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Out to Pasture

Photo of Jason A. Smith

From time-to-time I pick up the phone and call Bill Berry. Most readers will know Bill, who lives in Stevens Point, from his long-running role as a journalist and author. For over thirty years Bill has covered the issues and ideas that affect our rural communities, from CAFOs to high-capacity wells, DDT, climate change, and beyond.

I got to know Bill in the late 2000s, right around the time the Academy was putting its Future of Farming and Rural Life in Wisconsin project out to pasture. The project had taken Bill across the state to listen to the hopes and fears of rural residents at a time when the consolidation of the dairy industry, overdevelopment of farmland, and severe shortages in labor, healthcare, and education were putting the squeeze on their communities. Working with project staff—co-chairs Stan Gruszynski and Tom Lyon, and project director Wilda Nilsestuen—Bill captured and distilled these rural hopes and fears, as well as a series of recommended remedies, and wrangled them into a comprehensive 2007 report. After the Future of Farming report was issued and the wine and cheese served at the culminating event, the Academy shifted its priorities away from rural areas in the hope that the work we did was enough to advance key policies and practices.

Of course, even though the Academy’s work on the project was “done,” these rural communities were still there—still asking not for help but for a voice in the decisions that affect their future. Enter Bill Berry. Or, rather, re-enter Bill, who came into my office in 2010 to talk about a four-part, print/audio hybrid project he was kicking around. Titled Voices of Rural Wisconsin, the project was a way for the Academy to check back in with some of the families invested in the Future of Farming project to see how they were faring. I agreed, and Bill, no stranger to the back roads of Wisconsin, threw his notebook and tape recorder in his car and again got to work.

Over the course of a year we rolled out five or six interviews per issue and posted the audio recordings online at Portal Wisconsin in the hopes of reaching urban, creative types who might want to better understand their rural neighbors (some of whom are hip and creative, too). Since then, new challenges have arisen, such as the extreme weather events and drought brought on by our rapidly warming planet. Other challenges, such as the lack of rural broadband, have been exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, we’ve learned a lot since 2007 about how to support our rural communities: teacher incentives, comprehensive healthcare, fair immigration policies, access to broadband. However, whether it is political retribution or some other reason, it seems that many of us in the urban areas of the state can’t muster the will to speak up for our rural neighbors. 

On a related note, I would like to acknowledge the passing of Tom Lyon, a rural leader who was deeply involved in the Academy’s Future of Farming and Rural Life in Wisconsin project. Tom was a mentor to many in the state, and he will be missed.

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From 2008 to 2021 Jason A. Smith was the associate director of the Wisconsin Academy and editor of its quarterly magazine of Wisconsin thought and culture, Wisconsin People & Ideas.

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