The three dudes, as he calls them, were weighing in around 200 pounds after about 8 months of eating. On Sunday, when I arrived, they were lumped together in the shade. Pigs don’t sweat, my farmer friend told me. When he got the hose out, they came trotting out in a hurry to splash around and get their snouts down in the newly created mud puddle.

As I spent the next hours harvesting purple, red, and gold potatoes, all found like prizes hidden within the rich soil, I thought about Will Allen.

Will Allen is a very successful farmer in urban Milwaukee. Will inspires people to garden, to grow food, and to improve their landscapes and lives. And he says, with impressive conviction, that to grow food in poor or tainted soil is irresponsible.

His main message is this: It’s all about the dirt.

Will Allen bought the last parcel of agricultural land in Milwaukee and, back in 1993, connected with teens from the surrounding neighborhood to provide work restoring the soil and the greenhouses to grow food. It was an area of the city where people needed jobs and that offered residents no other options for fresh veggies. That was the beginning of Growing Power.

To hear Will go through a brief history of the past sixteen years is jaw-droppingly inspiring. Now he travels the world sharing his techniques for creating huge quantities of high quality soil, putting it to high-density use, fertilizing it with worm castings, and changing the landscape for the better.

The Wisconsin Humanities Council brought Will Allen to Madison last week as a pre-event for the Wisconsin Book Festival (October 7-11 in Madison). The room at the Goodman Community Center was overflowing with fans, followers, and some new faces (now known as the recently converted). Forget about fire code, people were crammed in there! By the end of his talk, Will had everyone happily yelling “Soil!” when he asked, “What is the key to feeding everyone healthy food?”

And what do soil, dirt, and farming have to do with the a statewide cultural organization like the Wisconsin Humanities Council?

Dena Wortzel, the director of the WHC, may have said it best when she explained, “For our part, what we hope to do is help folks in Wisconsin use history, culture, and discussion to strengthen community life for everyone.”

The event was planned to bring people together to talk about what’s going on, what people are excited about, and how new ideas can be realized. This conversation, on-going and building, is part of a history, heritage, and legacy in Wisconsin.

“I don’t know if it is in the air, the water or the soil,” Dena continued, “but for more than a hundred years, Wisconsin has been home to visionaries of land and community, from John Muir to Aldo Leopold, to Will Allen – as well as less publicly known, but equally passionate people like all of you.”

I’m with Will on this one: it must be in the soil!

By Jessica Becker, Director of Public Programs, Wisconsin Humanities Council


Countdown to Wendell Berry and the Wisconsin Book Festival

July 30, 2009

Seventy three days from today, Wendell Berry will be appearing at the Wisconsin Book Festival in Madison. Berry’s name catches people’s attention: he is well-loved as an outspoken farmer, prolific writer (he’s written 40+ books), and fierce advocate for the importance of connections between people and place.

Author Wendell Berry will be at the Wisconsin Book Festival at 4 PM on Sunday, October 11 (Capital Theater, Overture Center)

Author Wendell Berry will be at the Wisconsin Book Festival at 4 PM on Sunday, October 11 (Capital Theater, Overture Center)

It’s “a coup,” writes Jane Burns of 77 Square, an arts and culture Website for the Madison area, to get Mr. Berry to leave his Kentucky farm and speak to his adoring fans.

Sure enough, the Wisconsin Humanities Council has invited him every year since the inception of the Wisconsin Book Festival, in 2002. This year, it is really thanks to our friends at the Aldo Leopold Foundation, that Mr. Berry accepted the invitation and will be making the journey. He will be speaking on the theme of courage at a time when we all need a boost of inspiration to deal with varied challenges.

“The most alarming sign of the state of our society now is that our leaders have the courage to sacrifice the lives of young people in war but have not the courage to tell us that we must be less greedy and wasteful.”
–Wendell Berry

I’m thrilled that local media are already helping to fan the flames of excitement about Berry’s visit. Being in the business of creating and supporting public humanities programs, I know it’s not always easy to get the attention that events like these deserve.  Big names are the name of the game.

The Wisconsin Humanities Council will host Will Allen in Madison on Thursday, September 17. Location TBA.

The Wisconsin Humanities Council will host Will Allen in Madison on Thursday, September 17. Location TBA.

Will Allen, founding director of Milwaukee’s Growing Power, will also be presenting at a neighborhood-based event in Madison as part of the Wisconsin Book Festival’s outreach this fall. His is another “big name” these days thanks to his work in building an urban farm that serves the surrounding community and that is part of an international movement toward innovative, sustainable agriculture. And, Mr. Allen recently received a McArthur Genius Award.

Together, the star-power names in headlines might overshadow the fact that the Wisconsin Book Festival will have over 50 events, close to 100 authors. But, again, I don’t mind too much. At the Wisconsin Humanities Council, we are used to going under the radar sometimes. The more important thing is that our programs, and events, do what we believe is the most critical thing: use history, culture, and discussion to strengthen community life in Wisconsin.

For both Will Allen and Wendell Berry, these values are inherent in all that they do.  I am counting down the days, eager to hear what each has to say.

By Jessica Becker
Director of Public Programs, Wisconsin Humanities Council