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Changing tunes: Musician records soil health songs for LSP

Land Stewardship Project soil health team member Doug Nopar had a challenge for Bret Hesla.

If Hesla — who had been commissioned by Land Stewardship Project to write a couple songs highlighting the growing farmer interest in building soil health — was able to work “mycorrhizal fungi” into the lyrics, there was an extra hundred bucks in it for him.

“I keep living roots, year round living in the soil, pulling carbon out of the sky,” Hesla sings in “Back to Soil.” “They pull it down underground, then it’s shot right out, to feed the little microbes, mycorrhizal fungi.”

The Land Stewardship Project recently released a pair of music videos highlighting key themes of the growing farmer interest in building soil health. The two songs, “Got Cover Crops” and “Back to Soil,” were commissioned from Hesla, a singer-songwriter and Austin, Minn., native, and performed with the band they decided to call Six Feet Deep. Video editing and production was done by Winona-area native Kobi Dansingburg.

“During this moment in time when everybody’s stressed and strapped in a lot of different ways and not able to gather, we’re hoping this is a way people can connect in a different way,” said Nopar, who recently left LSP after more than 25 years on the staff there. “It’s important to be creative and to be resilient, and this is a way to do that.”

Going into the songwriting project, Hesla already had some familiarity with Land Stewardship Project and their objectives.

Hesla worked for LSP in a small capacity about 30 years ago and has done some other cultural work with LSP, a sing-along program about taking care of the land and soil. Hesla has a background in biology and plant ecology, but didn’t grow up on a farm.

“We have dabbled in cultural work for much of our history,” Nopar said. “It’s a way to reach people on a different level.”

Work began on the songs about a year and a half ago, with Hesla meeting farmers, writing lyrics and getting the melody right.

Hesla visited the farms of soil health farmers and Land Stewardship Project members Tom and Alma Cotter of Austin and Kaleb and Angie Anderson of Goodhue, Minn.

“I was clear that I could do this, but I couldn’t speak with authority,” Hesla said. “I wanted to hear farmers talking about what they’re doing and try to use their experience and their language and reflect that in any song that I do.”

Hesla spent the day at Tom Cotter’s farm, taking notes and listening to Cotter and the other farmers in attendance at a field day at Cotter’s farm in Mower County, where his family has been farming for 140 years.

Cotter, who was one of the farmers featured in the videos, has worked with cover crops for about 20 years. To maximize his soil building efforts, Cotter grazes beef cattle on cover crops deep into the fall.

“I believe to get healthy crops and healthy food you need to start with healthy soils,” Cotter said before a 2018 field day on his farm. “That happens by giving food and shelter to soil life. Cover crops do that. We started putting no-till and strip-till together with cover crops and then we saw soil health benefits skyrocket. My cover crops have helped my reduced tillage practices work better.”

Kaleb Anderson spent time talking with Hesla about soil health and recommended the book “Dirt To Soil: One Family’s Journey Into Regenerative Agriculture,” which Hesla read to get a deeper understanding of the subject matter he was writing about in his songs.

“Both farmers really talked about the importance of passing on their farm and their knowledge to the next generation,” Hesla said. “Just the excitement for what they’re doing and their enthusiasm and outreach, it was really eye-opening to me. I listened and took a bunch of notes.

“Regenerative agriculture has been fascinating to learn about and exciting. It certainly matches with my ethic of taking care of the land that we live on and all of us doing our part, not just farmers, and how that works together with climate change and supporting local growers and sustainable living.”

At about the time everything was coming together on Hesla’s end, the coronavirus pandemic hit, making it impossible to get into a studio to record with other musicians. After some equipment upgrades, Hesla got a group of musicians together to record their parts on their own. The songs came together with the help of the sound engineer Matthew Zimmerman, who mixed the different parts together.

“In March, I didn’t know what Zoom was,” Hesla said. “It took some time for me to wrap my head around the process, but it turned out great.

“I’m looking forward to playing these songs in person with the band I pulled together for the project.”

Nopar said the hope for LSP is that the videos can build the energy and community that’s been growing among farmers interested in improving soil health in the Upper Midwest.

“The songs have a good rhythm and the tune stays with you,” Nopar said. “One of our sister organizations in Illinois said they’ll be singing it when they have their annual gathering virtually in January.”

The music videos are available for public use and at no charge. The videos and the audio can be accessed through the Land Stewardship Project website, landstewardshipproject.org/soilmusic.

“Between the upbeat rhythm and the catchy lyrics, it’s hard to get these songs out of your head,” Nopar said. “Music can help keep us all connected to a larger goal — in this case, building the soil and the vitality of our farms, and these songs do just that. We’re hoping this music can help inject a bit of hope and levity and support for those that are doing the right thing out on the land.”

Speed the plow

The trouble with being proficient at something, or even being perceived as proficient, is that people will inevitably come seeking your talents. My father-in-law, Jim, for example, is so handy he can solve most any household problem. Plumbing, electricity, carpentry, you name it. When something goes sideways around our house, I am most definitely not the person who is likely to come to the rescue. That person would be Jim. Some people might feel deficient, or even guilty for having so few skills as a homeowner. I never have. If I was more handy, my wife would expect more of me and I’d have less time to daydream, read, write, wander, garden, smoke cigars and stare at our chickens. As is, I just call Jim with our problems and he seems happy enough to solve them. Another bonus is that he has never sent me a bill.

Which brings me to my snowplow, the result of several winters’ worth of bills.

We used to rely on my friend Dave to plow our long driveway. I met Dave because he was part of the construction crew who built our house, and when, years ago, I inquired if he knew anyone who could plow us out, he was eager enough, and his rate wasn’t exorbitant. But the last few winters rightly wore on Dave, and two years ago he informed me that he could no longer be our plowman. I was bummed; I like Dave and consider him a friend.

With Dave out of the equation we went looking for a new plowman. My neighbor across the road had a long-standing relationship with a plow-guy and he added us to his list of clientele, though, at a significantly higher rate than Dave. After scratching a few sizeable checks, I thought to myself, Alright Butler, this doesn’t make sense. So, I bought a plow.

Am I a proficient plowman? No. I’m a beginner, a novice. An apprentice with no master. A guy who writes novels and has a long beat-up driveway. I’m a plowman the way many of you are landscapers. Does owning a walk-behind lawnmower mean that you’re a landscaper, or ready to operate your own lawn-service business. No.

And yet, this winter, two of my neighbors approached me about plowing their driveways. Was I happy to do so? Absolutely. It’s really as easy as dropping the plow on my driveway, pulling out on the road, and turning into another driveway 25 yards away. One of these neighbors has asked that if and only if a blizzard occurs, I plow their small driveway — no problem. If I was a better man, I might have volunteered my services, but in truth, I was a little nervous about my lack of experience. What if I damaged their driveways? Backed into their garage? Ran over a garden gnome?

The fact is, I like plowing. Plowing is almost the opposite of writing novels. There is instant, immediate, tangible gratification and results. One moment, a driveway is buried in snow. Moments later, a path is cleared and made safe. Writing books takes years and even if you’ve written a good book, there is no guarantee of getting it published, or getting a paycheck for your efforts. My wife, for example, can’t really see the time and toil I put into a rough draft of a book. Whether I’m checking a Packers score on espn.com or pouring my soul into a book, it looks the same. And if I’m being honest, most of the time when I’m sitting in front of my laptop, I am in fact frittering away time doing something utterly unproductive. Whereas, when I clear the driveway ... Writing a book is really an act somewhere between prayer and perhaps buying a lottery ticket. It’s a passion with an unknowable result. Plowing snow is real, tangible work.

So, I’ve got myself a little plow route. Two, sometimes three properties. During the winter of 2013/14 or 2017/18 when Dave was working around the clock to clear driveways and parking lots, he probably would have beat me over the head with a shovel for claiming that my puny three-stop route constituted “work,” and he would have been right to do so. But, it is what it is. I never claimed to be a professional and sure as heck didn’t go seeking any clients. They gently asked me for my help.

“Help” looks like this: I allow the truck (a 2003 GMC Sierra 1500) about 15 minutes to warm up. Last time I plowed, I had to scrape ice off the windshield using a Chuck Berry CD case. When the cab is good and toasty, I crawl in with a cup of coffee. I like tuning the FM radio dial. I sing along with Whitesnake, Van Halen, Bon Jovi, Def Leppard; 1980s Hair-Rock seems to be my preferred plowing soundtrack. Then, I go about clearing asphalt. I take my time. I do good work, I think. Sometimes, I light a cheap cigar. And, because it isn’t really my job, my time and wages are irrelevant. This can’t even be described as a “side hustle.”

I’m just, somehow, a guy who owns a plow, moving snow around before he goes back inside to stare at the computer and wait for words to come.

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Farm show cancellations materialize, hope for summer remains

Any farmers who have been looking forward to the usual winter and early spring farm shows that are often enjoyed before the growing season begins anew are likely to be disappointed this year.

The COVID-19 pandemic, which prompted agricultural event cancellations starting last spring, is continuing to disrupt the holding of large-scale events, including the farm shows that many frequent each year.

The WPS Farm Show, held in Oshkosh, ended up as one of the first ag events in the state to be canceled last spring.

At the time of the cancellation of the 2020 show — when long-term impacts of the pandemic were very unknown — organizers expressed hope that they would be able to return in 2021.

But with the COVID-19 concerns still swirling, the WPS Farm Show, which is typically held around the end of March, will not return this year either, according to Matt Cullen, senior communications specialist for WEC Energy Group.

That decision was finalized in December when organizers determined they would be unable to hold a show safely, Cullen said, and now plans are underway for the show to resume in 2022.

“Our top priority is the health and safety of our employees and attendees,” Cullen wrote in an email, noting that COVID-19 protocols from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Wisconsin Department of Health Services recommend avoiding large gatherings and minimizing in-person contact outside of households.

“With those guidelines remaining in place into 2021, we believe the best decision was to wait until 2022 to resume the WPS Farm Show,” he said.

According to a press release from the cancellation of the 2020 show, about 20,000 people and nearly 500 exhibitors would have been expected to attend the show last year if it had been held.

As attention now turns to 2022, “our focus is on ensuring the WPS Farm Show remains a must-attend event that helps farms of all sizes when it is safe to resume hosting the show again,” Cullen said.

North Country Enterprises, which organizes three farm shows in western Wisconsin, wrapped up their last show of the 2020 season just a few weeks before Wisconsin’s stay-at-home went into effect last spring.

The Midwest Farm Show in La Crosse, Rice Lake Farm Show and Eau Claire Farm Show won’t happen in 2021, however.

The Midwest Farm Show, which draws about 7,000 attendees, and Rice Lake Farm Show, which draws between 2,000 and 2,500, were both originally scheduled to return this month. The Eau Claire Farm Show, regularly attended by 7,000 to 10,000 people, was scheduled for early March, as is typical, but has also been canceled for 2021.

North Country Enterprises had hopes of holding shows in 2021 and had worked to plan for them, but all of the facilities where the shows are held canceled the events by the end of November, Bill Henry of North Country Enterprises said.

Henry said that they’ve received a lot of calls from people asking if they would go forward the shows this year.

“We wish we could’ve ran one,” Henry said, but with no facilities, that wasn’t possible.

“We’re hoping to get bigger and better in 2022,” Henry said. “We’re looking forward to that one.”

Until then, farmers and community members may have to explore other ways to catch up on the latest trends and technology in agriculture and connect with others in the agricultural community. And exhibitors are likely to miss out on the opportunities to promote their products and services that these early-in-the-year farm shows provide them.

Looking toward summer of this year, though, planning for Farm Technology Days 2021 at Huntsinger Farms is ongoing, organizers announced in a press release early last month.

The Eau Claire Farm Technology Days was originally scheduled for 2020 but was moved to 2021 — which had been a gap year for the show — for reasons related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

At least 295 exhibitors from the Midwest and Canada have committed to the show, according to the press release, and “attendee anticipation is high for (this) year’s show.”

Updates on Farm Technology Days, scheduled for July 20-22, can be found at www.wifarmtechdays.org.