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A New Generation of Leaders Defines the Meaning of Sustainability in Wisconsin

For the past twenty-five years, Mark Olson has been growing bountiful crops of basil on his Spring Green farm and selling the herb at the nearby Madison Farmers' Market. Business is good for Olson, especially with the current cultural focus on shopping and eating locally. However, Olson has begun to worry that this interest may be a "passing fad," and he has begun work on a more-enduring infrastructure to aid in the marketing and distribution of locally grown food beyond the Capitol Square.

On the edge of the Capitol Square, in the new Madison Children's Museum, is the office of Brenda Baker. The exhibit director for the museum, Baker has spent the past several years dramatically overhauling the new location—a Depression-era department store—in an effort to create a fun and ecologically responsible new venue for healthy learning. She built the entire space with recycled materials, and in the process built a model for how museums around the country can deliver exceptional programming with minimal ecological impact. 

With a passion for environmental education but very few resources, Portage resident Victoria Rydberg transformed an old trailer and a few obsolete computers into an award-winning program: River Crossing Environmental Charter School. 

On the edge of sprawling, suburban Fitchburg, Jay Allen, the city's mayor, has stepped forward as a somewhat unlikely environmental champion by pushing forward the creation of the nation's first zero-net energy civic library. 

Certainly Olson, Baker, Rydberg, and Allen deserve kudos for their contributions to a healthy and more ecologically, socially, even fiscally responsible way of life here in Wisconsin. But all four of these leaders, whether they know it or not, are doing something extraordinary beyond their every day civic contributions: Through their leadership they are creating a new working definition of sustainability. Certainly, over the past few years, "sustainability" has become a much-contested concept. What does it mean to be sustainable? How do we balance environmental concerns with the need to make a living? How much conservation is enough? How do we legislate such a thing?

Of course we have done much over the past few years: thermostats were lowered, farmers markets flourished in towns and cities alike, long-time drivers traded in four wheels for two, and rain barrels and composters sprouted in backyards across the state. Increasingly, sustainability is trekking into new territory beyond individual efforts and into how entire systems can change, how we can run our schools, businesses, civic institutions and even cities, differently.

Best known for supplying rain barrels around the region and helping individuals conserve water at home, Madison-based Sustain Dane has expanded over the past few years into thinking about new operating systems as well. In an effort to further examine sustainability practices and systems, Sustain Dane has developed the Bringing Bioneers to Wisconsin conference in Madison. The event is inspired by a national bioneers—a hybrid term for "biological pioneers"—event which has been held for the past twenty years in California, where the term was coined by event founder Kenny Ausubel. Bioneers are social and scientific innovators from all walks of life and disciplines who examine living systems in order to understand how nature operates and apply what Ausubel calls "nature's operating instructions" to serve human ends without harming the web of life. The national event, held this October in San Rafael, California, brings together dozens of innovative and inspirational thinkers to talk about what it means for cities, businesses, and individuals to live and work sustainably—and about how we all can find simple solutions to shape sustainable choices in our civic policies, educational programs and daily lives.

The Sustain Dane conference here in Wisconsin, held January 21-22 at the American Family Insurance campus in Madison, shares these same goals but brings a local perspective to the sustainability discussion. The Bringing Bioneers to Wisconsin Conference also hones in on what local professionals specifically are doing to reinvent our schools, businesses, and civic institutions. At the core of this year's event, Sustain Dane will honor a group they call Badger Bioneers—ten Wisconsin men and women who best exemplify the new wave of thinking about and practicing sustainability. Wisconsin People & Ideas recently met with four of these individuals, and talked with them about how they are working to change the large-scale operating systems for Wisconsin's farms, schools, and cities.

>>> Mark Olson - Spring Green

As soon as Mark Olson steps from his Chevy Super Cab pickup truck, he pulls off his work boots and socks, gently rolls up his blue jean pant legs, and steps into the dark brown dirt. About two-dozen rows of bright green basil plants stretch razor-edge straight from the gravel road towards a stand of pine trees a hundred yards to the north. Olson eyes the clumps of basil at his bare feet, and curls his toes into the dirt. "This is my palace," he announces, smiling broadly. 

Owner and founder for Renaissance Farms, Olsen has a broad forehead, deep blue eyes and high, sharp cheekbones; except for the gray-flecked ponytail that drops to his waistline, he looks like the actor Michael Douglas.

On the surface, Olson may seem like a typical Midwest farmer: he has been a farmer his whole life, and became one because his dad, uncle, and grandfathers were farmers. He prefers working outdoors to office work, and in his spare time tinkers with inventions, including "Chitty," an automated homemade hoe-like contraption that pulls weeds away from the basil clumps. 

But what sets Olson apart is his curious mix of deep-seated concern for his community and locally sourced foods, all which are counter-balanced by an eager eye towards toward business opportunities.

"Oh, I like to leap out in front of trends," he says.

Thirty years ago, basil was primarily a plant for adventurous backyard gardeners and, at best, a novelty food item served in Italian and southeast Asian restaurants. But that has changed dramatically over the past few decades—and in Wisconsin Olson has almost single-handedly built basil into a cottage industry.

"I was first introduced to pesto at a dinner party," he explains, recalling how few people actually knew from what it was made. "Within a week, I had reverse-engineered the sauce," he adds. Olson eventually launched a successful line of pestos and soon was selling 250 pounds weekly at the Madison Farmers' Market.

For several years, Olson was so far ahead of the trend that he enjoyed an unassailable monopoly. "We were probably pushing out thirty pounds in samples alone," he claims about the first few years. But soon other growers entered the market, and his share shrunk to one-tenth its original bulk. Olson smiles, "That's the problem with being a leader," he says, quickly adding, "my real goal is to inspire people."

More recently, Olson has been expanding into an eclectic line of herb-infused olive oils and sea salts. Last autumn, he brainstormed the idea to create locally-grown frozen food dinners—scrumptious items like lemon basil pesto, stuffed sweet bell pepper and squash ravioli with gorgonzola cream sauce. The ingredients are locally sourced, from places like his very own basil fields, cheeses from the Farmers Union in Montfort and butternut squash from Mount Horeb. "I'm always looking for what's next," he says, noting that only six weeks passed from his moment of inspiration to when the first frozen dinners were available.

But Olson's success and entrepreneurial gusto also has dropped him into the middle of a paradox that is beginning to pinch successful small-scale farms across the country: How do you expand your market while at the same time keeping loyal to your immediate community?

"How big can a sustainable operation really be?" muses Olson. Is squash grown in Spring Green but sold two hundred miles away in Chicago considered local? It's a paradox that vexes locally sourced producers and consumers alike.

"That's the challenge," Olson admits, rocking onto his heels, and then smiling again. "I like to think that we're entering into what I like to call 'Wisconsin Farming 3.0'," a third-generation model of agriculture and farming that will move away from the current state of an industry controlled by large corporations and towards smaller farms sharing processing infrastructure.

For the frozen food dinners Olson is still working out his precise plan to expand into markets across the country, but he is considering a licensing or franchising model which would allow his company to manage distribution and labeling while still using local ingredients from the immediate region where they are selling.

This is uncharted territory and Olson is the first to admit that he isn't exactly sure what farming and grocery stores will look like ten years from now.

"Local food is a trend," he says, "Guaranteed, it will shift to the next pet rock. Historically, nothing lasts. But what's really clear to me," he adds, "is that we have an opportunity right now; there's a consumer pull for it, and if we're able to get infrastructure built underneath that, it will last past this consumer fad."

"But what's really clear to me," he adds, "is that we have an opportunity right now; there's a consumer pull for it, and if we're able to get infrastructure built underneath that, it will last past this consumer fad."

>>> Victoria Rydberg - Portage

Victoria Rydberg is only thirty years old, but she already has changed the lives of dozens of children. Eight years ago, Rydberg took over an empty trailer in Portage with the idea of converting it into a different kind of school. With a passion for environmental education Rydberg quickly transformed a few obsolete computers and some second-hand furniture into an award-winning environmental educational program: River Crossing Environmental Charter School.

"Environmental education really is just being able to figure out how to live in this world," explains Rydberg, outlining her teaching philosophy with the patience of a teacher. "Just having a one-time experience—it is just not as effective as using the environment as an integrated concept." Rydberg has animated features. Her blue eyes reflect a Scandinavian cheerfulness as she explains how all scholarly subjects relate to all environmental education. "Environmental education needs to permeate everything," she says. "It needs to connect to social sciences and math and reading, because it is a system."

Over the past eight years, Rydberg worked with more than a hundred teens to develop a unique curriculum that is part summer camp, part field trip, with a good dose of simply digging in the dirt. For example: River Crossing students designed and built a rain garden for the Aldo Leopold Nature Center—and, in the process, learned real-life lessons about geometry, physics, and earth sciences.

"They learn how to feel comfortable working through challenges," Rydberg says, somewhat understating the massive impact that her unique approach has had in transforming failing students into eager pupils and disaffected teens into engaged citizens.

But Rydberg's success also has pushed her life and career into new frontiers. This past summer, her life took a major turn when she accepted a position with Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. The move from the outdoor schoolroom into a standard- issued cubicle was a challenging transition. "I'm still getting comfortable wearing dress shoes instead of work boots every day," she jokes.

Like many talented educators, Rydberg accepted the offer of an administrative job as a means to widen the impact of her teaching philosophies. In her new position, Rydberg won't try to quantify her lessons from the past eight years at River Crossing Environmental School. Instead, she explains, she wants to help other teachers implement similar hands-on curriculum, in their own style and on their own terms.

"My goal," she says, "is to help teachers understand how to put environment in any class, and use it as a way to engage kids." She pauses before adding, "and that's so much of education, just engaging students."

But this new professional position—serving the role as a general for an army of teachers instead of working on the educational front lines herself—is still a novel undertaking for Rydberg. "This was the hardest decision of my life," she says, adding that it was keenly difficult to tell her students that she was leaving the charter school. When Rydberg finally decided to tell the students, the group—nearly twenty students—were camping at the Apostle Islands.

"There were lots of tears," she says, laughing softly. "Mostly mine."

"But the moment that I was okay with it," she explains, "was when one of the students said, 'if you're going to help more kids have what we have, then we're okay with you going.' "

>>> Brenda Baker - Madison

Consider this irony: Although locally produced is a calling card for sustainability, it is also a primary reason that lead-based paint poisoning is an especially acute problem here in Wisconsin. During first half of the twentieth century, the bulk of paint in America was produced using nearby materials; in the case of Wisconsin, this commonly meant heavy metals like lead taken from mines in southern Wisconsin near Mineral Point and New Diggings.

Today the negative effects of lead exposure, which is especially detrimental to brain development in children, are widely known. And we now know, too, that reducing environmental toxins in water, air, and food is a core component of the sustainability movement.

"The sustainability effort for museums started with recognizing that early childhood immune systems are not yet fully developed," explains Brenda Baker, an artist and the museum's long-time exhibits director.

Sixteen years ago Brenda Baker began as exhibits director at the Madison Children's Museum, a position that she still holds today. Around this time in her life, the young artist and Madison resident awoke one morning to find she was unable to move her arms and legs. She was partially paralyzed, and believes that the carpeting installed in her house the previous day was to blame: the toxins from the carpet glue combined with the chemicals found in her art materials had shut down her nervous system.

At the hospital and over the next few months of visits to doctors, Baker began to recognize that others who shared her symptoms—farmers who used pesticides and interior decorators who were around paints and carpet glues—also shared an exposure to similar compounds in common use.

Eventually, Baker made a full recovery. But she was under strict doctor's orders to avoid the types of chemicals and toxins they believed had so negatively affected her immune system. A year later, those doctor's orders and her job were put into direct conflict when Baker was told the Madison Children's Museum was installing new carpeting. Baker reluctantly told coworkers that she would need to remove herself from the building for an entire month. But then she recalls thinking, "Wait a minute. This is really silly. Let's try to make this space using only healthy materials."

Madison Children's Museum was the first children's museum in the country to install soft wood flooring instead of carpeting. This small change in thinking has led to a massive change in protocol and mindset for the Madison Children's Museum, from the use of milk-based paint on the walls to an entirely different approach to building and managing children museums.

The time soon came when the Madison Children's Museum had outgrown its original location on State Street. In the search for a new site, Baker realized that "we had the opportunity to do things differently."

Construction of the new museum—a four-year undertaking—was done with sustainability and healthiness as its driving force. Even the building itself, a 1929 Montgomery Ward department store on the corner of North Hamliton and North Pinckney streets in Madison, is recycled. But this is only scratching the (milk-based painted) surface: Fire hoses from the old building were transformed into benches and window panes turned into display cases. Baker solicited material donations from around the city, including a jungle gym built with broom handles from a local janitorial company, a greenhouse on the rooftop was brought in from a residence in Shorewood, and a floor built entirely from a Milwaukee high school basketball court that otherwise would have ended up in a dumpster. In fact, nearly all of the materials come from within a hundred miles from the museum's new home.

"I don't know that your average person would notice," concedes Baker. And that's the point. Regardless whether parents recognize the fundamental efforts to change how the Madison Children's Museum operates or their national accolades for pioneering museum sustainability, the museum will always a be a safe and healthy beehive of shrieking, gleeful kids. In August of 2010, their first month of operation in the new space, the Madison Children's Museum reported nearly 2,000 daily visitors and set new records for attendance. 


>>> Jay Allen - Fitchburg

"I don't spend a lot of time looking at other cities," Jay Allen admits. He laces his fingers together behind his head and leans back in his office chair. "I do spend a lot of time talking with people living around here, though."

The first-term mayor of Fitchburg speaks purposefully, almost bluntly. The lights are turned off in his plain office, with only dim sunlight trickling into the room. Two images hang from the wall next to his desk: an aerial photograph of Fitchburg and a Dane County road map. Besides a few dissembled Legos from his son and daughter scattered on a table, there is little evidence that much is happening here. But don't be fooled by the spartan surroundings.

After a sixteen-year stint on the Fitchburg city council, Allen was elected to mayor in 2009. Around this time, such concepts as sustainable, green, and carbon neutral, were well established in mainstream American culture. Yet in many suburban communities like Fitchburg, values tended more towards big houses, long car commutes, and easy consumerism. Mayor Allen himself admits that he wasn't naturally disposed toward environmental sustainability when he took office—and it wasn't something that he first campaigned for. "My thinking has changed," he says. "But it's not something I feel like I was born with." Allen wears blue jeans and a gray golf shirt with Fitchburg embroidered above the left breast. He scratches a salt-and-pepper beard and says contemplatively, "I don't know that I'm really out here on the cutting edge of doing new and different things. But I am here at a time and place where some things that I think are important are easier to do because people are thinking that way."

Whether or not Mayor Allen is leading the town of 20,000 or simply following the changing attitudes of Fitchburg residents, he has been at the helm for a period of time when Fitchburg has made major advances toward sustainable practices, including a major overhaul of the city's transportation systems and a land use plan that includes the highest phosphorous runoff reduction and wetland protection standards in Dane County.

Currently, Mayor Allen is championing an idea that may become his legacy. He hopes to integrate into the city's new library a massive solar panel array and geothermal heating/cooling system. If successful, the proposed project will put Fitchburg on the sustainability map as the only net-zero energy civic library in the country.

To reach this goal, however, Mayor Allen will need to traverse some difficult political terrain. "The biggest single obstacle is that some people don't want to spend money," he explains. "If we want to put solar panels on the new library, its going to cost a million dollars," he goes on, "but the bottom line is that over time—over the life of the library—that cost will be recovered four-fold."

And this seems to be Mayor Allen's approach to environmental issues: soft-peddled pragmatism. "What we need is to have ideas and procedures that people are going to buy into," he explains. "The easiest way for people to comply with you is to do things they are already inclined to do anyway. When you start to tell people what they are doing is wrong, the usual reaction is for people to dig in their heels and say, 'I'm not wrong.' And that doesn't get any of us anywhere."

Pausing to look out his office window at the proposed library site near Fitchburg City Hall, he adds, "At some point, we will realize that we need to go in another direction. There is no reason that point shouldn't be now."



Phil Busse grew up in Madison and has done his tour of duty for alt weeklies. He’s been an environmental reporter for San Francisco Weekly, a crime beat reporter for Eugene Weekly and founder/managing editor for Portland Mercury in Oregon.

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