Man tells of the crisis on the farm through poetry


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By Barry Adams

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ARENA, Wisconsin (madison.com/Wisconsin State Journal) – The words are about earth, tools and cows.

There is talk of family and friends, of housework at dawn, of walks along a stream.

Daniel Smith’s poems also tell the stories of the physical and emotional pain of farming, a job, lifestyle and calling that he gave up in 2008. Only the pages of his new book “Ancestral” go beyond his personal experiences with financial crises. a broken shoulder and grown children who have chosen other paths. Smith sold his dairy herd, left land that had been owned by his family for decades, and started over.

The 99 pages, hardcover published by Waters Edge Press of Sheboygan, contain a compilation of hardships gathered over three years while serving as a farm financial advisor for the State Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. Smith traveled the state, sat at kitchen tables, stood in barns, leaned against fences, listened, felt compassion, and offered advice from his past.

Some operations could be saved. Some farmers only needed one ear to make sure they were on the right track. Most, however, were doomed with overwhelming debt as their equity gradually disappeared. Depression was common. Suicides increased.

When Smith began farming full-time in 1978, Wisconsin had 47,700 dairy farms. Today there are around 6,000 and the number continues to decline as milk production increases with the growth of farms with thousands of cows and milking parlors that never stop.

“This is the story of the Wisconsin dairy industry,” said Smith. “There is a story of pain and decisions and processes that each of these 41,000 dairy farms that we have lost since 1978 has gone through. I try (with poetry) to reach out to both the agricultural and non-agricultural audiences. This is a social, economic, and cultural impact that Wisconsin must deal with. Because the result cannot be felt in the supermarket. The loss of these 41,000 dairy farms had a huge impact on local schools, school boards, the city council and the cooperative board. There are simply fewer people in these areas. “

Smith will begin promoting the book later this summer and into the fall. One event is a reading and signing on August 22nd at 3pm at Arcadia Books in downtown Spring Green. The events will allow Smith to better contextualize his writings, answer questions, and likely hear more stories of lost farms and changed lives.

“Just today I felt myself falling in love with this country,” wrote Smith in his poem “Dry Dirt”, 80 pages in his book. “How many times can a man step in the dirt and swear he’s never been so dry. Now I am tossing decades of harvest and livestock care in a heap in the back, closing the year like an old door on an empty barn. “

One of eight college graduates, Smith grew up on a family dairy farm north of Freeport, Illinois. In 1978 he graduated from UW-Madison, where he met his wife Cheryl, who grew up in the suburbs of Cleveland. They returned to the farm where Dan farmed, Cheryl taught kindergarten and first grade, and raised three boys who all graduated from UW Madison as men but moved away from farming. Ryan is a facial reconstruction surgeon in Chicago; Levi is an attorney in Minnesota and Austin, the elder, teaches writing and poetry at Stanford University.

After college, Daniel Smith farmed with his father for 20 years and after his father retired he worked alone for about 10 years. Smith, now 67, never missed a milking from 1999 to 2007 which he regrets. When Smith fell through the rotten floor of a hay wagon and injured his shoulder, he realized that something had to be changed.

Difficult Decision “Sometimes it takes a slap in the face,” said Smith. “We haven’t gone anywhere. It was pretty stupid. “

It was then that Smith made the difficult decision of selling his 150-person herd, auctioning equipment, and selling the farm. In 2008, he and Cheryl moved to a 22-acre farm southeast of Arena and west of Blue Mounds Creek. Her property on Knight Hollow Road includes a house built from Canadian logs in 1992 and filled with memories of her days in northern Illinois. Across the street is Smith’s 1951 Farmall tractor and a collection of tools, some of which hang in a former chicken coop that has been converted. Others, including a 60-pound anvil, sit on the lower level of a small barn whose use for livestock and hay and grain storage is long gone like so many others across the state.

“I dragged my father’s anvil north from the black Illinois farm he and I worked, our home for decades,” wrote Smith in Anvil, the second poem in the book. “Put sixty pounds on the floor of this old barn that is only new to me. All around our confused tools hang in the strange light of the cracked window pane … At my feet the anvil of my father, his striking song of steel on steel is still hammering home. “

Above the lower level of the barn, Smith has a desk in a converted area overlooking pastures and a hay field. There is space on the desk surface for his laptop, but also an old corn machete and a slotted piece of iron – now used as a bookend – that were supposed to uncouple the chains on the Illinois farm. Smith began writing in high school and published an “Ode” poem about his father in 1977 in the Ocooch Mountain News, a now defunct monthly La Farge newspaper. Twenty years later, the same poem was part of Smith’s first book, Home Land.

The Smiths, who share their home with their dog Jax, a rescued mix of Black Labrador and Shar-Pei, now call the Driftless Area their home. The family farm in Illinois was sold to a doctor who raised goats for a while and used some of the buildings as boat and RV storage. Some of the silos have been removed and housing projects have eaten away the land that was once tilled or used as pasture. The farmhouse from 1851, in which he grew up with his seven siblings, is relatively quiet.

“Writing helped me deal with it.” “It bothers me a lot,” said Smith. “The economic, social and cultural effects of agriculture are very complex. I think going through all of that and having experienced the emotional turmoil really helped me write about it, and writing helped me deal with it. “

Having time after moving north, Smith began volunteering with DATCAP as a consultant, meeting with farmers, and in a short period of time was hired full-time. In 2011, he accepted a position to become CEO of Midwestern BioAg in Blue Mounds and lead them through a succession plan, but returned to DATCAP in 2013 to serve as administrator of the agricultural development department. Since 2018, Smith has served as President and CEO of the Cooperative Network and leads the day-to-day operations of a trade association that represents 250 cooperatives across 12 business areas in Wisconsin and Minnesota.

The turmoil of farming remains with Smith, but he feels and looks younger than he did when he stopped milking, plowing and harvesting 13 years ago. There are unused barns near his house, the village of Dover is a ghost town, an old one-room schoolhouse has been empty for years on Highways K and 14, while the primary school in Arena has been closed, all victims of the smallholder economy change that continues fades as it strives to evolve.

“This stress really puts a strain on people over a long period of time. It was draining my father just trying to keep the farm going and he had the next generation, ”said Smith. “So I really tried to speak to ‘Ancestral’ about the history and legacy of the family farm and point out both the good and the bad.”

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