Restoration of agricultural heritage begins

Wisconsin is well known for its fields of green and farms as far as the eye can see. In Shawano County, almost 46 percent of the land is agricultural, with dairy farms making up a huge chunk of it. Many of these farms have been passed down from generation to generation, many evolving to keep up with the changing times. It’s something we take for granted.

So what would happen if one day we didn’t have corn and soybeans growing in the area? What if there were no groves to grow the cherries that Wisconsin is known for? What if we no longer grew ginseng or cranberries? Could it happen here?

The Navajo Nation, a vast reservation spanning three states in the Southwest, used to have an agricultural heritage, like many other American Indian tribes. One of their communities in Arizona is even called Wheatfields. However, lately folks visiting the community don’t see much in the way of wheat, at least in the fields.

That’s expected to change, though, as a five-year agricultural project is underway that will hopefully turn the dusty fields into green, both in sight and in money. According to an article in the Navajo Times, local families will plant sorghum grass and Sudan grass first in the hopes of restoring nitrogen to the long-fallow fields. Once that’s done, other crops can be planted in order to feed the people.

Prior to coming to Wisconsin, I worked for a newspaper bordering the Navajo Nation. Many times, news assignment and the occasional feature for our travel magazine took me out on the Navajo Nation. One of those trips was to Window Rock, the tribal capital. It was a four-hour trip in one direction that yielded sights of lots of rocks, the occasional hogan and even several herds of sheep crossing a U.S. highway.

Fields of green, though? Not so much.

When you consider the size of the Navajo Nation, this one project might seem like a drop in the bucket when it comes to curing poverty and other ills plaguing the tribe, but in terms of Wheatfields itself, I can only imagine the excitement as 38 families embark on this quest to reclaim their status as farmers and caretakers of the land.

The loss of farming is not limited to the Navajo Nation, nor is it limited to American Indian reservations. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2012 agricultural census, the number of farms in this country has dropped in a 30-year period from 2.48 million to just under 2.11 million. That’s close to 370,000 farms fading away in this country, a loss of 4.3 percent.

I grew up in a small town, and I remember seeing large fields of corn and cows as far as the eye can see. That’s not the case anymore, as extreme growth in Arizona has seen scenic pastures become apartment complexes as city people want to get away to the country but bring the city with them.

I think that’s what has kept me in Wisconsin for a number of years. It’s not the number of snowstorms, for sure, but the fact that I can take a drive out of Shawano and be greeted by tall corn stalks and herds of cattle resting in shady spots. Even though Wisconsin is evolving, the farming heritage remains relatively strong.

I say relatively strong because I see the stories about area farms throwing in the towel as farmers age and younger generations feel that milking cows and operating tractors is not the career path for them. Of course, I’ve also seen — and written — stories about succeeding generations opting to stay on the farm. They’ll go to college and get degrees, and then they’ll take that knowledge and bring it back.

I hope that same attitude will infect the Navajo Nation, as well. In the Navajo Times story, a 66-year-old grandmother said she was not as worried about the fact that the region is an extended drought as she is about whether the tribe’s young people will remain to continue farming.

I believe the Wheatfields situation is a sign of hope that, even though agriculture has been on the decline, there are efforts to keep it from being dead on arrival. There are even signs of hope locally — Shawano’s ordinance to allow chickens within the city limits, the Stockbridge-Munsee tribe’s community garden project, the Menominee tribe’s seed giveaway to encourage more gardens at home, just to name a few.

We can tell future generations stories of where their food comes from, or we can show them with farms and other agricultural resources. The choice is ours.

Lee Pulaski is the city editor of The Shawano Leader. Readers can contact him at lpulaski@wolfrivermedia.com