A Wisconsin man’s poetry defines the raw emotion of dairy farming – AgriNews
ARENA, Wis. (AP) – Words speak of soil, tools and cows.
We talk about family and friends, chores at dawn, walks along a stream.
Daniel Smith’s poetry also tells the stories of the physical and emotional pain of farming, a profession, lifestyle and vocation he gave up in 2008. Only the pages of his new book, “Ancestral”, go beyond his own personal experiences of financial strife, a broken shoulder, and adult children who have chosen other paths. Smith sold his dairy herd, left land owned by his family for decades, and started over.
The 99 pages published in hardcover by Waters Edge Press in Sheboygan include collections of hardship accumulated over three years while working as an agricultural financial adviser for the state Department of Agriculture, Commerce, and Consumer Protection.
Smith traveled the state, sitting at kitchen tables, standing in barns, leaning on fences, listening, showing empathy and offering advice from his past, the Wisconsin State Journal reported.
Some operations could be saved. A few farmers only needed an ear to make sure they were on the right track. Most, however, were condemned to crippling debt, their equity having gradually withered away. Depression was prolific. Suicides were on the rise.
When Smith started working full time in 1978, Wisconsin had 47,700 dairy farms. Today there are around 6,000, and the number continues to fall as milk production increases with the growth of farms with thousands of cows and milking lines that never stop.
“It’s the story of Wisconsin’s dairy industry,” Smith said. “There is a story of pain, decision-making and process that each of these 41,000 dairy farms we have lost since 1978 has gone through. I try (with poetry) to reach both agricultural and non-agricultural audiences. This is a social, economic and cultural impact that Wisconsin must deal with. Because the result was not felt at the grocery store. The loss of those 41,000 family dairy farms had a huge impact on the local schools, the school boards, the city council, the co-op board. There are just fewer people in these neighborhoods.
Smith will begin ramping up her promotion of the book later this summer and into the fall. One event will be a reading and signing at 3 p.m. on August 22 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 farms lost, lives changed.
“Just today I felt I fell in love with this land,” Smith wrote in her 80-page poem “Dry Dirt” in her book. “How many times can a man kick the dirt, swear it’s never been so dry. Now I’m dropping decades of crop and livestock tending into a heap at the rear, closes the year as one would with an old door on an empty barn.
One of eight children, all of whom earned college degrees, Smith grew up on a family dairy farm just north of Freeport, Illinois. He graduated in 1978 from UW-Madison, where he met his wife, Cheryl, who grew up in a Cleveland suburb.
They returned to the farm, where Dan farmed, Cheryl taught kindergarten and first grade, and they raised three boys who, as men, all graduated from UW-Madison, but are away from agriculture. Ryan is a facial reconstruction surgeon in Chicago, Levi an attorney in Minnesota, and Austin, the oldest, teaches writing and poetry at Stanford University.
After college, Daniel Smith worked 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 rotting floor of a hay wagon and injured his shoulder, he realized something had to change.
“Sometimes it takes a slap in the face,” Smith said. “We haven’t gone anywhere. It was pretty stupid.
It was then that Smith made the difficult decision to sell his 150 head herd, auction off the equipment and sell the farm. In 2008, he and Cheryl moved to a 22-acre farm southeast of Arena and just west of Blue Mounds Creek.
Their property along Knight Hollow Road includes a home built in 1992 from Canadian logs and filled with memories of their days in northern Illinois.
Across the road is Smith’s 1951 Farmall tractor and a collection of tools, some of which hang in an old chicken coop converted into a tool shed. Others, including a 60-pound anvil, are on the lower level of a small barn, its long-time use for farm animals and hay and grain storage like so many others in the state.
“I carried my father’s anvil north out of the black Illinois farm he and I worked, decades back home,” Smith wrote in “Anvil,” the book’s second poem. “Drop 60 pounds on the floor of this old barn, new to me only. All around, our misplaced tools hang in the eerie light of cracked glass… At my feet, my father’s anvil, its gripping song of steel on steel still pounding home.
Above the lower level of the barn is where Smith has an office in a renovated area overlooking pastures and a field of hay. There is space on the desk surface for his laptop, but also an old corn machete and a piece of iron with slits – now used as a bookend – which was designed to uncouple the truss chains from Illinois.
Smith began writing in high school and while in college he wrote a poem, “Ode”, about his father, which was published in 1977 in the Ocooch Mountain News, a now defunct monthly newspaper in La Farge. Twenty years later, that same poem was part of Smith’s first book, “Home Land.”
The Smiths, who share their home with their dog, Jax, a rescued Black Lab and Shar-Pei mix, now call the Driftless Area home. The family farm in Illinois was sold to a doctor who for a time raised goats and used some of the buildings to store boats and RVs.
Some of the silos have been removed and housing projects have eaten away at land that was once cultivated or used as pasture. The 1851 farmhouse he grew up on with his seven siblings is relatively quiet.
“It bothers me a lot,” Smith said. “The economic, social and cultural impacts of agriculture are very complex. I think going through it all and going through the emotional turbulence of it really helped me write about it and writing helped me deal with it.
With time off after the move north, Smith began volunteering with DATCAP as an advisor, meeting with farmers, and before long was hired full time.
He took a job in 2011 to become CEO of Midwestern BioAg at Blue Mounds and guide it through a succession plan, but returned to DATCAP in 2013 to serve as Administrator of the Agricultural Development Division.
Since 2018, Smith has served as President and CEO of the Co-operative Network, leading the day-to-day operations of a trade association that represents 250 co-operatives in 12 industries in Wisconsin and Minnesota.
The farming bustle remains with Smith, but he says he feels and looks younger than when he stopped milking, plowing and harvesting 13 years ago.
Near his home there are unused barns, the village of Dover is a ghost town, a former one-room schoolhouse has been vacant for years at Highways K and 14, while at Arena the primary school has been closed , all victims of small farm evolution that continues to decline while struggling to evolve.
“This stress really hits people over a long period of time. It wore my dad out just trying to keep the farm going and he brought in the next generation,” Smith said. “So what I really tried to do with ‘Ancestral’ is talk about the history and heritage of the family farm and show both the good and the bad.”