“He’s overeducated,” is a sentence I hadn’t heard in a long time until I wandered recently into a local convenience store and overheard it in a conversation at one of the little tables hidden in the back of the place — tables where the locals gather to exchange gossip and their views on everything they believe, except on Sunday mornings.
To be declared overeducated in rural America is to be sentenced to life as an outcast. The utterance is to rural America what “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing” is to anyone who makes time for serious thought. Thus, while knowledge seems dangerous to one side, it seems equally dangerous to the other, but for different reasons. If knowledge was a coin, its sides would read “yes” and “no” and the minds entertaining that knowledge would be marked “open” and “closed.”
When we bought this farm 10 years ago we thought it would sustain a small hay and dairy operation. We’d build on the years of hard work by previous owners and get back to basics, which for us included being wholly organic. All it would take was an investment in equipment and livestock. The barn had, and still has, 21 stanchions to hold dairy cattle while they’re being milked. Sure, there are more efficient systems, but that’s what was at hand.
The first summer the most productive valley land flooded — twice. The previous owner disclosed that probability so it wasn’t exactly an eye-opener. We thought, “That can’t happen a lot, can it?” Turns out, it can. The valley land has flooded every summer but one.
That first autumn we climbed Helgerson Ridge, the steep hill rising behind the farmhouse. Looking at the valley below us we saw the creek that now runs along the south edge of the valley once ran through the middle. The depression left in by time was clear, as was the realization that the floods were water’s way of trying to find its way back home. The land we considered farmland was actually an extended wetland. Our initial view of the land as part of the economic system clashed with the land’s destiny as part of the ecosystem. We had a decision to make. It would take an open mind, study of the history of the land, close observation, patience and postponing the purchase of equipment and livestock.
After seven years on the farm we had a pond dug into the lowest part of the former stream bed we first observed from Helgerson Ridge. It immediately attracted blue herons to feed on the frogs that appeared there. Wood ducks tried it out the next summer. Early last autumn a pair of sandhill cranes appeared, the first we’d seen in our part of the valley. This spring we observed a family of mink along the pond’s margins.
So the decision we recently made was not difficult. Our 100 acres, our steep hills, deep valley and spring-fed stream, our Everdene should be a fully functioning part of the ecosystem, not a marginal, struggling part of the economic system. It should be what it was trying to be — against the odds stacked against it.
To accomplish this change we decided to ask for help from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Crawford County Farm Service Office, specifically from the Natural Resources Conservation Service side of the office in Prairie du Chien. We’ll listen to what they have to say, what programs are available and rely on their knowledge and advice, or as some may see it, their overeducation. To this we’ll add our own studies of the land and its ecosystems and decide how to proceed, using the education nature was patient enough to give us.
Karl Garson lives in Crawford County; www.karlgarson.com.